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Student sentenced to 10 days in jail for peaceful protest of anti-trans policies
Alex Barnett, a junior at the University of Central Arkansas, was sentenced to 10 days behind bars for participating in a peaceful protest of anti-trans policies imposed by a local school board.
On November 8, 2022, Barnett organized a group of students to attend a meeting of the Conway School Board. Barnett and his classmates were there to protest the actions of the school board at their previous meeting in October. At the October meeting, the school board banned trans students from using restrooms that matched their gender identity and banned two books that included trans characters.
The October 11 vote by the Conway School Board came after a series of incendiary comments during the public comment period. One speaker, Cal Poulsen, said that LGBTQ people should be killed. "God gave them over to a depraved mind so that they do what they should not be doing," Paulsen said. "They invent ways of doing evil. But let me remind you that those who do such things deserve death."
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None of the school board members publicly objected to such comments. Later in the meeting, they unanimously approved the bathroom restrictions and book bans.
In an interview with Popular Information, Barnett said he learned about the issues with the Conway School Board when he saw videos of the October meeting circulating on social media. He felt compelled to take action. "Ultimately, when I'm fighting for trans rights, I'm also fighting for my own rights," Barnett 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."
Barnett said his original intention was to organize a group of people to address the Conway School Board during the public comment period. He said that there was "a plan of getting people to sign up for speakers." That ended up not being possible, however, because the school board decided not to allow the public to speak at the November meeting. Conway County Schools Superintendent Jeff Collum defended the decision to muzzle community members. “We haven’t banned speakers,” Collum argued. “All we’ve done, we’ve essentially hit pause.”
Barnett was not ready to give up. He helped organize a group of about 20 students from the University of Central Arkansas to come to the meeting to protest the anti-trans policies. When Barnett and his group arrived, there were no seats in the room available. They attempted to stand against the wall, but were told that wasn't permitted. Instead, they could listen to the proceedings from the lobby outside the meeting room. Barnett and his group complied. The Faulkner County Coalition for Social Justice also organized a group to protest the school board's anti-trans policies. They remained outside the building.
About 30 minutes into the meeting, Barnett and his group started chanting, "Trans lives matter!" A police officer in the lobby who told them to leave. Eventually, more police officers showed up and ended up pushing most of the group outside. Ultimately, three students remained: Barnett, Keylen Botley, and Colburn Clark. The trio sat on the floor and linked arms, continuing to chant.
All three were handcuffed and held in separate rooms while the school board meeting continued. They were eventually taken to the police station, processed, and released. They were charged with trespassing and failure to disperse.
According to the school board minutes, their actions interrupted the meeting for a total of 8 minutes, from 6:31 to 6:39 PM.
In Arkansas, trespassing and failure to disburse are both class C misdemeanors and carry a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. But jail time for a non-violent misdemeanor is unusual. Botley, for example, pled guilty to both charges on December 5, 2022, and received a $450 fine and no jail time.
Barnett has no prior criminal record — not even a traffic violation. Barnett did not hear anything from the prosecutor assigned to his case until the day of his trial on April 26. According to Barnett, the prosecutor was not seeking jail time and offered to drop the trespassing charge if he pled guilty to failure to disperse. Barnett, however, decided not to take the deal because "if I were to plead guilty and take a plea deal, then that's admitting I did something wrong, and I am looking for the mercy of the court."
Barnett said that he "did not do anything wrong" and "the school board is committing a crime." Barnett was referring to the Conway School Board's policy to automatically delete all emails after 72 hours, effectively thwarting public records requests.
According to Barnett, during the trial, two police officers testified. Barnett said the officers' account of the incident was accurate, except that they said Barnett was "intimidating" the school board members and other people at the meeting. According to the police report, Barnett did not do anything while in the lobby other than sit on the ground and chant, "Trans lives matter!" Barnett called the claims of intimidation "an absolute fabrication."
Barnett took the stand in his own defense. "I admitted to instigating the protests," Barnett testified. "And I said explicitly, what I did was morally correct, and I have no remorse for what I did whatsoever."
District Judge Chris Carnahan, who presided over the bench trial, immediately issued his decision. He found Barnett guilty on both counts and said that Barnett attended the school board meeting specifically to intimidate school board members. Carnahan sentenced Barnett to 10 days in jail and a $650 fine.
Carnahan is the former executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party. During his unsuccessful run for the Arkansas Supreme Court, he used the slogan: "Finally, a conservative judge!" Carnahan collected tens of thousands of dollars from Republican Party committees, even though the races are non-partisan and such contributions violate the Arkansas Judicial Code of Conduct. Carnahan said he was ignoring the rule because he believed it was unconstitutional.
Carnahan posted "Let's go Brandon!" code for a profane insult targeting President Joe Biden, and a tribute to Rush Limbaugh on his public Facebook page. On his campaign website, Carnahan touts that he is "a member of Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association" and "follower of Christ." Among the groups Carnahan likes on Facebook is the Family Council Action Committee, the Arkansas affiliate of Focus on the Family, a notorious anti-LGBTQ advocacy organization.
During his campaign, Carnahan claimed to support "amnesty and community service instead of fines" for non-violent offenses. He said that defendants in his courtroom "convicted of theft or other misdemeanors" are likely "to find themselves sentenced to get their GED." But Carnahan apparently believes that Barnett's non-violent protest supporting trans people deserved a much harsher penalty.
Barnett goes to jail
After Carnahan found Barnett guilty, he was immediately put into handcuffs and held at the courthouse until the court's business that day was completed. Around 5:30 PM, he was transported to the jail.
Barnett described the conditions at the jail as "utterly inhumane." All of his clothes were confiscated, including his underwear and socks. He was issued a jumpsuit and placed in a holding cell. Barnett had not eaten since before his trial, but since he arrived after the rest of the jail population had dinner, he did not receive any food. He slept on the floor with only a thin yoga mat for cushioning.
Barnett also feared for his safety due to the nature of his arrest. "I told one of my cellmates why I got arrested, and his immediate response was, 'Do not tell anyone else in here why you got arrested,'" Barnett recalled. His cellmate advised Barnett that once he was transferred from the holding cell to the general population of the jail, he "would be surrounded by white supremacists." If they found out why Barnett was incarcerated, his cellmate said, it would mean "a whole lot of trouble."
Barnett was never transferred to the main part of the jail because his attorney appealed the decision, and he was released at about 5 PM the next day. In Arkansas, there is an automatic right to appeal from the district court to the circuit court. In the circuit court, he will receive a new trial. But if the circuit court trial, which has not yet been scheduled, results in the same outcome, Barnett will have to return to jail and serve the balance of his sentence.
Despite the ordeal, Barnett would not do anything differently. "I have absolutely no regrets," he said.