Attica Scott was trying to get to church in Louisville, Kentucky, when the police closed in. It was the night of September 24, one day after the state’s Republican attorney general announced that a grand jury would not indict three Louisville police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor. Incensed, Scott and her teenage daughter, Ashanti, joined protesters in the streets of their hometown. “We were following the marchers as they were making their way through downtown,” she told me over Zoom in October. Scott and her daughter had chosen to follow in a car, rather than march on foot, because of recent vehicle attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters. But the car offered limited protection. Curfew approached and, with it, the threat of arrest.
“So we had a choice to make, to hunker down in the vehicle for the night or make our way to the church, which is just three blocks away,” she explained. “We saw that police were on 3rd Street and 4th Street, outside of the church. But because it was before curfew, we were convinced that we’d be able to make it safely inside the shelter.”
It didn’t happen. Police used an armored vehicle to block her from leaving a parking lot, according to video footage, then they arrested Scott, her daughter Ashanti, and several other others on felony rioting charges minutes before curfew came into effect at 9 p.m. In Louisville as elsewhere, citywide curfews offered a pretext for police to attack protesters. But Scott’s case is different: She is a lawmaker, the only Black woman in the Kentucky legislature. Police put her in a holding cell and charged her with setting fire to a public library in the district she represents. Prosecutors dropped the arson charge, but she still faces misdemeanor charges related to the curfew.
Her arrest made national news, and the headlines betrayed a note of shock: Hadn’t anyone recognized a sitting state representative probably hadn’t rioted her way through the streets of Louisville? What were the police thinking? Other than the detail of her office, Scott’s experiences are not anomalous. Law enforcement across the country violently suppressed summertime protests over the killings of Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other Black people by police. In Louisville, a National Guardsman deployed to suppress civil unrest shot and killed a bystander in June.
Scott isn’t even the first state legislator to be arrested for protesting this year. In August, police in Portsmouth, Virginia, arrested State Senator Louise Lucas, who is Black, on felony charges related to a June demonstration. Lucas, like Scott, said she just happened to be in the vicinity of property damage, a defaced Confederate memorial. (Lucas denies the charges, which remain pending.) To activists and public officials alike, the arrests looked like fresh proof of police overreach. The Portsmouth police “need to explain themselves,” the editorial board of the Virginian-Pilot declared.
But explanations have been scarce, and restitution is slow to arrive. Even a state legislator like Scott can face long odds in the quest for equal treatment. Virginia Democrats organized a rally for Lucas, but Scott told me that she’s encountered a more muted reaction from her own state party. Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, called the charges “hard to believe” at a recent unrelated press conference, and one of her Democratic colleagues in the legislature has introduced “Attica’s Law,” which would narrow the definition of rioting that was used to charge Scott. But there’s been no rally, no other formal expression of support from the party. “Yet the Tennessee Democratic Party issued a statement. Ohio’s Democratic Women’s Caucus issued a statement,” Scott said.
I asked her why she thought Kentucky Democrats didn’t react more forcefully to her arrest. “I don’t know, and quite honestly, I haven’t reached out to them. Because this has been a traumatic experience,” she responded. She did receive a supportive text message from a state Democratic staff member, but she’d hoped for more. The Kentucky Democratic Party did not return emailed requests for comment.
For now, Scott and her daughter are recovering from the trauma of their arrests, though she says it’s a long and difficult process and the consequences will affect them on a long-term basis. Scott told me that her daughter, Ashanti, had been telling her for years that she wanted to be an EMT, the same job held by Breonna Taylor. That’s changed now, she said. “She said to me after Breonna was murdered that she doesn’t think that she wants to be an EMT anymore, because it didn’t save Breonna from police violence,” Scott explained. “That’s a lot.”
The quest for justice goes on. Scott, who now boasts an unusually high profile for a state legislator, is in a key position to help lead it — for Breonna Taylor, for her constituents, for her daughter, for herself. With or without her party’s support.
Most elected officials will tell you, if you ask them, that they entered politics to serve the public. But Scott was practically born into it. Her parents named her in honor of the 1971 Attica prison riot, which took place the year before she was born; authorities killed 29 inmates who’d taken over a New York prison to protest inhumane conditions. The circumstances behind her namesake uprising still weigh heavily on her. “That was my parents’ Mike Brown. That was my parents’ Tamir Rice,” she explained. She later entered public health and still works for the National Network of Public Health Institutes.
