By Chris Keeve and Jeremy Porter, originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, July 14, 2022
The charges against Emma Anderson, Erin Doherty, Bradley Milford Lopez, Erin Price, Aiiden Robinson, Sarah Williams, James Woodhead and Liane Woodhead being prosecuted by outgoing Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts—with trials and hearings this week—are yet another watershed moment in which Lexington must face its past and choose its future. The Constitution of Kentucky, Section 1 Sixth Part, codifies what we also find in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The right of assembling together…” While rights are not given by the state, only acknowledged by them, this right was demonstrated in full force in Lexington, just like many United States cities, in the summer of 2020. When it came time to protest in the streets of Lexington following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery (among too many others), thousands of folks showed up–and their protests crystalized around the campaign for Lexington Police Accountability.
This campaign started organizing in 2014 following the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson. While the campaign had some wins, like starting a National Lawyers Guild chapter, politicians’ modest reforms–including securing body cams for some but not all LPD officers–were not enough. In May of 2019, movement leaders delivered a nine page document of specific demands for reform and accountability, given to all city council members, LPD and FOP leadership. A special meeting to discuss these demands was attended by Angela Evans, James Brown, Jennifer Reynolds, Chuck Ellinger, Kathy Plomin, and Steve Kay. In 2020, with little headway in police reform, organizers took to the streets, joining the chorus of protest across the United States. In other words, this was serious movement work, and movement work takes many forms, some spectacular, but it happens most often through the work of small groups of people fighting for a better world.
Unfortunately when those in power feel threatened by collective action and change to the status quo, the result is criminalization of those at the forefront. While touted as a matter of ‘public safety’, the arrest of protest leaders was and is itself a political action to stop the movement work that has been underway, prosecuted by a lame-duck County Attorney.
Much of the rationale behind their prosecution has to do with supposed or potential acts of violence. We are less concerned with the prosecution’s shaky evidence as we are around the interlocking forms of systemic violence that shape so much of our lives that reproduce, to paraphrase Ruth Wilson Gilmore, death-dealing structures against those most vulnerable. Food injustice, housing insecurity, and economic inequality are tied together and sustained by policy and the actions of individual elected and appointed officials, including police. The movement work —before, during, and since the protests of 2020—included broad based acts of community support: first aid supplies, trained medical assistance, financial donations, snacks and meals, bottles of water, community art, lodging, PPE for COVID safety, access support for folks with disabilities, and other life-giving forms of mutual aid.
Criminalizing protestors and organizers willfully ignores the successes they bring that benefit us all. Over these past two years, ongoing organizing work has resulted in: a ban on no knock warrants, the Mayor’s Commission on Racial Justice and Inequality, the election of Liz Sheehan to city council, key changes to the police Collective Bargaining Agreement—civilian representation in the disciplinary process; body cams on every officer; a citizen liaison for complaints against LPD; the option to file open records requests online; greater transparency on LPD website; and reforms around officers moonlighting—and the election of Angela Evans to replace Larry Roberts.
This trial is an attempt to quell a movement and stop good progress. Worse, it is a distraction from the work that still must be done to address the true violence that takes place here daily. It is time to drop the charges. It is time for the people of Lexington to continue the work of building a life-giving world.