The grassroots organization has embraced protest as a means of advancing difficult conversations around police violence and inequality within the justice system, and its message is resonating

Julius Tate, Jr., 16, was shot and killed by Columbus Division of Police in December 2018 during an undercover investigation into a series of armed robberies. In the immediate aftermath, Tate’s girlfriend, Masonique Saunders, then 16, was arrested and charged as an accomplice with aggravated robbery. Saunders was also charged with Tate’s murder for her role in the events that led to the teenager’s death. She eventually accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to three years in a juvenile facility.

Dkéama Alexis said the initial decision to charge Saunders with Tate’s murder revealed just how far police would go to evade accountability, and the controversial case served as a launching point for activist group the Coalition to Free Masonique Saunders, since recast as Columbus Freedom Coalition (CFC). 

“I came to this point where I got really fed up and frustrated, but also really committed to doing what needed to be done to end the regime of anti-blackness … not just in my life, but in the lives of everyone,” said Alexis, who was drawn deeper into the fight for equality following the police-related deaths of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland while enrolled at the University of Colorado. “I go back to Assata [Shakur]: ‘We have nothing to lose but our chains.’ … Black folks, brown folks, trans folks — people who have had war waged against them for centuries, we’re not new to this.”

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Over the past year, the growing, grassroots CFC has driven the conversation on police violence and inequality within the justice system from the streets (the group held protests Downtown and in the Short North, once shutting down High Street) directly into the city’s halls of power. After CFC members Alexis and Mia Santiago were arrested for trespassing when they disrupted Mayor Andrew Ginther’s speech during the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Breakfast earlier this year, the mayor invited the group to a late-February sit down.

It did not go as officials might have hoped.

While Ginther told the Dispatch that he thought the session had gone well, following the meeting, CFC sent out a press release that read, in part, “We expect that Mayor Ginther will continue to put forth hollow expressions of care, like this meeting, but we know that if he really wanted to make a difference in the lives of families like that of Julius Tate Jr., he would divest from the police and invest in REAL ‘public safety.’”

Beyond confronting deeply entrenched powers, the group has repeatedly challenged the public to reconsider how it views the act of protest. As Alexis and Santiago were dragged from the prayer breakfast by police, a pastor grabbed the microphone and announced that Americans have the right to protest, but not to be rude.

“I have always understood protest to be a way for people to express rightful and righteous anger at the conditions under which they are living,” said Alexis, who added that the case against the two remains an open legal matter (a petition to drop charges against the pair is still circulating online). “Because protests go against the status quo … folks often want to disparage the acts of protesters as being rude, as being aggressive — any negative attribute you can ascribe. But we really need to look at the way that oppression can be rude, or how oppression and classism and anti-blackness and state violence can be far more destructive than being impolite.” 

The message is resonating in some circles, too, with CFC winning converts and gradually starting to awaken consciousness around these difficult issues, a development that led the group to change its name from the Coalition to Free Masonique Saunders in September 2019.

“I think we realized we were growing in numbers. We were starting to have systems in place. We were starting to gain some kind of power,” Santiago said. “And I think that’s when we wanted to branch out … to become a source for all people in the city who are victims of state violence and wanting to combat that in whatever way possible.”

“I think the name change, in large part, was to have that bigger conversation about the systemic nature of police violence with more people,” Alexis said. “We don’t just want freedom for Masonique, and we don’t just want freedom for Julius Tate’s family. We don’t just want freedom for individual people. Freedom has to encapsulate all of us. … We need to see the whole constellation instead of just stars.”