Nine people were arrested on Jan. 17 during a protest in downtown Charleston. The protest was organized by concerned citizens calling on Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, which is currently being held for a vote by Congress. Both acts require 60 votes to avoid a Republican filibuster.
According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, two dozen people gathered on the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at the corner of Kanawha Boulevard and Court Street. Court Street was honorarily named after Martin Luther King Jr. in 2020. Rev. Matthew Watts of Grace Bible Church and Rev. Marlon Collins of Shiloh Baptist Church gave opening remarks on the importance of preserving Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy through the passage of federal voting rights legislation. According to Watts, there is no MLK celebration without voting rights legislation that gives a voice to all citizens.
When discussing the MLK Day protest and the importance of nonviolent resistance, Watts stated, “I think it’s the most potent weapon that law-abiding nonviolent people have at their disposal.”
Kai Newkirk, a West Virginia native who currently resides in Arizona, was one of the nine protesters arrested during the MLK Day protest. Newkirk discussed the role of nonviolent resistance in the fight for voting rights legislation.
“…that’s how we won the Voting Rights Act in the first place, and that’s how we have to fight to restore it and continue to expand and build in that legacy of, you know, creating a truly inclusive multiracial democracy,” Newkirk said.
The protest included blocking all four lanes of traffic on Kanawha Boulevard, which led to a response from the Charleston Police Department. After several orders from the police to leave the street, the protesters and Charleston Police Lt. Dave Payne eventually agreed that those refusing to go would be handcuffed, detained, and cited. When inside the station, however, officers began booking protesters for arrest under the charges of unlawful protesting without incident. The protesters have a hearing scheduled for March 2.
Katonya Hart, of Charleston, was the only Black protester arrested. Hart was kept, in what she referred to as, a “cage” and was separated from the other eight protesters who were arrested. According to Hart, the cage is a small room surrounded by metal bars similar to a holding cell. Hart explained that she could not understand why she was separated from her fellow protesters, as they were all arrested for the same violations.
“I saw myself as a freedom fighter…I was the only Black person, let alone Black woman in the group. It went from ‘we’ to ‘I,” and I started to notice that I was actually being treated different,” Hart said.
Hart explained that she was apprehensive about speaking out about her treatment due to potential retaliation from the police. Despite her reservations, she questioned an officer about why she was the only one locked in a cage. In response to Hart’s concerns, the officer put Selena Vickers, Vice-Chair of the Women’s Caucus for the Democratic Party and fellow protester, in the cage with her. Hart believes that if she did not speak up, she would have remained in the cage alone.
“I don’t think he thought about it, you know? It’s like an implicit bias,” Hart stated.
Several other protesters expressed their thoughts on the arrest and the perceived racial bias that might have played a part in Hart’s treatment. Newkirk said that he was inspired by Hart’s courage and commitment given the history of unjust treatment and discrimination by law enforcement towards Black people in the United States.
“I think we all shared the concern about her being discriminated against, and it being racially motivated and racist,” Kai stated.
Emma Marshall, a student at Marshall University studying ceramics, also expressed concern about the treatment of Katonya Hart.
“…It was just very ironic. Because we’re fighting for our voices to be heard, and when the only African American person in the room is the only one in a cage. It’s just very ironic to be experiencing it firsthand,” Marshall said.
Watts stated that he was not surprised that Hart was treated differently than the other protesters. He said that Hart’s treatment resembles the racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions. According to a 2019 study, researchers Travis Riddle and Stacey Sinclair found that Black students in the United States are subject to disciplinary action at higher rates than their white counterparts. Watts said that he believes this implicit bias is built into every system in the U.S., whether it be the school system, the prison system, or law enforcement.
“…Black people are gonna be treated differently and more harshly regardless of their agenda,” Watts said.