Local News

In county divided, vigil seeks unity

Posted September 28, 2008 5:55 p.m. EDT
Updated September 29, 2008 8:01 a.m. EDT

— Several civil-rights groups seeking the dismissal of the Johnston County sheriff for comments deemed derogatory toward Latinos held a prayer vigil Sunday.

The vigil, at the Smithfield courthouse, drew about 200 people. It was organized by advocacy group El Pueblo. Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter, also spoke at the vigil.

“We call on Sheriff Bizzell – as an act of love – for him to resign, because we believe he needs time to reflect and to grow beyond these feelings,” Barber told the crowd.

Sheriff Steve Bizzell has been under fire since his comments on the growing minority population in his county were published in The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh. He called Mexicans "trashy" and said the growing Latino population in his county was "breeding like rabbits."

“I tell these people, "Have you ever said anything to your husband or wife that you wish you hadn't said?'” said John Book, a Bizzell supporter, who attended the vigil. "He's apologized, I don't know what else they want from him."

“Sheriff Bizzell may not have said the right thing, in the right way, but sometimes you have to say things in a way to get attention. And we are all here today, so it got our attention,” Heidi Rittenhouse said.

Police officers and sheriff's deputies kept a close eye on the vigil, on the ground and from a rooftop. Participants at the vigil lit candles and prayed for healing and reconciliation.

“We should give him another chance. I think that is the best thing we can do is give him another chance, and hopefully he will learn from what he said. It's not right,” Luli Ayala said.

The vigil ended without incident.

Twenty-six civil rights organizations have responded to Bizzell's remarks with a call for his resignation. Hispanic media group Que Pasa has also called for him to resign.

County commissioners have been unstinting in their support of the sheriff, indicating they have no intention of seeking his removal.

Cookie Pope, chairwoman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, issued a statement on behalf of the board, saying that commissioners supported Bizzell's "successful efforts to protect the citizens of Johnston County against crimes."

In a statement Friday, Bizzell had asked that the right for peaceable assembly be honored Sunday. He wrote:

"As citizens of our great country, one of our most cherished rights is the ability to peacefully assemble. El Pueblo and the NAACP have announced their intentions to assemble in Smithfield this Sunday afternoon. I ask that everyone respect their right to have this gathering. It is my desire for Johnston County to be a safe place to host groups from outside our county to gather with their local members within the rule of law. Any interference with this gathering would be contrary to our constitution and not acceptable."