After 13-year-old’s arrest, black advocates demand library policies that create safe spaces for all
Teacher Njera Keith was entering the Carver Branch of Austin Public Library with a 6-year-old student when they saw a 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 attack 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 never have been called. Instead, a staff member or other responsible adult should have intervened.
After the incident, Black Sovereign Nation members tried to speak with library staff to address concerns about library policies regarding minors. When they finally did, there was no consensus about how to move forward.
Austin Public Library policy states that children under 10 can’t be left unsupervised in the library unless accompanied by someone who’s at least 17. If staff members feel a child is unsafe or has nowhere else to go, 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 library policies. They are asking for more diversity training for staff and more comprehensive policies regarding minors. Organizers are also asking for a citywide policy requiring 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 it launched about two months ago.
The Carver Library, which was known as the “colored branch” in the 1930s, has a legacy in Austin’s historically black and brown east side. It was originally built on the west side in 1926 as Austin’s first library, then moved to Angelina Street in 1933.
kYmberly Keeton, the African American community archivist at the Austin 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.
“I just think we need to be more adamant about understanding … the importance of the libraries, and … 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.”
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT.
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