Group takes over Lawrence City Commission meeting, refuses to leave until demands are met

photo by: Peter Hancock

A group of about 20 people sits in support of Black Lives Matter and Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline during the Lawrence City Commission meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

A group of about 20 people held a sit in that delayed the Lawrence City Commission’s regular agenda by about 45 minutes on Tuesday, and ultimately led commissioners to approve a statement of solidarity in support of Black Lives Matter and Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“I’m going to need Lawrence to be as progressive as they say,” said Trinity Carpenter, an organizer with the Lawrence chapter of Black Lives Matter.

Several members of the group spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, and the group re-entered the meeting room shortly after the commission had begun discussion of its regular agenda. Commissioners did not indicate that they opposed making such a statement, and their comments to the group centered mainly on timeframe and logistics.

“We are in our general business meeting, and I would hope that everybody would give the respect that was given to you while you were at the microphone,” Mayor Mike Amyx initially told the group.

This is the second time the topic has come up in the past month. Several people spoke at the commission’s last regular meeting in support of Black Lives Matter, and requested action from commissioners to address the issue locally. Caleb Stephens, also an organizer with the Lawrence chapter of Black Lives Matter, was one who spoke last month and said Tuesday that he was tired of waiting. Stephens noted that it had been three weeks since the commission’s last meeting.

“White supremacy always tells me to wait,” Stephens said.

The group said they would not leave without letters of solidarity. Commissioners — Commissioner Matthew Herbert initially and others agreed — said they wanted more time to write a thoughtful letter, as opposed to writing something on the spot.

“I have a tendency to put my foot in my mouth, so to speak,” Herbert said. “And on more than one occasion words have come out that haven’t been well thought out, and that becomes your message.”

The discussion at Tuesday’s meeting began after several residents spoke in response to the commission proclaiming the week of Sept. 11 as First Responders Week — a proclamation that commissioners later pointed out is standard. Members of the group said that proclamation called attention to the lack of an official statement from the commission regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and Native Americans who are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline that would run through four states.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has filed a complaint against the pipeline. Members of various tribes have also protested its construction, including a group of Lawrence residents who traveled to North Dakota over the weekend. Lawrence is home to Haskell Indian Nations University, the only federally operated tribal university in the country. Shereena Baker, a former Haskell student who now attends the University of Kansas, voiced concern about the pipeline contaminating nearby rivers in event of a spill.

“The water is very important,” Baker said. “I would like to keep the water clean for my kids and your kids.”

After 45 minutes of back and forth, which brought in the city attorney, city manager and at one point an audience member, the commission and the group came to a consensus. In lieu of a letter, the commission decided to issue a statement Tuesday night, and called for a continuation of the meeting Wednesday. All commissioners signed the following statement:

“We, the Lawrence City Commission, profess solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and all those oppressed. We always will profess support for you.”

Though voices were raised at times — including some curse words — various members of the group shook hands with commissioners once a resolution was reached, and left the meeting of their own accord.

Commissioners said they will meet to write a formal letter at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall.