‘Heyburn Nine’ plead not guilty over disrupting immigration court, federal charges loom

The “Heyburn Nine,” arrested for disrupting Louisville immigration court, joined Occupy ICE supporters outside the courthouse following arraignment Tuesday morning (front row, from left): Bob Eiden, Clara Ruplinger, Sonja DeVries, Courtney Kearney, Kelly McCall, Carla Wallace, Rebecca Bernstein, and David Horvath. (Not pictured: Dawn Cooley) | Photo by Jonathan Meador

Carla Wallace seemed relaxed as she stood on the damp concrete steps of the Hall of Justice Tuesday morning as efforts by a committed group of local activists to change U.S. immigration policy moved from the streets to the courtroom.

The calm remained even as Wallace, a member of a group dubbed the “Heyburn Nine,” began to shout.

“Abolish ICE!” Wallace said, leading about two dozen supporters and eight fellow co-defendants in a now-familiar chant, a battle cry of the protest movement against the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy and Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s policy of separating families at the border.

“Abolish ICE!” the crowd behind her responded.

Wallace and eight of her fellow Occupy ICE Louisville protesters who were arrested last week for blocking access to Louisville’s immigration court were arraigned Tuesday morning and charged with criminal trespass. They pleaded not guilty.

On Tuesday, Wallace called on more Louisvillians to stand up against the controversial federal agency.

“The question is why more people in this country are not interrupting the horror of tearing families apart,” she said.

Indeed, the atmosphere on the courthouse steps had more in common with the solidarity found at the group’s scuttled occupation site, Camp Compasión, than the somber atmosphere usually found at 600 W. Jefferson St. — so much so, in fact, that the group took it as an opportunity to make a new demand: Asking Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell’s office to drop the charges.

Sidewalk art adorns Camp Compasión | Photo by Jonathan Meador

All nine of the activists were represented in court Tuesday by volunteer civil rights attorneys, and all pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor offense brought against them by the city. The protesters were also ordered to return to court later this month for pre-trial negotiations, but it is unclear whether or not the nine defendants will have their cases — currently spread out among a handful of local judges — consolidated into one.

According to their attorneys, that discretion lies primarily Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, whom the arraigned activists implored to reconsider his prosecution.

“We are planning on making a plea to the county attorney to drop the charges,” said Courtney Kearney, another of the defendants. “And to stop standing with (U.S. Attorney General) Jeff Sessions’ and this administration’s human rights violations.”

A statement released Tuesday afternoon by the county attorney’s office yielded little in the way of answering these questions.

“We do not discuss pending litigation,” O’Connell said in the statement. “But I can promise you that we will review the facts involved in this matter and address these cases in the same equitable and professional manner in which we handle all cases that come before my office.”

Dan Canon, a civil rights attorney and former Democratic candidate for Indiana’s 9th Congressional seat, is representing two of the nine arrested protesters. He told Insider that “anybody who can be saved from removal (by ICE) is a victory,” adding that he was inspired by his clients’ actions.

“(My clients) were there to not only exercise a fundamental American right of protest but a fundamental human right to stand against injustices perpetrated by your own government no matter who they’re against,” Canon said.

The charges brought by the city stem from direct action taken by the activists last week, in which nine members of Occupy ICE Louisville blocked access to the Heyburn building, home of the city’s immigration court. According to members of the group, the action was intended to disrupt that court’s proceedings and prevent deportation actions.

Footage taken by protesters and posted to social media in the early hours of July 26 showed the nine individuals had linked their arms together using a combination of chains and industrial pipe in order to block access to the building’s elevators. After removing the human barricade, LMPD officers arrested the group and transported them to the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections where they were booked and held for an undetermined period of time.

Immediately following their arrest, social media accounts began referring to the detained protesters as the “Heyburn Nine.”

The group also faces federal charges for their interference with the immigration court, which was effectively shut down for the duration of their confrontational protest. According to Louisville defense attorney Annie O’Connell, who is working with the group, the protesters were cited with violating Title 41 CFR § 102-74.390 (d), which reads:

All persons entering in or on Federal property are prohibited from loitering, exhibiting disorderly conduct or exhibiting other conduct on property that … (d) Prevents the general public from obtaining the administrative services provided on the property in a timely manner.

O’Connell, daughter of county attorney Mike O’Connell, said that none of the defendants have been given court dates by the federal government and called the charge “the federal equivalent of a misdemeanor.”

The federal citations allow those charged to admit guilt and pay a maximum fine of $380, she said. If mediation or a jury trial is requested and the defendants are found guilty, they could face “a fine, 30 days in jail, or both.”

Prior to the arrests, the group gained notoriety for Camp Compasión, an encampment erected July 2 in front of the city’s ICE offices at Seventh Street and Broadway. In the nearly three weeks in which the camp stood, the group offered food, water and shelter to homeless in the area, offered art and yoga classes, and provided translation services to immigrants, according to members of the group.

It didn’t last long, however. Various legal hurdles levied against the encampment by city officials forced the camp onto an increasingly small, chalk marked patch of pavement.

Ultimately, the city cited the group’s repeated inability to comply with federal disability law as the basis for ordering its removal. On July 19, a contingent of LMPD officers removed the camp and disposed of protesters’ private property that cops claimed had been “abandoned.”

The group briefly set up a second camp at a nearby park in downtown Louisville, but it, too, was quickly removed by police under the auspices of a 2012 camping ordinance passed by the Louisville Metro Council. That ordinance was a response to a previous movement, Occupy Wall Street.

At each step, Mayor Greg Fischer and other local Democrats have responded by suggesting that ICE, a 15-year-old government agency created by the George W. Bush Administration, should be reformed. Local leaders have simultaneously praised the actions of the LMPD officers tasked with keeping tabs on the group, as well as extolling the virtues of lawful assembly.

In a series of tweets on the day of the arrests, Mayor Fischer again called for ICE to be reformed “so that immigrants and refugees are treated fairly and humanely” and said that protests could continue if they comply with the law.

Mitch McConnell | File Photo

Taking a markedly different tone in his critique was Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In comments made Tuesday morning on the floor of the U.S. Senate, McConnell heaped praise upon the beleaguered immigration agency while deriding anti-ICE protesters as “socialist hecklers” and “left-wing extremists” and generally characterizing immigrants as criminals.

“My fellow Republicans and I will continue to proudly stand with ICE, stand with the rule of law, and stand with all the American families who would rather have fewer drugs and less crime in the communities where they’re raising their children,” McConnell said. McConnell has twice been heckled in recent weeks by anti-ICE protesters while dining at local restaurants.

Jesús Ibáñez, a spokesperson for Occupy ICE Louisville and one of its many organizers, called McConnell’s comments “disheartening.”

“He wants to thank the men and women of ICE when they are destroying families,” Ibanez said.

“He could have visited a detention center,” he added. “He could have gone to (ICE’s) Boone County jail in Northern Kentucky and talked to the individuals who have been directly affected by the kidnappings — and let’s call it what it is: These are kidnappings by ICE. But he chose to thank the very oppression we are protesting against.”

Although Camp Compasión been cleared out for nearly two weeks, Ibanez estimates that the national movement to abolish ICE is growing elsewhere and right at home.

“It’s just statewide, it’s nationwide,” he said. “People should be cognizant that we are not going anywhere. We are not going to be intimated or get tired or get bored with this. This is our life.”