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Protesters say sheriff should go: Anger over sheriff's comments on Hispanics bring more than 100 people to the Johnston County Courthouse. BIZZELL...
[September 29, 2008]

Protesters say sheriff should go: Anger over sheriff's comments on Hispanics bring more than 100 people to the Johnston County Courthouse. BIZZELL...

(News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sep. 29--SMITHFIELD -- Hispanic advocates have been asking Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell to resign for weeks. On Sunday, they took their request to the steps of the county courthouse.

A multiracial throng numbering more than 100 gathered to pray for an end to racism and voice their outrage over comments that they say denigrated Hispanic immigrants.

In a Sept. 7 story in The News & Observer, Bizzell referred to Mexicans as "trashy" and said Hispanics were "breeding like rabbits." He said a growing Hispanic population was committing crimes, sapping social services and threatening traditional culture. Many of his statements encompassed both legal and illegal immigrants.

"I cannot believe that a smart man like that, in this time and age, would come out with comments like that," said Vincent Martinez, a Mexican native and U.S. citizen who has lived in Smithfield for 30 years. "I believe they were pure racist comments."

Martinez and his wife, Pamela, said they had been strong supporters of Bizzell and had attended his campaign rallies in the past. Now, they say they are shocked that many in Johnston County are rallying around the sheriff despite his remarks.

During the event, a group of motorcycle riders circled the block wearing black T-shirts that read, "Support your local sheriff," and gunning their engines to drown out the group's prayers.

About a dozen other Bizzell supporters stood across the street, some holding a giant American flag and shouting messages about illegal immigrants. All declined to comment.

Bizzell issued a written apology on the day the story appeared. On Friday, he released a brief statement encouraging Johnston County residents to respect the participants' right to assemble.

"Any interference with this gathering would be contrary to our constitution and not acceptable," Bizzell's statement said.

During the event, his deputies stood watch.

Should he resign?

Johnston County commissioners have remained firm in their support of the popular sheriff. The seven-member board released a statement last week saying that it would not ask for Bizzell's resignation.

Bizzell faces re-election in 2010.

Sunday's event was organized by the statewide Hispanic advocacy group El Pueblo. "We are here today to begin to heal," said Director Tony Asion, before reiterating his call for the sheriff's resignation.

Some of those who attended said Bizzell's comments were evidence of racism that they already suspected.

"It's surprising that he actually allowed it to be put in print," said Stacie Darden of Middlesex. "But I'm not surprised that he said it."

Darden was one of several who brought young children, some of them carrying signs with messages such as "Racism hurts" and "Racism is mean."

Some Hispanics said they feared that, if Bizzell's statements went unchallenged, they would give license to more open discrimination across the state.

"It affects all the community; it doesn't matter what county you live in," said Onesimo Velasquez of Apex, who came with his wife and three children. "I have kids, and they go to public schools. I'm afraid for them."

Bridgette Burge-Walz of Knightdale said she attended, along with her children, neighbors and sister, to show that many non-Hispanic people are upset by Bizzell's comments.

"I think it's particularly important for white people to be present," she said, "to show that we're in solidarity with people of color."

Sunday's protest was the latest in the reaction that Bizzell's comments have caused. About two dozen groups, including the national Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have called for Bizzell's badge.

The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has begun an investigation into whether Bizzell's office has engaged in ethnic profiling of Hispanics.

And a group of Johnston County pastors plans to discuss racial tension caused by the sheriff's comments. or (919) 829-4881

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