The evening before Torrey Henderson turned herself in, her stomach wouldn’t stop turning. That was OK though, she said; she was prepared for what came next.
Thursday morning, Henderson arrived at the Cooke County Jail with fellow activists Justin Thompson and Amara Ridge. The Gainesville Police Department had issued warrants for their arrests for walking in the street during a peaceful protest that weekend.
“They’ve tried everything to silence us,” Henderson said, “and now they’re going after putting us in the system.”
Henderson, Thompson and Ridge face class B misdemeanor charges for "obstructing a highway or other passageway," which is punishable by a $2,000 fine or up to 180 days in jail, or both. They were released Thursday morning, with bonds set at $2,500 each.
The trio are activists from PRO Gainesville, a grassroots organization that holds weekly protests to demand the removal of the Confederate statue that stands outside the town’s courthouse. Sunday, they had staged a several-block march stemming from the square, and local law enforcement walked alongside them.
PRO Gainesville supporters have made a few enemies along the way, attracting death threats from trolls online, Henderson said. At each week’s protest, they’re met by armed counterprotesters, and cell phone video shows some with their fingers resting on triggers.
Dallas attorney Alison Grinter is currently representing the three activists. She said she was baffled that these first-time offenders were slapped with felony-level bonds.
It’s “unfathomable” that the police are arresting kids who strayed in the street to avoid puddles, she added, while at the same time ignoring armed counterprotesters making terroristic threats.
“I mean, are they a threat to the community for fucking jaywalking? Are they going to skip town to go to Argentina over an obstruction of a passageway?” Grinter said. “There’s no way to interpret that other than that this is retaliatory and political.”
Police Chief Kevin Phillips denies that claim. No counterprotesters have been issued arrest warrants because they were not involved in the march, he said.
After leaving the jail, Grinter said a sheriff’s deputy followed her car all the way to the highway. She said her clients went straight to the courthouse to protest, and that PRO Gainesville supporters had their license plates photographed by police.
At Sunday’s demonstration, Phillips said his officers issued multiple warnings to the protesters to stay off California Street, which is a state highway, but that they refused to do so. Yet Henderson said she heard no such command; police allowed them to complete the march, which had remained peaceful throughout.
In addition, Phillips said that his officers did not arrest the activists because they didn’t have the “law enforcement resources in place” to do so at the time. They will be more prepared in the future, he said.
Denton attorney Seth Fuller called the fact that officers arrested the protesters days later “very, very uncommon.” Normally if a person is breaking the law in front of an officer, they are arrested on the spot, he said.
At the same time, he added, law enforcement may have waited to arrest them to avoid potential blowback from PRO Gainesville supporters.
Fuller also found it unusual that the protesters’ bond was set at $2,500, or $500 higher than the maximum fine incurred by a class B offense. On its face, the amount isn’t unheard of, he said, but it is high for that particular misdemeanor during the middle of a pandemic.
Then again, maybe that was the point, Fuller said.
“I think it’s kind of just a message to future protesters that, ‘We’re going to crack down on this. Stay in line,’” he said.
After the warrants were issued, PRO Gainesville supporters started a Change.org petition calling for Phillips’ removal. It had attracted more than 400 signatures by Thursday evening.
Cooke County is largely conservative and Gainesville, its county seat, is home to two Confederate statues. In July, City Council voted to have one removed; the following month, county commissioners opted to keep the other.
The town also has a troubling past. The Great Hanging of 1862 occurred there, during which at least 40 suspected Unionists were hanged by supporters of the Confederacy. Then in the 1920s, several thousand Ku Klux Klan members paraded through the streets, joined by a crowd of 18,000 to 20,000.
Upon release from the Cooke County Jail Thursday, the three activists doubled down on their commitment to protest every week. Famed civil rights activist and former Congressman John Lewis was arrested 45 times for demonstrating, Thompson said, so they’re not giving up any time soon.
Henderson also looks to Lewis for inspiration. Come Sunday, she said she’ll be ready to protest once more.
“We’ll get through it,” Henderson said. “It’s good trouble.”
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