Threats to the rule of law are as much a reality within our own communities as they are nationally. It is at the local level where we find our current democracy hero, Alex Barnett.
Conway is a small town of about 65,000 in Central Arkansas. It is home to three colleges and universities and has one of the highest rates of residents with college degrees in the state. Alex, one of those area college students, was sentenced to 10 days in the county jail for non-violently protesting the Conway School Board’s newly-passed policies against transgender students.
Here is the backstory. At a contentious meeting last October, the Conway School Board banned transgender students from using the school bathrooms of their gender and banned two books with transgender characters. The School Board’s deliberations included strong language by the proponents of the bans, with one speaker calling for all LGBTQ persons to be killed.
Alex organized a group of his fellow college students to speak against the Board’s policies at its next meeting in November. "Ultimately, when I'm fighting for trans rights, I'm also fighting for my own rights," he said.
"If you don't show up for… people who are marginalized, the people who are facing the most severe oppression from the government, if you don't show up to help them, then you're screwed whenever they come for you."
Apparently fearful of hearing from college students, the Conway School Board decided in advance to ban public testimony at their November meeting. As an alternative form of speech, Alex and his fellow students carried signs to the meeting with such messages as, “ban hate, not books” and “don’t be a child’s first bully”.
Alex and his fellow students were ordered from the meeting, then from the building. When Alex and other student leaders refused to leave and chanted “Trans lives matter” outside the Board’s meeting room, they were arrested and taken to the local police station.
The “Conway 3” were arrested for trespassing and failure to disperse and appeared before District Court Judge Chris Carnahan. One pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a $450 fine; a second student is scheduled for trial at the end of this month.
In a bench trial before Judge Carnahan, Alex took the stand in his own defense, where he explained the basis for his actions: "I admitted to instigating the protests. … And I said explicitly, what I did was morally correct, and I have no remorse for what I did whatsoever." Judge Carnahan accused the young student of trying to “intimidate” the Conway School Board and sentenced Alex to jail for 10 days, ordered him to pay a fine of $650, and banned him from all Conway public schools for a year. Alex’s lawyer immediately filed an appeal, allowing Alex to be released after a night in jail.
Ironically, when running for his judicial seat, Judge Carnahan admitted that his significant donations from a state party could be viewed as an endorsement, a violation of the judicial code. His reason for doing so? He believed that the provision of the code prohibiting claims of party endorsements was an unconstitutional violation of his constitutional rights.
Alex Barnett is a democracy hero for standing up to a governmental body’s autocratic process, protesting the government’s efforts to silence him and his fellow students.