REFUGIO – Hundreds attended a rally Saturday, June 6, across from the Refugio County Courthouse to speak out against injustice and racial inequality and also to demand change.

The rally and protest paid homage to Texan George Floyd, who died after having a police officer’s knee on his neck in Minneapolis and whose plight was captured on video that has sparked protests across the county and the world.

“They’re doing these marches here in Refugio and also in New York City, Amsterdam and all over the world,” one woman told her young children before the event began. “They’re doing these to let everyone know that people with brown skin matter.”

The rally began with a march from Shay Plaza, located on Alamo Street just north of the H-E-B store, and continued to the lawn across from the courthouse.

While the chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police” were loud and clear during the march, people of all colors participated in the event, carrying signs and showing their support for racial equality and fairness for all.

In his opening prayer before the march, John Allen Rogers, senior pastor of New Light Baptist Church in Woodsboro, called for God’s intervention to help bring about change.

“God, as we come for such a time as this we need for Your Spirit to move upon the hearts and minds of our government and change their hearts so they may see all of us as equal,” Rogers said.

Refugio Mayor Wanda Dukes said it is important for people to make their voices heard.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends,” she said, adding that she was uncertain if such a rally would take place in Refugio.

“I can hardly get anyone to participate in the Martin Luther King Junior commemorative march each January,” Dukes said. “Well, y’all surprised me. The purpose of today is to demand an end of all law enforcement brutality in our country and to shed light on issues in our country.

“When I saw what happened to George Floyd, I couldn’t breathe. Then I caught my breath. George Floyd will never catch his breath.”

Dukes said that there are frequent meetings via the internet about important issues in the community among community leaders in Refugio County during this time of coronavirus crisis, and she was appalled at one man’s reaction to the nationwide protests in response to Floyd’s death and other concerns of racial injustice.

“One of our law enforcement officers had a derogatory word for the protests going on in America,” Dukes said. “I had a few choice words for him. You, sir, are part of the problem. I did not want you here today, but you need to be here.”

Dukes spoke against rioting and looting that has sometimes accompanied protests but added “if you are not outraged about seeing a knee on a black man’s neck, I don’t want to hear about your outrage over rioting and looting.”

Dukes said issues of inequality and injustice must be acknowledged and changed.

“Black lives matter — all lives matter — but in America it seems some lives matter more than others,” she said. “Friends, do not remain silent. Today is your day to speak up. I am so glad you came today.”

Roy Oliver, associate minister of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Refugio, prayed for the Lord’s protection for those gathered at the rally, asking that “no hurt, harm or danger come to those here today.”

He thanked those attending the protest for showing up in unity of spirit and purpose and asked for a moment of silence for Floyd’s family and for “all the lives lost at the hands of the people we’re going to pray for.”

Oliver quoted from the book of Habakkuk in the Bible: “How long O Lord must I call for help but you do not listen? ... Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails.” ...

He said the issues brought to the world’s attention have long existed and must be changed.

“God has allowed us and woken us up to see the injustice that has taken place for many years,” Oliver said. “Time after time, protests rise but only for so long. There is a worldwide protest happening right now. Protests about the injustice that all have felt — black, white, red, yellow and brown brothers and sisters for many years.

“It just so happens that it was George Floyd — a black man — that was murdered. It made you angry, and it crossed the color barrier. It could have been your father, your mother, your grandparent or your child.

“Lord, when will you hear our cry? When will this injustice cease? I can tell you the answer to that question. When the hearts of men and women, mothers and fathers, the police, teachers and H-E-B workers, when everyone opens their hearts to allow God to change us, that’s when the change will come about. When you allow His Spirit to convict you in your head when you say something racist, when you choose your words carefully.”

George Floyd’s death and other acts of injustice and brutality over the years “has caused stress in our country,” Oliver said, “and when you allow God to change your heart, then change will come about.

“I implore you Refugio, Texas, Refugio County and all visiting us today, as a messenger of God: Let not hate be part of your heart, and if you have hate, ask God to change you. Our blood all runs red. How long, O God?”

Echoing the calls of others, he urged those attending to vote.

“Every vote counts, and we have to vote the bad out and the good in,” he said.

Refugio Police Chief Enrique Diaz said he had been nervous about speaking to those gathered for the rally, and also distraught by the injustice he had seen against George Floyd and others in facing discrimination and cruelty.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of public speaking, but I tell you today’s march ... most of y’all know I don’t often display emotion and can be hard to read,” Diaz said. “Today, I want to thank you for having this event and giving me the opportunity to speak. It is an honor to be here as history is being made.

