City Commission accedes to protesters’ demands, signs letters in support of Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
photo by: Nick Krug
After a group of about 20 people took over a Lawrence City Commission meeting and staged a sit-in Tuesday that delayed the commission’s regular agenda by about 45 minutes, commissioners at a specially called meeting on Wednesday acceded to the group’s demand and issued letters of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and with American Indians protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The group demanded the letters of solidarity Tuesday evening, with some members of the group saying that delaying action was “white supremacy.” Trinity Carpenter, an organizer with the Lawrence chapter of Black Lives Matter, told commissioners that issues affecting people of color need more attention.
“You’re apathetic as hell, so I’m going to need you to do better,” Carpenter said Tuesday of Lawrence, accusing city commissioners of racism and not checking their “white privilege,” repeatedly referring to them incorrectly as county commissioners. “I’m going to need you to do better. I have identified good folks in this community by doing this work, but it’s not enough. It is not enough — not to be considered the liberal epicenter of Kansas. I need more and I need more quickly.”
photo by: Nick Krug
The group sat on the floor of the meeting room with locked arms, frequently finger-snapping approval of one another’s comments, and said they would not leave until the commission issued letters of solidarity with the two groups.
Commissioners did not indicate they were opposed to issuing letters, but initially tried to assuage the group by saying a letter would be written within 24 hours. That offer was not immediately accepted. After 45 minutes of discussion, a resolution was reached. The commission decided to issue an initial statement of support Tuesday night and called for a continuation of the meeting Wednesday to issue official letters. The group then left of their own accord.
Letters issued Wednesday
During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners read two letters of solidarity: one in support of Black Lives Matter and the other in support of American Indians protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The drafts of the letters were read aloud and feedback was sought from the approximately 30 people attending. Many expressed appreciation for the letters, and the drafts were adopted without revision.
Carpenter began the public comment in response to the letters by thanking the commission, and noted that the final drafts of the letters “definitely felt well thought out.” Members of the group had previously said that the Black Lives Matter letter was originally requested weeks ago, and Carpenter added that it should not have taken a sit-in to get the commission to act.
“Because of the methods that we had to utilize to bring about these two letters, once again you’ve allowed the marginalized to be targeted,” Carpenter said. “So now we get framed as bullies. So in the future, what I need you guys to do is to do this on your own accord so it can be sincere and authentic.”
The protesters demanded that they be invited to future meetings of the City Commission, which are open to everyone. Meeting times are public record.
When asked by those gathered what actions the commission would take to show it supported people of color, Mayor Mike Amyx said the commission would work with people of color in the community and continue to listen.
“I think that you have our pledge that we’re going to be working together on a whole lot of things,” Amyx said. “I think that we can be held accountable that way.”
The city has several boards, including the Citizen Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing, and Amyx said invitations to attend such board meetings could be sent to members of the Lawrence Black Lives Matter chapter.
Caleb Stephens, an organizer with the Lawrence chapter of Black Lives Matter, stressed the importance of full participation with the city’s various governing and advisory boards. Stephens said that he thought the letters were a good step, but that the commission needed to continue to recognize power dynamics.
photo by: Nick Krug
“We have to reach up, even though it’s not our job, and dismantle things so that y’all can see the humanity that we function with,” Stephens said. “If you all don’t stay in that place and if you all don’t continue to check your privilege and realize that these things are essential and they have to be done in order to serve all of your community and not just the white, male, straight, wealthy here in Lawrence, then we will continue to hurt.”
Dakota Access Pipeline
Stephens and others involved with Black Lives Matter also said support of the city’s American Indian population was a priority. A group of Lawrence residents and local Black Lives Matter organizers traveled to North Dakota over the weekend to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, and coordinated the sit-in as an act of solidarity between the two groups.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has filed a complaint against the pipeline, which will not run through Kansas, and members of various tribes have also protested its construction. The tribe succeeded Tuesday in getting a federal judge to temporarily stop construction on some, but not all, of a $3.8 billion four-state oil pipeline, according to The Associated Press.
That controversy has ties to many in the Lawrence community. Lawrence is home to Haskell Indian Nations University, the only federally operated tribal university in the country. Hanna White Bull, a member of the Standing Rock tribe, told commissioners that she was thankful for the letter and that it represented a significant statement.
“What we’re really trying to accomplish is to give our grandchildren and great grandchildren a chance at having fresh drinking water, or a chance at life even,” White Bull said. “This may seem like a pebble in the water, but it’s a great thing, honestly.”
After the meeting, several of those in attendance shook hands with the commissioners. City staff handed out copies of the signed letters of solidarity, and several took smiling photos with the letter in hand.
photo by: Nick Krug
Tyesha Ignacio, a member of the Diné tribe, said after the meeting that one thing the letter does is bring awareness to the protest of the pipeline, which can help more community conversations happen.
“This is a good first step, to be acknowledged like this,” Ignacio said. “But I do think there is continuous support and help that needs to happen at the pipeline. There are people on the ground there, and it’s a real community effort that is run based off of information and donations.”
Lawrence native Landri James, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, echoed that idea. James, a senior at the University of Kansas and president of the First Nations Student Association, said that it wasn’t a matter of if the pipeline would someday leak and contaminate the water supply, but when.
“I’d like to think of this more of a concrete way, of proof, that they’re aware now,” James said. “That’s the main thing. This is a call for help because we’re just students. Because they can do something; they can help. They have many more resources at their disposal than we have.”
Some, however, disagreed with the method of the group. During the sit-in Tuesday evening, an audience member who did not give his name criticized the group for disrupting the general business of the commission. He was accused by the group of being “a white supremacist.” During the meeting Wednesday, several of the group members who spoke also referenced critical statements made online regarding their methods.
Ignacio said getting that conversation started isn’t easy, and that such an approach can be necessary.
“It’s unfortunate that it had to start the way it did, with a sit-in and it being kind of abrasive like that, but if that’s what it takes to get this conversation going, that needs to be happening, then that’s what it will take,” Ignacio said. “But I am appreciative that we have this acknowledgement here and I hope that it leads to further support for Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter.”
photo by: Nick Krug
When asked if she was concerned if the events of Tuesday and Wednesday set a precedent, Vice Mayor Leslie Soden said she saw it as an opportunity for more people to learn the existing channels to be added to the commission’s agenda.
“We have a democratic process that has rules and regulations and a lot of that has to do with setting agendas for meetings and public notification of that agenda so that if citizens want to come and speak about an item, they are welcome to,” Soden said.
Soden also noted that the commission hadn’t met since the letter of solidarity with Black Lives Matter was requested, and said that she had already discussed adding it as a future agenda item. Nevertheless, Soden recognized that the rules and regulations governing the commission — such as the Kansas Open Meetings Act — aren’t something she expects to be common knowledge.
“We want people to be involved with City Hall, absolutely,” Soden said. “But there is a certain way that we operate and that’s for maximum democracy, that’s not to make people feel like they are being dismissed or anything like that. That’s just how we function, and it can be frustrating.”
Soden also pointed out that she also saw the letters as a first step of what will be a continuing process.
“It’s important for people to know that this is the beginning, this isn’t the end,” Soden said.
Commissioners said that further discussion of the topic had been added to the commission’s future agenda items, and would be a part of an upcoming work session.
? Letter of solidarity for Black Lives Matter (.PDF)
? Letter of solidarity for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (.PDF)