Justin Thompson initially reached out to the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) early last summer because he didn’t want to break any laws. As protests spread after the police killing of George Floyd, Thompson and other young progressives in the small North Texas city planned their own demonstration aimed at pressuring local officials to take down a pair of Confederate monuments: one perched above a city park and the other outside the Cooke County Courthouse in the town square. After emailing police officials about the protest and meeting with a captain to discuss safety issues and permitting requirements, Thompson followed up with another email to GPD, stressing that he understood the “importance that we follow the law while exercising our rights.”
Despite those early overtures, the relationship between police and activists in Gainesville quickly soured. By September, GPD had charged Thompson and two other organizers with his group, PRO Gainesville, with obstructing a roadway, a class B misdemeanor, while marching in the street. Soon afterward, Joel Najera, a progressive candidate for the local school board, gave $10 to PRO Gainesville’s GoFundMe page—and, as a joke, displayed the donation under the name “PC Kevin Phillips” with the comment “I need attention, and these kids help me get it. Every villain needs a hero!” (Phillips is the GPD’s chief.) Phillips later told the Gainesville Register that he asked the Texas Rangers to investigate the donation “so it would be completely unbiased.” In February, local prosecutors charged Najera with impersonating the chief “with the intent to harm or intimidate,” a class A misdemeanor.
The criminal charges against PRO Gainesville organizers follow threats and harassment from heavily armed counterprotesters yelling racial slurs at the group’s demonstrations last year—intimidation that they say police did little to address. In December, lawyers with the ACLU of Texas wrote a letter to city and county leaders saying that local officials were “chilling people’s freedom of speech and retaliating against peaceful protesters.” In March, the ACLU sent another letter to Cooke County attorney Daniel Zielinski, calling Najera’s prosecution for impersonating Chief Phillips unconstitutional. Phillips defended his treatment of protesters, saying, “There has been no attempt to impede free speech or protest activity in Gainesville.” Zielinski said in an email, “I do not comment on pending cases.”
Protests to remove racist iconography from public places have prompted backlash and violent threats in other parts of Texas, as well as new state rules this year protecting monuments and markers idealizing the Confederacy. Thompson says the criminal charges against protesters, intimidation from counterprotesters, and the larger documented threat of violence by right-wing groups in North Texas numbed protests against the monuments in Gainesville, which occurred weekly during the summer but had largely stopped by the end of the year. Racist rhetoric around the November election made protests even more tense. “People would drive by yelling, ‘White power,’ and ‘Black lives don’t matter,’ and that was often followed up by, ‘Trump 2020,’” Thompson says.
Torrey Henderson, another PRO Gainesville organizer, who was charged and jailed for marching in the street, says the backlash feels like an ugly repeat of history. “The argument I keep hearing from people wanting to keep these monuments is that if we lose our history we’re going to repeat it,” Henderson says. “We’re repeating it right now. Just like with previous civil rights activists, we have minorities demanding to be heard and asking for representation, and in return they’re being arrested and threatened and told to wait and told they’re just trying to get attention. This is the past repeating itself, period.”