Artivism rally a show of support for teen whom police hit with cruiser

Participants fill out cards during the Artivism For Autism event held by LPD Accountability on Saturday, April 17, 2021, at the Courthouse Plaza in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

Local organizations are continuing to push for justice for Liam Long, a 19-year-old Lexington resident whom Officer Nicolas Gray, a six-year veteran in Lexington’s police force, hit with a cruiser while responding to a mental health call for Long, who is autistic.

Long suffered a brain bleed, broken nose and multiple lacerations in the March 30 collision and cannot walk without assistance. The initial call was made by his case worker, who told police Liam Long was making vague threats.

A news release from Lexington police said Officer Caleb Wade, also on the scene, said that “due to Long’s current mental state, verbal statements to the case worker, and making threats with the knife which was still in his hand, he felt Long was a danger to himself and others and needed emergency detention.”

In body camera and other footage released by the police department, Gray and Wade can be heard saying Long ‘darted out’ in front of the cruiser. But bystanders heard in the audio say Gray “hit him on purpose.”

LPD Accountability, a social justice group dedicated to reforming the Lexington Police Department, hosted an ‘artivism’ rally on Saturday, April 17, to shed more light on Long’s case.

Rally attendees made cards and signs for Long, who is still in the hospital recovering from injuries, including a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. His mother, Kendra Long, hopes that Liam can be discharged and come home in the next week.

“He still doesn’t understand that he was hit by a motor vehicle, he has absolutely no idea. He doesn’t remember anything about being at UK Hospital. So when he does get discharged, we just have a lot of integrating to do and explaining,” Long said. “A lot of counseling.”

Though Long’s focus is on Liam’s recovery, she does want more education and training for police in responding to mental health calls, particularly someone like Liam with autisim or disability is involved.

“When children are sensory-overloaded, when they’re already upset, [understanding] is important because when you’re telling them to do something, or commanding them to do something, or threatening them in any way, their automatic response is fight or flight,” Long said. When police officers confronted Liam Long, she said Liam was actually running to her house, which is very close to where he lives.

Autistics United Kentucky, a group aiming for equality for those with autism, attended the rally to show support for Long and their other members who have had similar encounters with police. AUK members strongly believe that police should be not be called during mental health crisis.

“If I was having a mental health crisis, and somebody called the police, I would never speak to that person. And I would treat them as though they wanted me to dead,” said Skyler, an autistic teen with AUK.

Winter Sherman, a member of AUK, said they believe the only reason they have survived interactions with police is because they are white – Liam Long is Black, which officers read as violent, Sherman said.

“Police only really have one mode of interaction, and that is violence. They see a person who’s acting in a perfectly normal way for an autistic person, and they see it as erratic, threatening behavior,” Sherman said. “Every time I’ve had an encounter with a cop, they have thought that I was on drugs because I was acting autistic.”

Police transparency and reform is the main impetus behind LPD Accountability, represented by April Taylor on Saturday. Taylor has organized multiple protests in the last year and in recent weeks has honed in on obtaining form 111 – the official document needed to lodge a complaint with LPD – that has not been shared with the public.

Taylor said that in this case there were many practical steps the police did not take before police hit Liam Long with the cruiser.

“The way things are currently set up, they could have reached out to the family and involved them in assisting Liam, which they did not do. They also could have reached out to the New Vista Crisis Response Team for assistance, which they also did not do,” Taylor said.

Taylor said there would be no need for the complaint form if the mayor’s office followed a recommendation from Commission for Racial Justice and Equity, which suggested appointing a community liaison to oversee the complaint process and separate those concerns from the police department.

“Part of the reason we want a copy is because right now the way it stands, we are required to provide a statement to a police department officer who then transcribes that for us. Seeing as how a formal complaint becomes a sworn affidavit, we don’t believe we should allow our words to be transcribed by a person who represents the entity we’re filing a complaint against,” Taylor said.

For Lexington attorney Daniel Whitley, even access to the form would not be a satisfying result.

“I think this whole internal police report thing is just a way for them to cover up the injustice is still not transparent. There’s no transparency on what they’re doing. I myself as an attorney have filed a complaint, and I’ve got no movement at all,” Whitley said.

