For months, the anti-racist organization PRO Gainesville has been conducting protests calling for the removal of a colossal Confederate monument from Gainesville’s courthouse lawn, but Friday, the group took a more provocative approach.
“Welcome to Gainesville, The most racist small town in the Confederate States of America,” declared an eye-catching blue-and-red banner unveiled at Friday’s demonstration.
Protesters say the statue is a symbol of hate that makes them feel uncomfortable in their own town. Yet Cooke County’s commissioners have chosen to keep the monument in its position of prominence, making the bold 13-and-a-half-foot banner necessary, said PRO Gainesville founder Torrey Henderson.
“We know this is not the Confederate States of America: This is America, and it’s time for us to progress," Henderson said.
In 2012, Gainesville was named the “most patriotic town in America" in large part because it's the country’s only Medal of Honor host city; each year, it boasts an annual springtime veterans celebration. But protesters take issue with the designations because of the town’s attachment to the Confederate statue.
There are many reasons to be proud of Gainesville's patriotism, Henderson said, but its courthouse monument isn’t one of them. It pays tribute to the losing side of the Civil War and is emblazoned with the acronym CSA: Confederate States of America.
“How can you be patriotic while simultaneously praising treason?” Henderson said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
At Friday evening’s protest, motorcycle engines revved and rubbernecking drivers honked their horns to express their discontent. Some townsfolk flipped off protesters and screamed “go home!” or “get a job!” while others yelled out in support. No matter the response, PRO Gainesville demonstrators remained unruffled.
After dark, protesters began projecting images onto the statue including phrases such as, “IS THIS HOW YOU WANT TO BE REMEMBERED?” and, “REMOVE SYMBOLS OF HATE!!!”
Henderson acknowledges that when it comes to educating people about anti-racist causes, attacking them likely won't work to get them to listen. Still, she said this type of abrasive approach will apply more pressure and get the hard conversations going, which is PRO Gainesville's goal.
Gainesville is a "racist" town and its statue should be taken down, said protester Kyla Mckinzie. The Denton resident said her hometown felt the same way until its own Confederate monument was removed over the summer.
Mckinzie said she wouldn’t feel comfortable walking past Gainesville’s Confederate monument to step inside the courthouse.
“The law is supposed to be equal for everybody,” Mckinzie said, “but how is it equal when you’ve got my oppressor’s statue on your front lawn?”
PRO Gainesville co-founder Justin Thompson said the town has two major blights on its record. The Great Hanging occurred there in 1862, during which at least 40 suspected Unionists were hanged or shot. Then in 1923, up to 21,000 people from across Texas and southern Oklahoma attended a Ku Klux Klan rally at the town’s square.
Acts of racism this blatant are no longer the norm, but Thompson said bigotry is still pervasive.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union found that Cooke County was the fourth-worst county in the country for racial discrimination, arresting Black people for marijuana possession at a rate more than 20 times that of whites. Thompson added that since PRO Gainesville began protesting, graffiti with racial slurs and “fuck BLM” have cropped up around town.
Thompson and Henderson themselves were jailed in September for walking in the street during a PRO Gainesville protest. Although he knows he could be arrested again on trumped-up charges, Thompson said the group is prepared for whatever comes next.
“We’re always on our toes but ultimately they don’t scare us, so we’re going to keep coming out,” Thompson said. “It’s what they’ve been trying to use, is intimidation here since like 1862, and it’s just not going to work on us.”
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