On July 10, 2016, five days after Alton Sterling was murdered by a Baton Rouge Police Officer, Tammy Cheney and her 17 year old daughter Alexus were two of the over 100 people arrested after attending a youth-led March For Justice organized by the Baton Rouge community in response to Sterling's death.
Tammy and Alexus attended the peaceful march to the capitol as a family with their five year old son and dog by their side to show their support for equal rights and Black Lives Matter, while traveling on a summer road trip across the country. After the march, they returned to their car, where adjacent roads were blocked by police officers in riot gear preventing peaceful protesters from accessing the highway and returning home, escalating a peaceful march and creating a confrontation between civilians and police.
Alexus stepped out of the car to understand what was happening. She explains, “and [the police told us] to get on the sidewalk, so we get on the sidewalk. Then they tell us if we are on the sidewalk we'll be arrested.” She was conflicted, wondering what to do, when a homeowner “told us we could go into her yard since it was private property, so we all cram into the fenced in yard and continue to protest. At this point a lot more people had shown up and were spilling into the streets. A huge other line of police in complete riot gear begin walking down the other side of the road and attempt to block us all into the narrow road between houses. They announce over the loudspeaker that if we don't disperse we will be arrested and break out in a run towards us.” Officers threw tear gas into the fenced yard to disperse the crowd, drawing them into the street to make arrests; she saw people getting tackled and arrested by the police.
Alexus ran back to her car where her mother, brother, and dog waited. Three officers approached and began to arrest her. Trying to alert her mother, Alexus asked people to scream Tammy’s name to notify her to was happening. Tammy turned and ran to the car with her phone camera on. Seeing her daughter arrested and unable to do anything, she tried turning around to get back to her car; she was physically restrained by officers, who prevented her from returning to her 5 year old son and dog, who remained in the family’s car. Tammy was immediately arrested along with her daughter. Neither Tammy nor Alexus were read their Miranda rights. Meanwhile, another officer took a video of Tammy leaving her child and dog in the car alone. Tammy was told she was being charged with child abandonment, resisting arrest, and obstruction of the freeway. She learned that her 5 year-old would be taken to Louisiana's Department of Children and Family, and her dog would be surrendered to animal control.
Upon arriving at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, Alexus and Tammy were distraught not only by their own circumstances, but by the prison’s conditions. Alexus said they were stuck in “two small holding cells that were already full; [they] packed us all in. There were about 20 people in the cell next to mine, me and my mom’s had 17. We were literally wall to wall; And stuck like that for 8 hours.” Officers trained pepper spray into the concentrated cells and tased a man for clapping upon hearing that another protester was released. Witnessing the long-term conditions of prisoners who were held on minor charges for months in the same cell they were desperate to leave, Tammy gave other prisoners her undergarments; it was very clear to her that the women she was being detained with had no access to feminine products, undergarments, or clean and safe conditions. In the brief moment she was able to see Alexus in passing, Tammy told her daughter, “You give up your bra and underwear to these women. They need it more than us.”
After spending a day in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, where they were forced to sleep anywhere with an open cot with no sheets and huddling under one thin, hole-ridden blanket, Tammy and Alexus were told they were being released at 6 pm on Monday, July 11th. They believed they would finally be united, thinking they would leave together until an officer asked Tammy to return to her cell to get her ID. Tammy returned to her cell to retrieve it and officers closed the door, trapping her inside. She reminded them Alexus was only 17 and could not be left outside the prison alone. Despite knowing this, East Baton Rouge Parish Prison released Alexus at approximately 6 pm without supervision. Tammy was released around 12 am on Tuesday, July 12th,, six hours after her daughter.
At 9 am on Wednesday, July 13th, Tammy was due to appear at the Juvenile Court for her felony charge of child abandonment. Upon seeing the video Tammy recorded of her own arrest, the judge immediately dropped her charges, and she was able to reunite with her five year old son, who was being held in foster care. The video of Tammy’s arrest clearly shows she was initially in her car until her daughter was arrested, whereupon she left the car and was blocked from returning to her child and dog by several police. Her attorney, Adrian Ross, who is part of the National Lawyer's Guild, commented: “I must say, that I am grateful that there are citizens, like my clients, Tammy and Alexus, who were watching what is going on here in Louisiana and can share in this community's pain and passion, such that they would take the time to stop by Baton Rouge as they pass through to protest and speak up for what they believe is right. When I was approached to take the matter, I jumped at the chance to stand up for someone who has stood up for others while so many others have been silent about what is going on. I believe she was wrongfully arrested, and I am glad that I could be helpful during such a difficult time. It was truly my pleasure to be involved at all.”
Currently, Tammy has safely been reunited with her daughter, Alexus, her 5 year old child, and was able to retrieve their dog from the pound. The family continues to stand up for Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality, and demands justice for Alton Sterling and other victims of police violence, most recently Philando Castile.
They still face charges for resisting arrest and obstructing the highway.