ACLU of Texas Appeals Conviction of North Texas Protesters

By Simone Carter | Dallas Observer

Gainesville, a city roughly 70 miles north of Dallas, was once voted the “most patriotic small town in America.” Now, it’s also the site of a free speech case that could carry far-reaching implications for protesters’ rights.

In August, three activists with the grassroots group PRO Gainesville were found guilty of “obstructing a highway or other passageway” during a march two years earlier. They’d called for the removal of a towering Confederate monument from the town’s square.

In what critics have slammed as a politically motivated case, Torrey Henderson, Justin Thompson and Amara Ridge were sentenced to a week behind bars and a fine of $2,000. But on Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas announced that it’s helping to lead the effort to appeal the protesters’ convictions.

Henderson said that support for the PRO Gainesville Three is building every day.

“I feel really excited for what this says for rural communities,” she said. “Being able to go through this and grow with it has been uncomfortable at moments, but I feel like this is good as an American, as a Texas citizen.”

PRO Gainesville led demonstrations starting in June 2020 calling for equality and the removal of the town’s two Confederate statues. That summer, the Black Lives Matter movement had witnessed a resurgence following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man whose death at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer was caught on video.

The activists say that their protest on Aug. 30, 2020, had gone smoothly. Three days later, they learned that warrants had been issued for their arrests.

The subsequent trial was also tough on them, including on Henderson’s sons.

“It was … very emotional for them, you know?” Henderson said. “It was hard on our family just kind of trying to figure out: What do we do next? What do we do if I have to go to jail right after this?”

The ACLU of Texas said in a statement on its website that it’s asking for the protesters’ convictions to be overturned by the Seventh Court of Appeals. The civil rights group also points out that the “case sets a dangerous precedent” for free speech-loving Texans who are pushing for a “more inclusive future.”

Attorney Savannah Kumar with the ACLU of Texas told the Observer that the right to peacefully protest has a long history in both Texas and the nation. She said the “streets are the quintessential place for exercising our First Amendment rights” — rights that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed time and again.

At one point during the march, some protesters walked into the street to avoid a puddle of water on the sidewalk. But Kumar said the demonstrators, who were accompanied by local law enforcement, had been marching consistently and did not intentionally block a passageway.

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