Her “lightbulb moment” to run for office occurred a decade ago. Her two children attended Louisville public schools, and Scott, a product of the same school system, ran for a seat on the Jefferson County Board of Education. She lost. “I was actually learning how to run,” she told me. Scott was elected to the Louisville Metro Council, where she served for three and a half years before losing her reelection bid. Undeterred, Scott ran for the state legislature and won.
But Scott ran into trouble almost as soon as she took office, she said, a harbinger of problems to come. Lawmakers have assigned seating, and her new desk was located behind Dan Johnson, a white Republican who ran such a racist campaign that his own party asked him to drop out of his race. Johnson, a preacher, had posted Facebook images that portrayed Barack and Michelle Obama as apes. In personal photos, he appeared in Confederate-flag apparel. “I went to leadership and said, ‘I will not sit behind this person, it’s offensive, how dare you?’” she said. “There are 100 seats. And you chose to sit the only Black women in this body behind someone who is blatantly racist?” After a white colleague offered to switch with her, party leaders agreed to change her seat. (Johnson died in an apparent suicide a year later, when a former church member accused him of child molestation.)
Scott still wrestles with a state Republican Party tilting far right along with President Trump, and a Democratic Party that, as she puts it, takes its base for granted. She is the author of Breonna’s Law, which would ban no-knock warrants like the one the Louisville police used to enter Taylor’s apartment without warning. “Eleven of the 100 members of the Kentucky House of Representatives have signed,” she said. “So there’s a lot more work to do to get people to understand the trauma of police violence and to step up as elected officials and show that Black lives matter.”
But does that work have a future in today’s Democratic Party? Months after congressional leaders kneeled in kente cloth for a widely panned photo op, the party is nowhere close to consensus on how to change policing. Dramatic reforms like defunding the police, the position adopted by Scott, look like risky bets among the white suburban voters the party wants to woo away from Trump. Joe Biden has come out explicitly against defunding the police; instead, he’d like to give them even more federal funding.
Scott doesn’t accept that theory of politics. The Democratic Party’s weaknesses at the national level are well known, but it’s even weaker at the state level, and this is not a new problem. Barack Obama’s eight years in power coincided with massive losses for Democrats in the states. There’s no single reason for this. Blame gerrymandering. Blame the tea party and the racist backlash it represents. Scott blames Democrats, too.
“When you disregard Black people, who are in your base for so many decades, and write us off and assume that we are going to vote for your candidates just because they are Democrats, you’ve already lost,” Scott told me. She provides a recent example: Amy McGrath’s campaign for Senate. McGrath is a fundraising wonder, raising more than $46 million in her race against Mitch McConnell. But most of the donations have come from out of state, and McConnell leads McGrath by double digits. When asked directly about McGrath, Scott reacted with exasperation. “Well, the fact that McGrath was recruited by national operatives, in particular Senator Chuck Schumer,” she said, then stopped and held up her hands. “Mind your business!” she told the distant Schumer. “Stay out of Kentucky’s politics. Right now, we could have had Representative Charles Booker as our candidate, and he’d be doing much better than McGrath.”
Booker, who serves with Scott in the legislature and who she describes as a friend, nearly sank McGrath’s campaign this summer. The charismatic first-term legislator challenged McGrath from the left, running on a platform that emphasized solidarity “from the hood to the holler.” Though he lacked McGrath’s budget or Establishment backing, he finished within three points of Schumer’s handpicked candidate, who lost a House race in 2018. In stark contrast to McGrath, most of his donations came from within Kentucky itself. McGrath, meanwhile, has run a conservative campaign, playing up her military experience and airing a pro-Trump ad in a Hail Mary pass to win back white voters who decamped to the GOP a long time ago.
Scott said she thinks about what McGrath’s hoarded riches could have accomplished in Kentucky. “I wish we could get money out of politics altogether, but until we do, I think about some of the young Black men who are running for state offices right here in Kentucky who are struggling,” she said. But money doesn’t always win races, she added. “I have never raised more than the person that I was running against in a race. I did the work on the ground, and I connected with people,” she continued. What’s needed, instead, is what she believes Booker had and what McGrath truly lacks: “The power of the people.”
Power will eventually make itself heard. No matter what happens in November, or in January, when the Kentucky legislature convenes for a new session, Scott is certain of one thing. Change is coming, whether her party is ready for it or not. She won’t be the only Black woman in the Kentucky legislature forever. “I am optimistic,” she said. “When I show up at Injustice Square Park, when I’m marching next to people who are still determined to get justice for Breonna Taylor, I’m hopeful they see the path forward.”