North Texas Protesters Face Six Months Jail Time For ‘Jaywalking’

North Texas Protesters Face Six Months Jail Time For ‘Jaywalking’

Activists and Attorney Claim Charges Political, Suppress First Amendment Protected Protests Against Confederate Monument at Courthouse Where Trial Scheduled for August 23, 2022

Torrey Henderson poses for a photo to celebrate her return to local protests against a Confederate Monument in her community after she was arrested and jailed for charges that she argues were politically motivated. PHOTO: BRYAN EDWARD

Gainesville, TX: On August 23, 2022, three local activists who organized protests throughout the Summer 2020 against a Confederate monument at the center of their town will attend trial at the Cooke County Courthouse where the monument still stands. Torrey Henderson, Amara Ridge, and Justin Thompson face class B misdemeanor charges of “obstructing a highway or other passageway,” an offense punishable by up to 180 days in jail, $2,000 in fines or both.

In solidarity with ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that swept across the nation following the police murder of George Floyd, the three Gainesville residents formed a local action group called ‘PRO Gainesville’ and organized weekly rallies against the monument, which they and many scholars argue was established at the center of the community in the early twentieth century as a testament to white supremacy. As part of their overall efforts to spotlight racial inequity in their town, as well as others in surrounding Cooke County, the organizers hosted rallies with educational lectures from guest scholars, open mics for BIPOC residents to share their experiences of injustice, and marches through the small-town. According to the three organizers, however, as community participation began to increase, local white neo-Confederates targeted activists with a terror campaign that was facilitated by local authorities.

City Documents Show Police Helped Armed Militia Make “Show of Force” Against Protestors.

Armed, all-white militia surrounds protestors on the Cooke County courthouse lawn in August 2020.

As part of efforts to reduce hostility toward their protests, PRO Gainesville activists obtained permits for each of their First Amendment protected assemblies on public property, which they argue were unconstitutionally required by city officials, and they regularly issued public statements clarifying their commitment to non-violence. They claim that these efforts were in vain though because Gainesville Police Chief Kevin Phillips issued permits to armed militias for the same days, times, and locations as PRO Gainesville events. One group’s permit was even approved for the explicit purpose of making a “show of force” against protestors (application here, approval here).

Jessica Luther Rummel, an activist and PhD candidate researching the relationships between local histories of white supremacy and modern race relations at the University of North Texas worked closely with PRO organizers and documented how authorities regularly allowed hostile, armed, all-white groups to infiltrate predominantly BIPOC assemblies, as well as how they refused to take reports of threats or incidents of violence initiated by the counter-protestors (videos here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Gainesville Police officers focus attention on unarmed monument protestors on sidewalk and ignore a large, all-white crowd with guns in the streets surrounding the courthouse in July 2020. PHOTO: JESSICA LUTHER RUMMEL

According to PRO Gainesville co-founder Amara Ridge, authorities targeted people they saw as leaders in the local movement because the demonstrations challenged a culture of racism that many officials are beholden to. “They wanted protests to stop and they want to ensure sure that movements like ours can’t continue or happen again in Cooke County,” Ridge said. “They want to make an example of us.”

‘U.S. Freedom Protectors’ surround protestors in Gainesville, August 2020. PHOTO: JESSICA LUTHER RUMMEL

The upcoming trial for PRO Gainesville organizers stems from warrants issued on September 2, 2020, by Police Chief Kevin Phillips and Cooke County District Attorney Ed Zelensky, along with a press release that included activist photos, which were reprinted in local papers and published on Facebook. Authorities also put out a “tip line” for community members to report the identities of participants seen marching against the monument two days prior on August 30, 2020, when they claim the activists “obstructed a highway” at the conclusion of their (permitted) 10-block-protest, which had been escorted by city officers along California Street, a 35 mph “highway” that runs through the center of town.

“The majority of the group left the sidewalk and moved into the street rendering the westbound lane impassable,” Police Chief Phillips said. “The unauthorized obstruction of any roadway presents a serious public safety risk to the citizens of Gainesville and those participating in the obstruction activity.”

