Politics & Government

Lawmaker accuses Kentucky State Police of unfairly targeting anti-poverty group

‘They’re trying to silence us.’ Group denied entry to Kentucky Capitol.

For the second week in a row, a group of protesters with the Poor People’s Campaign were denied entry to the State Capitol in large numbers. Only two at a time were allowed to enter the Capitol.
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For the second week in a row, a group of protesters with the Poor People’s Campaign were denied entry to the State Capitol in large numbers. Only two at a time were allowed to enter the Capitol.

Kentucky State Police are treating anti-poverty demonstrators who want access to the state Capitol unfairly, a state lawmaker said Tuesday.

State Rep. George Brown Jr, D-Lexington, said the dispute between the Poor People's Campaign and Gov. Matt Bevin's administration may have to be settled in court.

"No other group has been treated this way," he said.

Brown was responding to a letter Kentucky State Police Commissioner Richard W. Sanders sent him and state Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, explaining why only two anti-poverty protesters have been allowed to enter the Capitol at a time.

"There never has been and never should be a policy to allow only two at a time to enter the Capitol," said Brown. "The Capitol belongs to the people of Kentucky and all the people should be allowed to enter it during regular business hours. To single out one group is arbitrary and capricious."

Monday was the second time this month police have used the policy against members of the campaign to address inequality for poor people.

Sanders said in a three-page letter that the state police policy "was entirely based upon prior unlawful acts by the protesters as well as information provided by KSP's Criminal Intelligence Branch regarding the protesters' intent to commit criminal acts by refusing to leave the Capitol once inside."

State Rep. George Brown Jr..jpg
State Rep. George Brown Jr., D-Lexington Kentucky Legislative Research Commission

He said about 30 protesters affiliated with the Poor People's Campaign blocked traffic by standing in the road between the Capitol and Annex building on May 14.

"Rather than arrest them, troopers diverted traffic to allow their protest to continue," Sanders said.

On May 21, state police learned that protesters were at the Capitol "with the stated agenda to get arrested," he said.

The protesters wore armbands with their attorneys' information and 17 of them remained in the Capitol after regular business hours and refused to leave. Some "tampered" with property inside the historic building, said Sanders.

Instead of arresting them, state police brought in extra security at additional cost to the state, the letter said.

On May 28, several of the group's protesters crossed a fence and entered a restricted area surrounding the Governor's Mansion.

"They drew images in chalk on the porch of the Governor's Mansion and on the sidewalk," said Sanders. While these actions met the criteria of criminal trespassing, the protesters were allowed to remain and were not arrested, he said.

"The repeated actions of criminal trespass and purposeful indifference to the rules demonstrates the group's willingness to disregard the law and its desire to compel authorities to arrest individuals within the group," he wrote.

After being told the entire group would not be granted access to the Capitol, the Kentucky Poor People's Campaign gathered in the front lobby as police formed a line to block them Monday afternoon in Frankfort. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Sanders said the group had obtained a state permit on June 4 to assemble outside the Capitol, but not inside the building.

He also said the two-at-a-time policy would not apply to demonstrators who plan to make their voices heard at the Capitol and then leave after following all laws and regulations.

Brown said he found the state police commissioner's letter "lacking in a number of areas." He said he had talked to Rep. Scott and "we're on the same page." She did not return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Asked about the "prior unlawful acts" cited by Sanders, Brown responded: "People who face hardships may have no other alternative but to sometimes block traffic or trespass."

Brown said he and Scott are still awaiting a response to their request for a legal opinion by Attorney General Andy Beshear about whether access to the Capitol can be limited.

The Rev. Megan Huston of First Christian Church in Bowling Green said Tuesday that the U.S. Constitution is "our permit to get into the Capitol. It's no coincidence that the people being shut out are poor and of color."

Huston added that the group has no desire to be arrested. "We just want to raise up the needs of poor people of Kentucky such as in housing, living wages and education."

The campaign has tentatively scheduled a 10:30 a.m. news conference Wednesday in Frankfort with the Rev. William J. Barber II of North Carolina, its national co-chairman. He spoke to about 400 people in front of the Capitol on June 4 and tried unsuccessfully to lead many of them into the Capitol.

A Kentucky State Police sergeant stood guard in the governor's office as Tayna Fogle, middle, and Pam McMichael, right, attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain access to the office to deliver a petition Monday afternoon. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com