Heyburn 9 protester speaks about the trial, motives and how to help

Jul 5, 2019 at 5:26 pm
With supporters, Heyburn 9 protester Courtney Kearney, first row and fourth from the left, and Angie Reed Garner, second row and second from the left.
With supporters, Heyburn 9 protester Courtney Kearney, first row and fourth from the left, and Angie Reed Garner, second row and second from the left.

Courtney Kearney is one of the Heyburn 9 arrested July 26, 2018 after halting the operations of Louisville’s federal immigration court, located on the 11th floor of the Heyburn Building on Broadway. The Heyburn 9 — under the leadership of Black Lives Matter Louisville and Mijente — locked their wrists together with chains and PVC pipe and blocked the elevators with their bodies.

This act of civil disobedience took place after weeks of calls to abolish ICE in response to President Trump’s policies of separating migrant children and infants from their parents at the border.

The Heyburn action was Kearney’s first act of civil disobedience of a scope likely to lead to her arrest and prosecution. Kearney refused various plea deals in favor of a trial carrying the possibility of jail time. She was tried and convicted May 17, 2019. The activists were fined $150 each and spared jail after being found guilty of criminal trespassing for blocking access to the court.

Kearney, 32, is a community organizer and part of the Louisville Doula Project, or LDP, Reparations Roundtable and the Stand Up Sunday Healing Team.

Stand Up Sunday, or SUS, describes itself as a radical, multiracial space where representatives of Louisville groups may create a coalition and have accountability with the Movement for Black Lives. By so doing, the group’s goal is to “move away from white supremacist aims and practices (however unintentional) and participate in initiatives that actually support Black people in Louisville.”

A few weeks after the conclusion of her trial, SUS member Angie Reed Garner interviewed Kearney about her experiences. 

Angie Reed Garner: Did anything surprise you about your court experiences? Was any part of the whole process unexpected?

Courtney Kearney: How long the process took. We did the action last July, and trial didn’t happen until May, only 10 days short of 10 months. Coming off the adrenaline of the action, I expected court to follow much more closely, and I felt ready for that. As time passed, I kind of pushed that to the back of my mind as something to be dealt with later, so as the date approached, and we started getting an actual agenda for jury selection and trial, that’s when reality finally set in.

Like a lot of people, and somehow a lot of people in this [social justice] work, I deal with depression and anxiety anyway. As court dates approached, it hit me unexpectedly hard, and I actually almost backed out and took the plea deal. I learned that district court is not at all as structured as one would expect. We had court dates where basically nothing happened and court dates that got postponed.

Of the Heyburn 9, just three people — you, Bob Eiden and Sonja DeVries — rejected the plea bargain and went to trial. Why? What was it like to make that choice?

We had a few different plea deal offers over the course of the 10 months. The last one had no actual money owed, because the fines ran concurrently with the fines already paid in federal court last year. Some of our comrades decided, for various reasons, that it was in their best interest personally not to go to trial. For context, to our attorneys’ knowledge, no other group of Occupy ICE protesters made it to a jury trial for the various blockades across the country. A group of six from Portland tried for a jury trial, but were denied.

In fact, this experience made it more blatantly obvious how rare juries seem to be in criminal courts in general. The whole charade — pretrial detention, cash bail, prolonged and confusing proceedings, never really knowing when it will be over or what is expected of you — all just pushes defendants toward plea bargains.

I’m a white woman, statistically less likely to be mistreated or sentenced harshly. I had a whole community of people behind me with a team of rock star attorneys ready to defend my actions pro bono. We planned our arrest and were even prepped on what to expect in jail. We had the element of surprise and a lot of cameras watching — we had the upper hand — and I still almost folded. Because that’s what the system, in all its faux chaos, is designed to do.

So how did you stay with your plan to go to trial?

