Protesters appear in court

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(From left to right) Rev. Calvin Skinner, Constance Every and attorney Douglas Nanney discuss legal strategy outside of General Sessions Court on Tuesday. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

A half-dozen activists who were arrested for protesting during an April meeting of County Commission had their first day in court Tuesday and vowed afterward to continue fighting for their cause regardless of the legal consequences. 

“We are not deterred,” said Reverend Calvin Skinner of Mount Zion Baptist Church. “Whatever we do, we want to make sure Knox County, Knoxville, and the Knox County Schools all understand the seriousness of this matter.  Our demonstration affirms how serious we are as a people to do whatever it takes to see change and to see reform.”

Skinner is one of the leaders of the protest movement that erupted in the aftermath of the death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr., who was shot to death during an armed struggle with four Knoxville police officers in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School. 

Skinner and fellow leader Constance Every, founder of Black Coffee Justice, were among the six protesters who were arraigned as a group before General Sessions Court (Fourth Division) Judge Andrew Jackson VI on misdemeanor charges of disrupting a public meeting. 

Also arraigned were Gavin Guinn;  Kevin Andrews; Carrie Hopper and Aaron Valentine. 

All six were represented by attorney Douglas Nanney, who is handling the case for free.

A seventh defendant, Mary Winter, didn’t appear in court with the group. Every said that Winter opted to retain her own defense attorney and “go her own way.”

The group was arrested for their roles in an April 19 protest during a County Commission work session in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building. 

“Constance Every led a group of approximately 30 people into the auditorium. Shortly after entering the auditorium, Ms. Every utilized an electronic bullhorn to sound a very loud siren which interrupted the meeting, causing the Knox County Commission to go into recess while officers gained control of the crowd. Constance Every announced loudly that the ‘county commission meeting is now over,’” according to records filed by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.

The other protesters who were arrested  “began yelling and encouraging others to do the same,” which “significantly contributed to the interruption” of the meeting, records say.

Although no legal arguments were made by either side during Tuesday’s hearing, Skinner said afterward that the group’s First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.

“Our attorneys assure us that we have our Constitutional right to freedom of speech,” Skinner said. “Unfortunately, in terms of how it is regulated, it’s very inconsistent as to who can express their rights or present a grievance with the City.”

Every said it was educational to sit through a morning of court and see how various cases were handled, especially those involving poor defendants.

“What we watched was a bunch of people who were too broke to even be here being charged $100 and $200 for a public defender,” she said. “You know that chant of ours? ‘The whole damn system is guilty as hell’ is not a joke. We really mean that. The system is guilty and yet it wants to hold other people guilty.”

She continued: “We will not be intimidated. We will continue exercising our freedom of speech.”

Judge Jackson scheduled the group’s preliminary hearing to take place July 28 with General Sessions Court (First Division) Judge Chuck Cerny presiding.

At that hearing, prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence to show there is probable cause to believe the defendants committed the crime; defendants aren’t permitted to introduce proof but can cross-examine witnesses and make arguments. The judge can either dismiss the charge or allow the case to be bound over to the Knox County Grand Jury, which will then decide if the defendants should stand trial.

Since the crime they are accused of is a Class B misdemeanor, it’s unlikely the defendants will spend much (if any) time behind bars even if they are convicted. Non-violent offenders, especially those without a significant criminal record, tend to be placed on probation in Knox County. At worst, the maximum sentence for Class B misdemeanors (which include offenses like reckless driving and prostitution) is six months in jail plus a $500 fine.

The Rev. Calvin Skinner is led from an April 19 County Commission work session after he and dozens of other protesters disrupted the meeting. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on June 9, 2021