Q&A with Mother and Activist Kris Hendrix
By Makayla Gathers and Angelo Vidal, with interviewing by Z Gorley and video editing by Johnny Wu Gabbert
September 15, 2023
Protest isn’t always sexy. Beyond the picket signs and coordinated chants, the road towards justice is long, grueling, and full of challenges. Few know this better than St. Louis activist, mother, and former ACD client, Kris Hendrix.
In May 2015, Kris was leaving a Black Lives Matter protest when St. Louis police officers arrested, handcuffed, and repeatedly tasered her for nothing more than impeding the flow of traffic. She was violated by the very thing she was protesting— police brutality.
Over the span of nearly seven years, we represented Kris as the City criminally prosecuted her on bogus charges. We secured acquittals on these charges, as well as a rare verdict against the police officer that tasered her, for unlawful use of force.
In December 2021, we spoke with Kris about her experience on this journey, from surviving state violence to being demonized by the mainstream media, and what motivates her to continue pushing for change.
What gave you the strength to persist as a civil rights plaintiff for so many years, despite the City’s numerous appeals and attempts to stop you from standing up against police brutality?
In some ways, it was exhausting, and in some ways, I was able to dissociate because, unlike the lawyers, it wasn’t something I was constantly faced with every day. I also understood that it wasn’t just about me and my case. I was also representing my community as an activist, as a single woman, a mother, and someone who was violated by the police. I felt like whatever justice was going to come of my case was going to have implications for the entire city.
How do you see legal battles working in conjunction with protestors?
We went to Ferguson to have our voices heard and to try to have changes in policy and law. It was just an extension of the work we were doing when we were “frontliners.” I think a lot of times, people only understand the “sexy” part of protest, which is being on the frontlines, yelling at cops, you know, being in the action and the thick of things. But really, a lot of civil rights cases, a lot of legal battles are done in the courtroom.
You’ve stood up in the media realm as well. What motivates you to speak up and speak out?
I get that drive from my mama. My mom is someone who has always spoken her mind. During her time in University City in the 70s, at a predominantly white school, she had an afro and a mini skirt. Even growing up, my parents always had Black art on the walls and I believe that growing up in that kind of environment helped me find my voice. I had the encouragement of my family, too. They’ve been very supportive. I have the support of my children. That made it a little easier.
I need to be there to disrupt and dismantle the status quo in any way that I can, and I don’t know that a lot of elected officials, especially those who are so-called “progressive,” see that as their role.
Oftentimes, the narratives pushed by law enforcement after state violence occurs misrepresent and criminalize victims of such violence. After St. Louis police attacked you at the Black Lives Matter protest, what was your experience with news media coverage of the incident?
It was an immediate shock to my image. I was newly elected to the school board when I was attacked by the police, and so the narrative, of course, is that I’m “combative” and “angry.” Having ArchCity on my team, I was able to get that narrative switched. We were able to get media that was more friendly to protests and we were able to tell my story in a way that was mine, instead of that news media spin on it. When I looked at my story after the news media got a hold of it, it was very favorable to the police and left that open-ended question of, “Well, what did she do to deserve this?” With ArchCity in my corner, we were able to say “No, this woman didn’t do anything wrong. Her rights were violated.” Not just for me, but for protestors in general, so that police don’t think that they can continue to harass, intimidate, and enact violence on us.
What is your hope and vision for the future when you’re advocating?
My involvement with Ferguson and the movement is because I want revolution. I want a completely different world than what we live in. But in the meantime, until we can get to that point, I want to see meaningful policy changes that will impact people’s lives. Police officers, especially male police officers, should not be able to tase women. There are health implications that go into that that they maybe didn’t consider, as in, I’m of childbearing age. They didn’t consider that I could’ve been pregnant while they were tasing me for impeding traffic, of all things. It’s that kind of thing that we want to see change. We want to see an end to police brutality and an end to the policies that allow them to continue to brutalize and terrorize our communities and neighborhoods.
What do you think of local political leadership’s reaction to racial inequity and violence against protestors?
The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a year or two. The abolition of slavery didn’t take a year or two . . . The point is to continue the struggle, to learn from the past and where we went wrong so that we have a better future to pass on to our children.
Overall, most elected officials are about maintaining the status quo and in fact, your position almost dictates that you do that if you want to remain in elected office. Many times people in their positions feel as though their hands are tied, or they just care more about maintaining that position of power than actually affecting the people on the ground. As someone who’s been in an elected position, I have suffered because I refuse to uphold the status quo. I would rather not be elected again and know that I fought for the people than continue to get elected and maintain the status quo, because anyone can maintain the status quo. I don’t have to be there to do that. I need to be there to disrupt and dismantle the status quo in any way that I can, and I don’t know that a lot of elected officials, especially those who are so-called “progressive,” see that as their role.
After Ferguson and again after the murder of George Floyd, calls to defund the police grew both locally and nationally. What does “defund the police” mean to you?
We were talking about [defunding the police] in Ferguson from the very beginning, even before we got to Minneapolis and what happened to George Floyd. For me, it means dismantling the entire policing system. I know that’s scary for a lot of people, including Black people and communities of color. That’s scary for them because of how we’ve been propagandized to believe that police keep us safe. So, as we dismantle the system of policing, we do have to build something in its place so that people understand that there is a mechanism for public safety, while police don’t necessarily provide that. I’m all for defunding and dismantling the police while we are building a network of public safety that actually meets the needs of the community.
What advice would you give to people who want to or are currently protesting for change in their communities?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re going to be in it for the long haul. Prepare yourself for that. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a year or two. The abolition of slavery didn’t take a year or two. Those things took time, and this too will take time. Yes, we would all like this to be over tomorrow, that would be great, but that’s not the reality of the situation. The point is to continue the struggle, to learn from the past and where we went wrong so that we have a better future to pass on to our children.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.