“Yes, we’re here today, but will this change anything? I think it will. Today, you are here to voice, to speak; today, you are here for change. When I watched the video of George Floyd, if I was to tell you I did not feel hatred, that I did not feel betrayed by other officers, that I feel nothing, I would be lying.”

Diaz said that for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, as Floyd lay restrained on the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck and saying he couldn’t breathe, “It is something I will never, ever forget. But ask yourself the question: What if the same scenario happened, and there was no video? How are we going to be accountable. That’s what we need to change.

“We see you, we hear you, we understand you. We want to be united. We need to be united. George Floyd experienced a violent death, and to me that’s murder. Those officers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I stand before you knowing the actions of my brothers in blue have changed the perception of the police. I stand before you knowing your confidence in police is almost nothing.

“We won’t give up. We have tried so hard to do what we can for the community. Today is your day to be heard. If we don’t stand together as people, as a community, as neighbors, then things won’t change — it will never change.”

Diaz said he didn’t know what to expect at the rally but that he understands and appreciates the community’s concerns.

“I really care about this community,” he said. “You don’t see us out here in tactical gear wanting a fight. It’s not what we want. We’re here to be a part of the community. We need to unite the community and change tomorrow.”

Councilman Lenny Anzaldua said the Refugio City Council closely monitors the police department to make sure it is operating properly.

“We really check the police department closely, and if we find out they are doing  the wrong thing we’ll make sure that changes,” he said. “Black lives definitely do matter.”

Several members of the community spoke during the rally.

One who identified himself as Adrian said the protests aren’t just about the injustice done to one person but a demand for justice and equality for all.

“This isn’t just about George Floyd,” he said. “Yes, he was a martyr, and his death has woken us up, but this has been going on for years. It’s not just my opinion that matters, all of us together — we matter.

“Refugio cops have done a good job, but there is a lot of injustice out there.”

Antoinette Lou Castillo, Miss Texas Jazz Festival queen and a former Refugio resident, said everyone should be included in receiving fair treatment.

“Racism isn’t just police, it happens when you’re shopping sometimes,” she said. “I want to speak to your kids. I just want to encourage you. When your teacher or anyone says you’re not good enough, prove them wrong. I encourage you to make a difference. Together we can change society.”

One speaker identified as Kirsten said she is plugged in when it comes to the law, and that the law is supposed to protect everyone.

“If you want change, start here in this county and make a difference here,” she said. ... “I believe all lives matter, not just black lives.

“Parents, it starts here. If you cannot save your own children, what chance do you have to save someone somewhere else?”

Another speaker asked those at the rally to get on one knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, adding that Floyd asking for help was like talking to a brick wall. He read some of Floyd’s words, pleading with the officer not to kill him and saying he could not breathe.

He said police and first-responders should be there to help people, not to cause harm.

Pastor Rogers of New Light Baptist Church quoted Psalm 34:19 — “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,but the LORD delivers him out of them all.”

“So many others before George Floyd ran and didn’t live to tell about it,” Rogers said. “God gives you chance after chance after chance to do the right thing, but we don’t always do right.

“God is your refuge in time of storm. ... The thing that I love about God is that even though someone may be spewing out hate, God has people in place to do His job. ... Hate cannot win where love abounds. Many are the afflictions of the righteous — the righteous are those who do God’s will.

“He’s the one who will give you shelter and will pick you up when others are coming down on you. The righteous have got to go through troubles, but God will never leave you or forsake you — that’s the kind of God we serve. God is still able to hear your cry, to hear your prayer if you’ll open up and let Him.

“This is a peaceful rally, but we can’t have peace until you get your heart right.”

Myra Hernandez, who helped organize the rally, said she appreciated the community’s response.

“Your presence is felt,” she said. “Some people said it was a riot waiting to happen, but that’s not what we’re here for. It’s a fight for equality.”

Hernandez said she was originally uncertain if she should speak out since she is not black, but added, “if we all spoke out maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. ... We need to do a better job listening to the black community. It’s unfair of us to tell people they don’t have a right to feel the way they feel.

“We won’t end racism in one day or even in one generation, but to undo racism, we have to change the system. We have to make sure the right people come to power, and that starts in this county. ... Use your voice and make sure you are heard. To change the world we must first change ourselves and our community.”

Hernandez said when the rallies and protests begin to subside, it’s important that the battle for equality continues.

