County warning: School board activists go to trial

A judge found the arrest of local mom Lara Harrison at an August school board meeting unconstitutional. Others arrested that day weren’t as lucky. Photo by Eze Amos A judge found the arrest of local mom Lara Harrison at an August school board meeting unconstitutional. Others arrested that day weren’t as lucky. Photo by Eze Amos

Five anti-racist activists were in court October 30, following their arrests at an August 30 special meeting of the Albemarle County School Board. But many community members feel like only one was handed down the verdict she deserved.

While Lara Harrison’s trespassing charge was dropped, four others were convicted of trespassing or obstruction of justice.

“There’s a little history to this,” said defense attorney Janice Redinger, who represented Harrison and Andrea Massey. Both moms were charged with trespassing after allegedly disrupting and refusing to leave the Albemarle County Office Building where the school board meeting was taking place.

At an August 23 meeting, the activists—many with the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County—showed up to speak during the public comment session to ask the school board to ban Confederate imagery and other hate symbols from the division’s dress code. Most didn’t get the chance.

Redinger said in court that Harrison was the only person allowed to speak before the school board shut the meeting down for alleged disruption. Activists were snapping their fingers in agreement with Harrison’s comments, “the least disruptive thing that one can do in order to share your support,” Redinger pointed out. But the school board alleges other disruptive activity such as cheering.

The aborted meeting was continued August 30, but the school board did not allow for any public comment. So some activists decided to hold their own “community meeting” in the lobby outside of Lane Auditorium, she said.

These activists, including Harrison, began chanting, singing, and clapping for their cause. Alleging that they were still disrupting the meeting happening inside of the auditorium behind closed doors, County Executive Jeff Richardson testified that he approached Harrison and another woman and asked multiple times, “Please quiet down or you will have to leave.” He said he never specifically directed any officer to begin making arrests. “My goal was for the group to just quiet down.”

Richardson said he turned to Lieutenant Terry Walls and expressed concern that the activists weren’t quieting down or leaving, and Walls testified that he then began making arrests, starting with Harrison.

Redinger argued that the arrest was unconstitutional because Richardson never explicitly directed Walls to break out the handcuffs, and only Richardson had the authority to make that call.

Judge William Barkley agreed, and dropped Harrison’s charge. Harrison then took a seat in the gallery of the courtroom—among dozens of supporters from the local activist community—to learn the fate of the other three defendants.

“It was vindicating for that moment to hear that the judge agreed that it was an unjust arrest,” says Harrison. “At the same time, I felt very anxious for my co-defendants.”

Massey, Redinger’s second client, wasn’t as lucky. She was inside Lane Auditorium peacefully protesting with tape over her mouth, holding a large banner that said, “RACISTS DON’T GET RE-ELECTED.”

Witnesses agreed that the board meeting remained uninterrupted until an unnamed woman burst into the room to call for help, yelling that activists outside were being “brutalized” by police. Board Chair Kate Acuff ordered her out, and Massey, speaking for the first time, said, “You’re being ridiculous.”

“Immediately, without resolution, without delay, Kate Acuff ordered her to leave and directed the police toward [Massey],” said Redinger. Though Acuff read a statement at the beginning of the meeting, which said any disruption would result ejection, Redinger argued that Massey couldn’t have disrupted the meeting, because it had already been disrupted when the woman barged in and called for help. For that reason, Redinger said there were no grounds to arrest Massey.

But the judge said Massey’s failure to leave after being asked to by Acuff and an officer was enough to find her guilty of trespassing.

Defense attorney Andrew Sneathern adopted Redinger’s argument for his client, Sabr Lyon, who was inside the meeting with Massey, and was also found guilty of trespassing.

With tape over her mouth, and holding her own sign, Lyon stepped away from her seat and moved closer to the podium at the front of the auditorium. But Sneathern said she never said word until she was being arrested.

According to prosecutor Juan Vega, Acuff gave Lyon a warning and asked her to leave. Her arresting officer testified he wasn’t specifically asked to arrest her and said he attempted to get her to leave without being arrested. Lyon allegedly said, “It’s up to you,” and left peacefully when he cuffed her and escorted her out. The judge found her guilty of trespassing.

Last up was Francis Richards, who got caught in the commotion outside of the auditorium. He said he saw a man grab a friend of his and he inserted himself between them to protect her.

The man turned out to be Deputy Police Chief Greg Jenkins, who was in plainclothes and who testified that he announced he was an officer. But several others testified that they didn’t hear him and had no idea who he was.

Defense attorney Bruce Williamson examined video of the chaos, and said if Jenkins ever truly announced his position, no one reacted. And while Jenkins testified that he had a badge, handcuffs, and a gun, Williamson said they weren’t visible.

Richards, who was charged with trespassing and obstruction of justice, was found guilty of the latter.

The prosecutor asked for a 60-day jail sentence for Richards because his encounter was physical, and 30-day sentences for Massey and Lyon. He wanted all of the activists to be banned from the county office building and school board meetings for two years.

The judge suspended the sentences on the condition of good behavior for two years, but chose to convict them to send a message.

Samantha Peacoe, who was also arrested for obstruction of justice, entered a plea deal before the trials and was sentenced to 30-days with all time suspended.

“We’re disappointed but not surprised by the judge’s upholding of white supremacy by targeting and finding guilty peaceful protesters that should have never been arrested in the first place,” says Harrison. “Every time we’re faced with the state trying to silence us and intimidate us into stopping what we’re doing, we just show up stronger.”

Walt Heinecke, an associate professor at UVA who observed the trials, says he found them “troubling and problematic.”

“[It] was just a spectacle orchestrated by the school division, the county government, and the commonwealth’s attorney to signal a message to citizens who want to actively participate in dissent in government processes that they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he says.

It’s as if public dissent has become illegal, he adds.

“I’d like to remind everybody that when I was a teenager during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, there were dissenters in American blowing up banks, blowing up government installations,” he says,  “and now we’ve gotten to a point where if someone snaps their fingers, it’s a national security threat.”

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