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After 13-Year-Old's Arrest, Black Advocates Demand Library Policies That Create Safe Spaces For All

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
The George Washington Carver Library in East Austin was referred to as the "colored branch" in the 1930s.

Teacher Njera Keith was walking into the Austin Public Library's Carver Branch with a 6-year-old student in February when they saw a male police officer patting down 13-year-old LaTashia Milligam. The teenager was handcuffed and had no shoes on.

Keith said her young student immediately began shaking.

“She's shocked that this little girl that we were just interacting with is now in handcuffs," she said.

According to library staff, LaTashia was arrested for an existing warrant after the parent of another student called police and accused her of threatening to fight her daughter.

“This happened because of a rumor in the library," said Keith, who teaches at Kuwa Kubwa Community School, an alternative school for children of color that holds classes weekdays at the library.

Keith, who is also the executive director of an advocacy group called Black Sovereign Nation, said authorities should have never been called. Instead, a staff member or another responsible adult should have intervened.

After the incident, Black Sovereign Nation members tried to speak with library staff to address concerns about policies regarding minors. When they finally did, there was no consensus about how to move forward.

The policy states children under 10 can’t be in a library unless accompanied by someone who’s at least 17. If staff members feel a child is unsafe or can’t responsibly be asked to leave, they should refer the child to APD.

Keith said there was “no concrete policy" to guide staff members in LaTashia's case.

Black Sovereign Nation and Counter Balance: ATX launched a campaign called No Sanctuary for Black Futures aimed at changing Austin Public Library policies. They are demanding more diversity training for staff and more comprehensive policies regarding minors. Organizers are also asking for a city-wide policy that requires staff to contact the guardian of a child if they come in contact with police or have some other conflict.

The campaign has collected almost 600 signatures on a petition since launching it about two months ago.

Watch a conversation about the incident with Roosevelt Weeks, the director of Austin Public Libraries:

The Carver Library, which was known as the "colored branch" in the 1930s, has a legacy in Austin’s historically black and brown Eastside. It was originally built on the West side in 1926 as Austin's first library, then moved to Angelina Street in 1933.

kYmberly Keaton, the African American community archivist at Austin’s History Center, says segregation played a major role in the branch's relocation.

“The powers that be did not want black people downtown, so that's why we have I-35.”

Keeton said the library was a pillar, especially around the middle of the last century, when many black educators and professionals moved to the area in need of jobs.

She said without the Carver Library, many of those individuals — who are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s — wouldn't be who they are today. "There wouldn't have been a presence of blackness of, you know, you can be all that you can be," Keeton said.

“I just think we need to be more adamant about understanding … the importance of the libraries and, you know, the history of African Americans within those spaces,” she said.  

Keith and Kristina Brown, Black Sovereign Nation's deputy director, said the No Sanctuary for Black Futures campaign will continue until the library changes its policies. Kuwa Kubwa students also decided to launch a no-stereotyping campaign after witnessing the arrest at the library.

“[Libraries] are spaces for oftentimes marginalized people to have Internet access and obviously to read books and have access to information,” Brown said. “And, we are not against that, obviously, we just want those spaces to be safe."

DaLyah Jones is a former assistant producer for All Things Considered and evening host. She is also co-host of the Two & Fro podcast.
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