“When this all dies down we need to continue the fight, just like we are doing here,” she said. “As long as black people or any people are sent to an early grave by poorly trained police, until police stop murdering minorities these protests will continue in every city in the nation, including Refugio. Please continue to support our black brothers and sisters.

“For all lives to truly matter, we must make sure every person understands black lives matter, too.”

Destiny Williams said she grew up in Refugio and has been disappointed by sometimes subtle forms of discrimination, and that everyone must speak out against injustice in order for real change to take place.

“I don’t think all cops are bad, I really don’t,” she said. “But if you have 10 bad cops and 1,000 good, the 1,000 good cops must speak up (against injustice). We are all capable and really special. It starts in the community. We can’t change things unless we change ourselves and the community as well.

“Like Myra said, all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. You are all capable of so much more than you can ever imagine. I didn’t expect to see this many of you in the community come together.

“I am proud of all of you, not just black brothers and sisters, but all of you.”

A woman identified as Tasha said she was a friend of George Floyd when he attended Texas A&M University at Kingsville.

“He was my friend, and he was not this evil person,” she said. “He had a good heart. ... When people say he was a thug, he was not. I’m not saying all he did was right. I’m saying he didn’t deserve to die this way.

“Black lives matter, and this is not a race war — it’s a right versus wrong war.”

Frank Hosey, a Refugio city councilman, said he has lived in the community for 54 years and that he can’t say he has experienced racism “up close and personal, but I know people who have.”

He referred to racially insensitive comments made on Facebook as just one small example and encouraged people to speak out against that when they see it, hear it or wherever they encounter it.

“Not only should you look at what a person says, but take a look at what they do and who supports them,” Hosey said.

He referred to a book written by Phyllis Henry Moore, Birdie and Jude, that mentions black men being taken to a local cemetery decades ago and having nooses placed around their necks and being threatened because they were dating white girls.

“That had laid dormant for 50 years, but some people say we’ve never had (racism) here,” Hosey said. “Don’t let people tell you it’s not here in Refugio. It is still here, and it needs to stop. Call it out every time you see it.

“You can legislate about hate crime, but you can’t legislate what’s in a person’s heart.”

Darius Robertson of Saints Memorial Church of God in Christ has seen adversity before when his church was damaged by Hurricane Harvey and said the community came together to rebuild then and that people need to come together now.

“The best thing we can do as a nation is pray, and the next best thing is to vote,” he said. “If you really want to make a difference and be heard, vote and fill out the Census.”

Robertson said change starts with love.

“He that loveth knoweth God, and he that loveth not knoweth not God,” he said. “God is a God of love, and John tells us of faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.

“We were all created in the image of God. I believe the founders of the Constitution had it right when they stated that all are created equal. ... It just so happens that the great weight of the plague of injustice in America is against black people.

“If we in Refugio County will fill our hearts with love then there is no room for racism. The Bible commands us to love one another. I urge you to love. ... If your heart is filled with love, you can’t hate. If your heart is filled with hate, you can’t love.”

Robertson said he experienced an enlightening moment during a birthday party for his son in which black, white and Hispanic children were all laughing and playing together, and their skin color didn’t matter to them.

“It changed my message,” he said. “My eyes filled with tears as I looked at them and realized that was something that we adults can learn from. Those kids were loving, playing and smiling and didn’t care about the color of their skin. That is something that becomes a habit that people learn, it’s not something we are born with.

“You have to learn to be racist, and just like you learn it, you can unlearn it by filling your heart with the love of God.”

Robertson addressed Martin Luther King Junior’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in which envisions a future devoid of racial inequality and injustice.

“I, too, have a dream,” Robertson said. “I have a dream that as a black husband my wife never gets the call that George Floyd’s family got. ... I have a dream that as a community we can come together with love and peace and change America.

“I, too, have a dream that 20 or 30 years from now we don’t have to march because we finally got it right. I have a dream that all people can have equal justice under the law.

“Maybe you don’t know how to love, to overcome prejudice and racist issues. You don’t have to do it on your own. You let God into your heart, and He comes in with love. The gospel does not discriminate. It’s for all people. Regardless of what color you are we are one family with one Lord under Jesus Christ.”

Robertson prayed that the people of Refugio and the county would have God move their hearts so they would love one another as He requires them.

“I pray that you would usher in change through the power of the Holy Spirit. ... I pray that the weeping nights are over and that we are coming into the joy of the morning.”

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