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Group Seeks Information For Denying People Access To Capitol

AP Photo/Bryan Woolston
Reverend William J. Barber prays with protesters after the group was denied access into the state Capitol building during a protest organized by Kentucky Poor People's Campaign in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, June 4, 2018.

Anti-poverty activists want an explanation from Gov. Matt Bevin's administration and Kentucky's top police agency about what led to a rule that was cited when they were told they could enter the state Capitol only two at a time.

The letter from an attorney representing the Poor People's Campaign asks for a copy of the policy that prevented group access into the statehouse by activists who attended an outdoor rally on the Capitol grounds in Frankfort on Monday.

Bevin's office and Kentucky State Police headquarters were among the state officials receiving copies of the letter Thursday, the group said. The letter cites Kentucky's open-records law in seeking the information.

The letter also requested all documentation related to the policy's creation, including any public hearings or public comment procedures prior to implementation. It also seeks a list of groups admitted to the Capitol since last July.

"We need to obtain these open records in order to further explore what the next steps might be," attorney Margaret O'Donnell, who wrote the letter, said in a phone interview Thursday.

Her letter said the statehouse incident has caused confusion due to what "appears to be an arbitrary rule intended to target" the Poor People's Campaign, which has organized nationwide rallies calling for new programs to help the poor.

"The public needs to know what the rules for access to our Kentucky Capitol are and the reasons participants with this group of peaceful citizens were denied access to their Capitol," O'Donnell said in the letter.

"I am concerned that this particular prohibition of citizens' access to the Capitol, during normal business hours, is unconstitutional," she added in the letter.

Asked Thursday whether a lawsuit might be filed, she said the group is "exploring all options."

The governor's office and state police did not offer immediate comment when contacted Thursday.

A few hundred people demonstrated Monday outside Kentucky's statehouse, and many then marched to the front doors of the Capitol in hopes of entering. They were greeted by uniformed officers, and the group's leader was told only two could enter at a time. When those two exited, another two would be allowed inside, the demonstrators were told.

A peaceful standoff ensued as the Rev. William Barber, co-chairman of the Poor People's Campaign, which helped organize the rally, asked for an explanation. An officer told Barber the two-in-at-a-time standard was put in place recently.

The group chanted "let us in," prayed and sang before moving from the front entrance. There were no arrests, and the activists vowed to return for another protest.

"All Kentuckians and Americans should be appalled," Barber said in a statement Thursday. "Rest assured these intimidation tactics will not deter our movement. We will return to the People's House and we'll continue raising our voices."

Josh Lawson, public affairs commander for state police headquarters in Frankfort, said Monday that KSP officers limited statehouse access to the demonstrators because the group did not seek approval to protest inside the building.

He said some protesters spent the night in the Capitol a couple of weeks ago, which prompted the restriction to allow just two demonstrators into the building at a time.

"Since that incident, that's what has created that policy so that we can maintain a better control over how many people we have in there so that at the end of the day we know we can close up and secure the facility," Lawson said.

During the Monday rally, speakers in Kentucky railed against tax cuts for corporations, weaker environmental regulations and new work requirements for Medicaid.

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