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.”
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.
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.
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.
[If you would like to express support for Sheriff Bizzell, you can reach him at [email protected]}
Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell’s territory is one of country stores and fading tobacco barns; but increasingly his work—and his words—reach far beyond his rural county. Advocates and politicians across the state have come to know him as the lawman with the deep country twang who makes incendiary comments about “drunk Mexicans.”
“Look at that,” he says, pointing to tiendas that have cropped up amid the barbecue joints. “You can’t even read the durned sign. Everywhere you look, it’s like little Mexico around here.”
Bizzell is a farm boy so steeped in traditional American culture that he won’t even eat spaghetti, much less a taco. Since becoming sheriff a decade ago, he has watched a Hispanic influx change the rural landscape of his home county. Its population is now 11 percent Hispanic.
These mostly undocumented workers have helped build a new economy, fueling a construction boom and harvesting most of the county’s crops. But some residents of this once insular place see them as a threat, opening Spanish-speaking businesses, crowding hospitals and schools, even monopolizing aisles at Wal-Mart.
Bizzell has emerged as the face of the backlash.
But to travel with Bizzell is to understand not only the anger, but also the ambivalence that surrounds an intensifying crackdown on illegal immigrants.
In one breath, he condemns illegal immigrants for “breeding like rabbits” and spreading a culture of drunkenness and violence. In the next, he sympathizes with laborers who know the same calloused-hand work that he did as the son of a farmer.
One day he says immigrants take American jobs. The next he says there is work for anyone willing to pull his weight. He resents the increasingly Hispanic face of his county, but he acknowledges that immigrant workers have enriched many of his constituents.
Bizzell is, in many ways, the face of a state coping with a problem the federal government has failed to solve, struggling to reconcile long-held resentments with its essential humanity.
“Everywhere I go,” Bizzell says, “people say, ‘Sheriff, what are we going to do about all these Mexicans?’ “
Bizzell thinks wistfully of a time when he didn’t have to deal with tricky matters of race and culture. He says without reservation that the Johnston County of his youth—where he left his door unlocked and never saw a taco stand—was a better place.