The Black Lives Matter Activist Who Won an Election and Made History in Kentucky

Attica Scott beat out old-school, conservative Democrat Tom Riner in Kentucky's primary, making her the first black woman to serve in the state's legislature in 20 years.

by Peter Moskowitz
Jun 4 2016, 1:30pm

Photo of Attica Scott, courtesy of the newly-elected House member

Normally, a local state House race in Kentucky wouldn't make national news, but earlier this month, when 44-year-old Attica Scott beat out old-school, conservative Democrat Tom Riner in the state's primary (she faces no Republican challenger in the general election, so she has won by default), it made waves nationally for two reasons: Riner has been in the same seat, which represents the city of Louisville, for 34 years, and Riner, like nearly every other Kentucky legislator, is a white man. Attica Scott is a black woman, the first to serve in the state's legislature in 20 years, and she won by a landslide, garnering over 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

Before running for statewide office, Scott worked as a health coach at a nonprofit that helps communities promote healthy living. She's also a longtime community organizer and activist. For for years, until early 2015, she served on Louisville's Metro Council, where she helped push for a higher minimum wage and criminal justice reform.

This time around, Scott ran a campaign that was unapologetically liberal: pro-Black Lives Matter, pro-LGBT rights, pro-women's rights, a rarity in a state known for its "Blue Dog Democrats."

Kentucky is nearly 90 percent white, though many of its cities, like Louisville, are more diverse. Yet its legislature, including those that represent its more diverse cities, is nearly all-white, and nearly all-male.

Scott believes her election isn't only important because of her race and gender, but because it signals many Kentuckians, and many Americans, are ready for a more progressive political system. Scott spoke to VICE about a week after she found out she'd won the race.

VICE: Can you tell me about why you decided to run in the first place?
Attica Scott: People kept approaching me, telling me the person who was in office before me was out of step with the constituents in the district. After spending about a year or so pondering it and talking to a number of different people, I decided that I would file to run. Riner was very anti-LGBTQ, anti-gay marriage, he connected Kim Davis to attorneys when she decided to defy the Supreme Court and not award marriage licenses to same-gender couples. That was one issue that rose to the top. He also attacked women's rights.

What about racially charged issues? Riner was white and not really vocal about things like Black Lives Matter.
We have such a problem with juvenile justice in this state. I mean here in Kentucky we had Gynnya McMillen who died while at the Lincoln Village Detention Center back in January, and for the past five months activists have been asking the governor to shut down the detention facility and asking the legislature to really look at what can we do as alternatives to incarcerating our young people. I want us to look at reformed justice practices and fund those practices. Like everywhere, we are disproportionately over-incarcerating our black and Latino youth.

Was running on such an unabashedly liberal platform—women's rights and gay rights and criminal justice reform—a hard thing to do in a state like Kentucky?
For me, it wasn't hard because that's what I believe in, it's what I'm passionate about, and it's what reflects my values. So I had no choice as an individual because, first of all, I would not be true to myself, but, just as importantly, not be true to the people who I was seeking to represent. It ended up being that I won by more than 50 percent in a three way race on that agenda and on that platform because that reflected the district, that reflected the people from the east to the west ends of my city, people who were black and white, who realized that we're in the 21st century and we can no longer abide discrimination against any of us.

I know that we've got 99 members of the house, and I'm the lone black woman. That, in and of itself, begs the question of what kind of racism and sexism I'm going to experience while I'm there.

What's your first priority when you come into office?
My first priority is to develop relationships with my colleagues in the Democratic caucus in the House because that's not something that my predecessor did. If I want anything passed, I know that I've got to have relationships with my colleagues, and so that's going to be a priority for me.

Are you worried at all that being the first black woman to be in the legislature in so long that that'll make relationship building harder or anything?
I think that there will definitely be some challenges. No doubt about that. Some legislators have never even visited parts of the district that I represent, and so they may not necessarily have an understanding of our challenges. What that means for me is that I'm going to have to make sure that I'm inviting them to different neighborhoods in the district, but that I'm also going to their district so I can see what's going on in eastern Kentucky and the Appalachian mountains and the rural parts of northern and western Kentucky.

I know that we've got 99 members of the house, and I'm the lone black woman. That, in and of itself, begs the question of what kind of racism and sexism I'm going to experience while I'm there. It also means that I have work to do to make sure that I'm not the only one, that I am reaching back and bringing other black women and Latinas with me.

Do you see this office as a kind of permanent home like Riner did?
I believe that there has to be an end date because other people deserve and need and want the opportunity to serve. I have absolutely no interest in serving for 20 years because there's someone else who's going to have some great ideas and the ability to make a difference for the district. What I want to see myself do over however long I serve is make sure that I'm helping to mentor other people to serve in office.

When you look around the country and you see things like Black Lives Matter and a bunch of other powerful black leaders kind of coming to the forefront of the national dialogue, do you see your candidacy as part of something bigger, as connected to that movement?
I do actually see my campaign as being part of that movement. I know what it was like when I was serving on Louisville Metro Council and I was attacked by both the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, police officers, and the general manager of our Fox News affiliate for going to Ferguson on multiple occasions.

I also wrote an opinion editorial about Michael Brown the night that he was shot and killed about what that meant for me as a mother of a black son who was a teenager at the time. Being in that public position as a local elected official and experiencing those attacks definitely helped to fuel my fire as I ran for state office this year.

I spoke up about Black Lives Matter, spoke up about police violence and the need to hold police accountable. That was a part of my campaign and I have absolutely no doubt that resonated for many people who do want to see some change and who believe in police accountability and do believe that black lives matter.

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