Whitley is taking up the task of pursuing the collision involving Long until justice is served – whatever course that takes.

“If that comes in the legal arena, that comes in the legal arena. If that comes in accountability of holding the city council members and the mayor accountable, then it come in that way. If it comes for the resignation of the police chief, we should never limit ourselves on how we’re going to seek justice for a young man,” Whitley said. His long friendship with Taylor and other LPD Accountability led him this cause, but he thinks many more people will come together to seek justice for Liam Long.

The outpouring of support has been overwhelming, said Kendra Long. But so was the immediate aftermath of the collision was – no one told her what was happening. All she was told was that Liam had run out in front of a car, leaving her with many questions.

Liam is awake and talking now, and during the artivism rally called his mother without knowing she was at the event. Long held up the phone while everyone present cheered “we love you Liam!”, which Long said brought him to tears.

UK freshman Jamioa Green, a nursing major, brought supplies to the artivism rally and helped make cards. She participated in LPD Accountability rallies over the summer in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“As a Black female, seeing a black child who is my same age get ran down by a cop and then justified by the police department – it’s just really, it’s really frustrating and aggravating,” Green said.

Whitley is also frustrated by the police department’s actions in the aftermath.

“They have already cranked out their propaganda machine by releasing a PowerPoint presentation on why they believe the officer was correct. So they’ve already tainted the community against the truth,” Whitley said, leaving him to prove that their actions were excessive.

The intersection of race and mental health is a key cornerstone of Long’s case but also the goals of LPD Accountability.

“There are profound cracks in what exists in in terms of what’s available to people who need support within the community when it comes to mental health issues, and so it is something that needs to be addressed and something that needs to be better resources,” Taylor said. This is a shortcoming of Mayor Linda Gorton’s recently revealed budget, Taylor said.

Gorton’s fiscal year 2022 budget was proposed on April 13 and allots funding to hire five neighborhood resource officers for the police department, which Taylor feels is inadequate.

“I feel like this was her way to give additional funding to the police department that does absolutely nothing to address accountability and transparency,” Taylor said. If the mayor wanted to make a real change, she could follow the racial justice committee’s recommendation to fund mental health crisis training for officers instead of creating more positions.

“There’re already community resource officers, and their interactions with people in our community do not go well. And nor do they improve relationships with the police department,” Taylor said. The addition of five officers to the police department is poignant in light of another recommendation from the racial justice commission, also not approved by the mayor, the assess the implicit biases of the existing officers.

“What is the point in adding more officers, if we’re not even completely aware of the bias that these officers go into our communities with? How exactly are they supposed to be improving their relationships, if we don’t even know what biases they go into creating these relationships with? So that seems really blind, really ignorant, and very tone deaf, for her to think that this is how she’s going to be proposing,” Taylor said.

Green hopes above all for accountability.

“They shouldn’t still be employed and be they shouldn’t still be able to respond to calls because the same thing can happen again. Just for the to see that the department is justifying their actions, you can tell that the accountability is not really anywhere, nearby,” Green said. “And so I just hope that Liam is able to get justice and he’s able to recover as much as possible.”

Police department reforms aside, Saturday’s rally was a hopeful endeavor to show love to Liam Long.

“I think it’s a very healing space, a place where we can gather and organize for future action. And that’s it’s very important to build community and to have a sustained movement like this because we know this is going to be dragged on for years,” Sherman said.

Taylor, who organized much of Lexington’s Black Lives Matter protests, is tired of having to pursue justice.

“It is exhausting to continue to have to do this over and over and over again. But we will continue for as long as we have to,” Taylor said. That kind of support means the most to Kendra Long, especially as she thinks of the long road ahead for Liam’s health.

“I’m a Mama Bear. So Liam’s recovery is my top priority, anything legal, that will have to be deferred to Daniel Whitley and William Davis…that is their baby to rock. I’m gonna rock my baby,” Long said. She hopes Liam will gain back his voice and memory, and then be able to speak for himself in the issue.

The cards made at the rally are the first thing Long plans to show her son when he is able to understand what happened. When he opens them, he’ll see messages like this one from Green:

“Liam, we love you. We’re fighting for you.”