Calling for Accountability

Aniya Thompson speaking to County Commission, with Commissioner Dasha Lundy behind here.

Calling for Accountability

In the wake of an encounter at McAlister’s Deli, community advocates ask County Commission for oversight of the Sheriff’s Office.

by jesse fox mayshark • December 20, 2022

Aniya Thompson speaking to County Commission, with Commissioner Dasha Lundy behind here.

Aniya Thompson addresses Knox County Commission Monday night, while Commissioner Dasha Lundy stands behind her.

The 15-year-old girl at the center of an incident with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office last month addressed County Commission Monday night and said that she had been unfairly treated by the law enforcement agency.

Commissioner Dasha Lundy wants a citizen advisory board for the Sheriff's Office.

“Where is the accountability for those who choose to spread misinformation about me when I was only doing my job?” Aniya Thompson asked during Commission’s public forum. “When will they be held accountable?”

Aniya is the younger sister of Anthony Thompson Jr., who was killed by a Knoxville Police Department officer last year in a struggle in a bathroom at Austin-East High School. Thompson was armed and his gun discharged in the course of the encounter. His death prompted months of protests, especially after District Attorney General Charme Allen ruled the shooting justified and did not press any charges against the officers involved.

County Commissioner Dasha Lundy, who stood at Aniya’s side while she spoke, had urged members of the community to attend Monday’s meeting to speak out about the Nov. 21 incident at the McAlister’s Deli restaurant at 2758 Schaad Road. Lundy has been critical of the KCSO’s role in spreading a report across social media that Aniya had declined to serve Sheriff’s deputies at the store.

“This is not a Knox County thing,” an emotional Lundy said at the close of Monday’s meeting. “This is a nation’s thing. Until we figure out how to disrupt this, we will always be in a place of us versus them.”

Lundy, the only African-American member of Commission, has called for the establishment of a citizen advisory board for the Sheriff’s Office, like the City of Knoxville’s Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC). Several speakers during public forum supported the idea, but no other county commissioners expressed an opinion on the issue Monday.

The Commission meeting was fraught in multiple ways, with public forum divided between people expressing support for Aniya and people angry about an upcoming drag show at the Tennessee Theatre. The two groups sometimes also argued with each other.

It marked the first public discussion of the McAlister’s incident, which initially was brought to attention by KCSO Communications Director Kimberly Glenn. The evening of Nov. 21, Glenn made a public post on her personal Facebook page reporting that three Sheriff’s deputies had been denied service at the restaurant. That led to a flood of social media anger against McAlister’s.

The story that subsequently emerged was more complicated. Aniya and multiple coworkers have reported that she had stepped away from the register to finish some duties at the end of her shift, and that another cashier was immediately available to serve the officers. But they said the officers took offense at a perceived slight.

“I overheard one of these officers ask my coworker if I did not take their order ‘because we're officers,’” Aniya told commissioners Monday night. “They then complained to my manager and were asked two more times if they would like to place an order.” Instead, she said, they walked out and shortly afterward the store started receiving “tons of angry phone calls,” spurred by Glenn’s post.

Aniya was fired two days later, primarily — the restaurant said — because of her age. McAlister’s said it doesn’t hire 15-year-olds, and her age was overlooked on her application.

“Kimberly Glenn’s actions created an unsafe work environment not only for myself, but for my coworkers and the customers of McAlister’s,” Aniya told commissioners. She added, “If I was anything other than a brown girl, would this have happened?”

Glenn did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night. KCSO has said little publicly about the incident since the day after it happened.

Community advocate Keith Britt, who frequently addresses Commission, said there was no good explanation for the way KCSO handled the situation. 

“In the best-case scenario, you have a 15-year-old girl that was rude to a few police officers,” Britt said. “In the worst-case scenario, you have an incredibly abusive use of power by an elected official in this county. It probably falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.” 

He urged Commission to use its legal subpoena power to ask Sheriff Tom Spangler, Glenn, and the deputies involved what exactly happened and why.

Nzinga Bayano Amani, a leader of Knoxville’s Black Lives Matter movement and a former City Council candidate (under their former name, David Hayes), said, “The targeting of a 15-year-old girl who had her brother unjustly taken away by local law enforcement is shameful. Causing the firing of a working-class young person for competently performing their job is economic violence.”

Speaking at the end of the meeting, Lundy referred back to a Commission meeting after Thompson’s death when uniformed KCSO officers lined the back of the room in anticipation of protests.

“You all remember that?” she asked. “All those officers out there, and a SWAT team, for 12 Black people. Twelve!”

She said she had not yet decided how to pursue further steps, but she promised she would not drop the issue of police accountability.

“If I have to freaking disrupt the system, I’m here for it baby, I was born for this,” Lundy said. “If I have to subpoena the records, I will do it. There’s no fear in me. I’m tired.”

Other commissioners were mostly muted on the topic, but Commissioner Rhonda Lee said it was important not to jump to conclusions about what had happened. She expressed strong support for the Sheriff’s Office.

“I’m sympathetic to the teenager who came in here, but I'm also sympathetic to our law enforcement that put their life on the line every day to protect our communities,” she said.

‘Family Friendly’ Fight

The majority of the speakers during public forum were there to express dismay, disgust, and anger at a national touring drag show that is appearing at the Tennessee Theatre on Thursday night. 

Multiple speakers assailed the Drag Queen Christmas show, claiming it was being used as a pretext to “sexualize children.” It is open to all ages and several speakers said it is being advertised as “family friendly,” although those words don’t appear in its marketing.

The seasonal tour, which includes drag queens who have appeared on the popular TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race, includes profanity and bawdy humor. It has been running for eight years and played in Knoxville last year without incident. But this year it has become a target of conservative media across the country, as well as the influential anti-LGBTQ social media account LibsofTikTok.

Tracey Smith, who identified herself as chair of a group called Knox for Liberty, said, “Our request is simple: Do everything you can to protect the well-being, both physical and mental, of our children. What is happening in these shows is child abuse.”

Speakers asked Commission and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs to find a way to either restrict the show to adults only or cancel it altogether.

Commissioner Gina Oster told the speakers that she was on their side but had been informed the county had little jurisdiction in the matter. Knox County Deputy Law Director Mike Moyers confirmed that, saying he had watched a video of a performance on the tour and agreed it was not appropriate for children.

“I have always been sympathetic to the desire to keep these kinds of things out of the community,” he said. “But the law ties our hands in significant, serious ways.”

Several speakers cited state and local statutes about adult businesses and sexual performances, but those are primarily aimed at strip clubs and purveyors of pornography. A theatrical production with dirty jokes but no actual nudity would likely fall outside those bounds.

Oster noted that there is a law proposed in the upcoming legislative session to make it illegal for minors to attend drag shows. “We’re going to have something on the books that is going to have teeth to it, and we’re going to have a different situation,” she said. 

But some speakers during public forum said they supported the right of the promoters and performers to hold the show at the Tennessee. Randy Cross, who performs in drag as Quiche Lorraine, said that growing up gay in Knoxville he was familiar with the slur that LGBTQ people are child molesters.

“I’m 53 years old and I’m still hearing that garbage and lies,” he said. He added, “We are not sexualizing children. You will see nothing at a drag show that you won’t see on Dancing With the Stars or any cheerleader at a football game.”

Pastor Ken Peters, leader of the Patriot Church in Lenoir City, has urged people to protest outside the Tennessee Theatre on Thursday night.