In the latest development in the burgeoning conflict between Sandra Bland protesters and the Waller County Sheriff's Office, barricades went up and a tree popular among protesters came down.
On Tuesday morning, barricades popped up in front of the Waller County Sheriff's Office, where clergywoman Hannah Bonner had been keeping vigil for the past 27 days following Sandra Bland's death in the Waller County Jail. And late Tuesday night, a nearby tree where protesters often gathered to pray in the shade was apparently cut down.
Earlier on Monday, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith was caught on video telling the Methodist pastor protesting outside his office to "go back to the church of Satan that you run." Bonner says it was an unexpected outburst from someone who has been relatively cordial to the protesters for the better part of their month-long stay in Waller County.
But that changed after an incident during Sunday's protest outside the sheriff's office on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's fatal shooting by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Phone calls and emails made this morning to Waller County Sheriff's Office spokesman Brian Cantrell were not immediately returned. But late Monday night, the Waller County Sheriff's Office official Facebook page posted this:
The Waller County Sheriff’s Office continues to express its condolences to the Sandra Bland family for their loss.
On Sunday August 9, 2015 after 26 days of peaceful protest in the parking lot of the Sheriff’s Office a small group affiliated with the Sunday protest rushed into the small lobby shouting, pushing intercoms and beating on walls, windows and doors. This process interrupted our dispatch office to the point that everyday calls could not be heard. This was a direct threat to public safety and was not a peaceful assembly.
The group was removed from the building and returned to the parking lot. Four deputies received minor injuries during this effort. At this time, no arrests have been made and no civilians were injured.
I will stand with anyone to uphold the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution and we have seen to this at the Sheriff’s Office during this time. However, any assembly that turns to lawlessness and disrupts the peace will not be tolerated. The Waller County Sheriff’s Office will continue to protect life and property in this county. This includes the safety of our employees as well as their families.
Again, we cannot express our gratitude enough for all the prayers and support given.
God bless each of you and Waller County.
Here's a video provided by a protester of the lobby incident during Sunday's protest:
From the video, the protest in the lobby was certainly loud, but appears to have been largely peaceful. At around the three minute mark, the video clearly shows one protester pressing the intercom while another protester chants into it. This is when a group of officers entered the lobby. The space was very tight and there was some pushing and shoving as they moved the protesters out of the building. When the officers locked the doors, there was still a small group of protesters stuck inside— at this point, the protesters outside began beating on the windows of the door demanding their release. The officers escorted the remaining protesters outside through a back door.
Despite the statement from the Sheriff's office that "no civilians were injured," one protester took a photo following the lobby incident of what he said was a fellow protester in a stretcher (it's unclear why the man in the photo required medical attention):
Following Sunday's protest, Sheriff Smith confronted Bonner and told her to "go back to the church of Satan that you run." Then the barricades went up and the tree was cut down. It remains to be seen how the ongoing protests will be handled, but clearly something about Sunday's protest flipped a switch at the Waller County Sheriff's Office.
[UPDATE] 6:68 p.m.
In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Sheriff Glenn Smith attempted to explain why he called a clergywoman a Satanist, set up barricades to deter protesters, and cut down a nearby tree where protesters liked to gather for shade.
"My grandmother used to tell me, if you're not doing godly things, then you must be working for the devil, because there is no in-between," said Smith, who was suspended and fired from his post as chief of police in Hempstead in 2008 amid accusations of racism and police misconduct before being elected Waller County Sheriff later that year.
He also said his basis for calling Methodist pastor Hannah Bonner a Satanist was because he believed she was among the protesters banging on the glass doors of the lobby during Sunday's protest— an allegation Bonner has repeatedly denied. And although Smith acknowledged that he knew Bonner was a religious figure because she was wearing a collar, he said he was not aware at the time of her exact religious affiliation.
"I've been a sheriff for a long time," Smith said, "and I have actually seen Satan worshipers wearing collars.
Bonner said in a phone interview on Monday that she is a fully credentialed member of the clergy, and is a graduate of the Divinity School at Duke University, one of the top ranked programs in the country.
As for the barricades, Smith said they were placed in front of the office to "slow down the onslaught of people trying to rush the lobby and things like that." The barricades were set up alongside the doors, where Bonner said she had been keeping vigil for the past 27 days.
And Smith's explanation for cutting down the tree in the corner of the parking lot? He said the tree had become a "security issue."
"We've been trying to cut that tree down for the last year," Smith said. "There were birds making a mess on cars, it was blocking the view from the parking lot of cars driving down the street, and it was getting in the way of our security cameras. It was time for the tree to go down."
The tree was also a popular place for protesters to gather and pray in the shade. Smith said he doesn't know how long the tree has been there— "probably a long time"— but he said it "needed to be cut down today because we've never had a security issue like we have today."
The first protester arrest didn't come until earlier today, after the barricades came up and the tree was torn down. Smith said a man kept walking into the lobby and chanting. He was repeatedly asked to leave, went outside, walked to the flagpole and lowered the flag to half-mast. Smith said he was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.
Smith also said the lobby is still open to the public, and to individual protesters who need to use the restroom.
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