Video footage of the march held August 30, 2020 (here) shows approximately seventy-five protestors using sidewalks and crosswalks as available throughout their thirty-minute route until they encountered large pools of water on the sidewalk of California Street. Demonstrators are the seen walking in the shoulder of the road alongside city officers to avoid the water. As they approach the final block of their march, groups of counter-protestors can be seen gathered ahead of them on both sides of the crosswalk needed to return to their permitted assembly space on the courthouse lawn.

Justin Thompson was shocked to learn authorities had pressed charges against him and the other organizers. He claims they had felt really good about the protest as a result of their ability to avoid negative encounters with both police and counter-protestors. “There was a lot of high standing water on old unlevel sidewalks, and there were hostile counter-protestors waiting at the end of the block,” he said. “People naturally stepped out into the shoulder and then crossed at an angle to avoid both hazards, and police stopped traffic so we could do it.”

Heavily armed men in paramilitary gear stand in the streets surrounding the Gainesville downtown square as protestors assemble against a Confederate monument in July 2020. PHOTO: JESSICA LUTHER RUMMEL

Torrey Henderson also thinks the charges against her and the other PRO Gainesville organizers were strictly political and ultimately prompted by the exponential growth in weekly protest turnouts the group was cultivating. As their trial approaches nearly two years later on August 23, 2022, she’s only recently been able to review the case authorities have built against them, and is most disappointed to see the amount of public resources invested into their prosecution.

“This is just another form of harassment and intimidation of protestors, an attempt to delegitimize our work for racial equality in Cooke County,” she said. “There were counter-protestors out there every week blocking traffic, and others holding guns with fingers on their triggers (here and here), just blatantly terrorizing us. Then they went home and stalked and threatened us online with statements like, ‘It’s time to act like Kyle.’ The police and D.A. were never interested in building those cases, or even taking reports from us. They have never been concerned about public safety, only stopping the protests.”

Torrey Henderson raises a fist in the air alongside PRO Gainesville co-founder Amara Ridge as fellow activists celebrate their post-arrest return to weekly protests on the Cooke County courthouse lawn in September 2020.

The three activists facing trial in Gainesville are represented by Dallas attorney Alison Grinter. While skeptical of the validity of the charges filed against them, she is optimistic heading into trial. “It’s clear that laws were selectively enforced and that’s concerning because protesting has long been a part of American identity and we’ve seen protests play a critical role in recent movements that span the political divide, including election integrity, racial injustice, reproductive choice, and education curriculum,” she said. “This trial is about how we treat all protestors not just these three defendants. I’m confident that a jury will see how their decision will send a message to local authorities regarding how protestors should be treated in general, regardless of whether they’re sympathetic with PRO Gainesville’s specific cause.”

Jessica Luther Rummel has been amplifying the Gainesville organizers’ experiences over the last two years on her radio show ‘Attention Denton’ which airs on KUZU, a low-powered community station that broadcasts in the nearby college hub of Denton but streams globally. She argues that even if they are found not guilty, their trial and everything leading up to it has already imposed grave injustices. “This is the systemic nature of racism and inequity that these activists sought to spotlight with their protests,” she said. “That Confederate monument was established as an icon of white power and it continues to tower over the county’s supposed seat of justice. Two of the three PRO Gainesville organizers who now face six months in jail for these racially and politically motivated charges are black mothers who will have to pass beneath the monument’s shadow the morning of their trial. I have a hard time believing that any impartiality or integrity can be found in a place beholden to such an insidious legacy.”

The PRO Gainesville activists are due in court at the Cooke County Courthouse on August 23, 2022. Their attorney expects the trial to take last one-two days.

The Confederate monument at the center of Gainesville on the Cooke County courthouse lawn bears an inscription heralding the “white and fair” nation of the Confederate States of America. Photo: Jessica Luther Rummel
Activists refer to Confederate monument on the Cooke County courthouse lawn in Gainesville as a “Participation Trophy” using chalk on the sidewalks after county officials barricaded the public lawn to prevent protests that continued after the arrest of three PRO Gainesville co-founders. Photo: Bryan Edward

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