Every time I got stressed out, every time I felt scared of what might happen, with every panic attack about the public scrutiny or how much pain I would be in if I had to go to jail, without all the self-care options I lean on when my fibro [fibromyalgia] flares up, I thought how much worse it must be for normal people who get arrested. For black people, for people arrested for defending themselves, for people arrested for no real crime or a crime someone else committed, for people arrested for doing what they felt they needed to do to survive and feed their families, for people detained for being born elsewhere and not having the right paperwork, for people with kids at home and everything to lose, for everyone trying to navigate this shit without an attorney they can text with questions at 10 p.m.

What I was going through seemed trivial by comparison. It was hard for me, but it wasn’t about me. It was never about me. Not following through with trial didn’t feel like an option.

What was your actual time in court like?

It was a strange feeling like everyone was watching the three of us the entire time we were in the courthouse — like every movement was being analyzed.

I was shaking the entire time I had to be on the stand and totally lost my train of thought in a rambling mess with my first real question. I wrote two different statements on the question of why I did it, trying to prepare myself and didn’t use either of them. The first felt forced, like a book report. The second was heartfelt, and I was really proud of it at the time, but in the end it didn’t make sense to take something to read on the stand. It’s all very improvisational.

In the words of Dan Canon [Kearney’s lawyer], ‘You know why you did it. Just talk about that.’ I didn’t know how very hard that would be, on the spot, in front of everyone. I was sweating and shaking, my legs were cramping, and it was as if I could feel the outline of every organ in my body.

But I’d do it again, because I feel like it was important. Let’s face it, Louisville might not still be having any conversation about the actions of our government against immigrants if we had not all done what we did last summer, between the Occupy ICE camps and this direct action being taken all the way to trial.

And about the trial proceedings? What stood out for you?

When the state presented its case, insistent that motivations didn’t matter and that the defendants should be convicted of criminal trespass for not leaving the Heyburn property when asked. They called the owner and manager of the building and three different LMPD officers as witnesses. They presented pictures of signage, body cam footage and even one of the arm locks used in the protest.

They argued that motives didn’t matter and objected at every opportunity to stifle our testimony to the contrary. They grilled us about whether we could have had a more respectable protest… one at a neutral site, that didn’t involve breaking any laws or cause any inconvenience.

They insisted that real civil disobedience requires people directly affected by unjust laws to break those laws in order to change them. They implied that since we broke an unrelated law, our protest was somehow invalid.

While this was a creative legal argument, it missed the entire point. We [the Heyburners] were asked to take this action on behalf of a population that could not safely come out to protest against unjust immigration practices... not only for fear of detention, but for fear of the possibility of death by deportation to countries their families fled from, without the privilege of the jury trial we had the opportunity to have. We were there in solidarity with our Latinx friends and neighbors, in the struggles they face even right here in the ‘compassionate city’ of Louisville.

Each of our attorneys asked us some version of ‘why did you do it,’ and each of our answers were summarily met with objections at some point, and in my case, several points.

While I was on the stand, I referenced an ACLU report summarizing findings from some 30,000 documents, revealing abuse of children in ICE custody. An objection came loud and clear immediately following my statement about ICE beating a child.

Despite the white noise sound the judge uses to allow added privacy when attorneys approach the bench so as not to taint the jury, I overheard one prosecutor proclaim: ‘ICE is not on trial here!’

I beg to differ! We never refuted evidence of trespassing. We were prepared to go to jail for that. Each of us stated such upon direct questioning. We were there precisely to place ICE on trial, as they should be. It was a small stage and a smaller audience, but there were at least seven jurors and perhaps others in the room, listening, who we had reason to believe had little to no knowledge of the human rights violations being committed by ICE and Customs and Border Protection.

With the rarity of criminal jury trials, ours may be the only trial those jurors will ever serve on, which would make it a significant milestone in their lives that they are likely to talk about with friends, family and acquaintances for years to come. We did it because we were asked to stand up and bring attention to these atrocities… in hopes that others might stand as well, even if just to talk to their neighbors.

Is there anything you want to ask the public for now?

If you have the time and capacity, we need backup out here. The grassroots organizations that lead Occupy ICE Louisville and others that serve immigrant and other underserved populations need help, big and small, all the time. I personally work with or have close friends who work with BLM/SUS, Reparations Roundtable, Mijente, ICIJ, La Casita, LSURJ, the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and more. If you have a passion, talent or skill, I promise there is a small org where you can put it to good use. All the spaces mentioned have parents involved who often bring their kids, in case that’s a concern.

I’m really grateful for those who were able to show up in court to support us along the way and especially for trial. The whole idea behind going through with the trial was to keep the conversation going, so sharing out our articles and statements [on social media] is really helpful, as well as staying on the lookout for future actions in the fight to abolish ICE and other unjust agencies and practices.

We admittedly could have been more organized with community asks, but I would definitely implore folks to continue educating the people in your circles about what’s going on. If someone makes an inaccurate statement about immigration, speak up for those who aren’t there to speak up for themselves. Save articles to share with people to back you up in hard conversations. Talk to your local, state and federal representatives about unjust policies and practices. Talking to other people about what’s going on and what isn’t being addressed is the biggest thing you can do consistently — it doesn’t require some huge commitment or jail time, and it is making an impact. Residents across the country have pressured their local governments to implement ‘sanctuary city’ policies and end contracts with ICE, withdrawing local police assistance, refusing to hold detainees in local jails or denying the agency space in municipal buildings, for example.

What guidance would you offer for future civil disobedience actions, knowing what you know now?

If I could go back, I would have gotten to know the other Heyburners a little bit before the action and sat down with them more for ongoing strategy planning, before the action. We were brought together really quickly, and there was a lot happening. This was my first big action, so I didn’t know exactly what to do or expect in the aftermath.

While the jury ultimately found us guilty of criminal trespass under the strictures of the law, our efforts at growing awareness were still a success. So, also having a clear picture of your motivations and how all possible outcomes can make a positive impact on the issues at hand is important. With that mindset, even if we had gone to jail, I wouldn’t have taken it as a loss.

What was the overarching motivation for this action, in your words?

There was a national call to action for July 26, because that was the date by which the administration promised to reunite the immigrant children they kidnapped with their families, and they were obviously not going to fulfill that promise. I did it because seeking asylum is an international human right for which no one should be imprisoned or otherwise treated like a criminal and for which the U.S. government had no right to kidnap children. I did it because the Latinx community was asking for support from those of us with less to lose, and because I believe it’s our duty to look out for each other however we can. I did it because what DHS is doing at the border and across the country to asylum seekers is wrong and needs to stop.

The government conspired to create this so-called crisis on the backs of people fleeing violence and famine partially created by our interventions in impacted countries. Agents have been quoted admitting to differential treatment of black and brown immigrants. People, including children, have died in detention centers and others have been deported back to their deaths. This is a human rights issue. I blocked court to bring attention to this state-sanctioned terror, because I believe it was the right thing to do.

Are there more personal motivations that drove you to participate in the action?

Yes. Love and anger, really.

I love people. I’ve had a far less than perfect life. I’ve had to struggle myself, so helping other people who are struggling has been an overarching theme of my life. But the love and community I found in that raggedy camp [Camp Compasión] last summer transformed that desire to help into something much more powerful.

Over the course of the past year, black and brown leadership from the community have taught me what it means to be in solidarity. To stand alongside people in their struggles, not as an act of charity but to truly accompany them; to learn about their lives and fight for their liberation as though it were your own. It’s love in its rawest form.

So when the Latinx community leaders asked for solidarity, when they asked for white allies to stand for them because it was too dangerous to stand for themselves, I had to plant my feet. I had to bring attention to the cruelty being committed against people every day, for simply seeking refuge.

Our action was nonviolent. We only aimed to use wisdom as a weapon; to shed light on what is happening, in hopes that more people would open their hearts and stand

To read more about the Heyburn Nine:

This is the statement that was read on the courthouse steps the day trial started.

The piece we wrote in response to Mitch McConnell's Op Ed in the CJ,  back in August

Press Release from Occupy ICE Lou on the day of the action.