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The mind of an activist: What drives Sarah Williams

WKYT News at 6:00 PM
Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 3:39 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - She’s complex, sometimes confrontational and controversial. But Lexington activist Sarah Williams says what you think you know about her is not the whole story.

You may have seen her in the streets of downtown Lexington. She and protesters marched for 44 days straight.

We wanted to know what drives a person to do this day after day, so we spent time with her, one on one.

“You realize that the way in which you are treated in the world, the way in which you are viewed in the world is different than your white mother,” Williams said.

Growing up in Fayette County, attending Lexington public schools is where Sarah first experience racism.

“You do have teachers that will treat you differently, grade you differently,” Williams said.

But it wasn’t until she graduated from Western Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and two master’s degrees that she started to make sense of it.

She said she treated some patients she’ll never forget-- some called her the n-word and said they didn’t want her taking care of them.

Sarah was suspended from her job after a disagreement with a white co-worker. She pushed for them to do an investigation but says that did not occur.

“Once I found out that UK was an open records institution and all I needed was my driver’s license or ID to go to the office of legal affairs and obtain all the permanent files of all of these white nurses that I knew had been treated differently than me, they then offered me by job back,” Williams said.

But her principles wouldn’t allow her to do that, so she decided to make a fresh start as a travel nurse. While working in St. Louis, she met the love of her life, a corrections officer.

“The one thing that connected us to even have further conversation was both of our ability and desire to treat this person like a human being,” she said.

But their union ended in tragedy in 2011 when someone found Javelins Lewis dead from a gunshot would. Police ruled it a suicide.

“The funeral director said I’ve done hundreds of autopsies in the past year and I know for the way that wound is on his head, that was not self-inflicted,” Williams said.

Williams felt authorities were too quick to dismiss the possibility of a crime.

She fought for more answers, but said she reached a point where she had to begin to find peace outside of the situation.

After moving back home, another incident moved her to tears. Caught on camera, former Lexington police chaplain Donovan Stewart punching a restrained teenager.

“If any one of us had been caught doing that to our children in public, even if they had inflicted physical harm on us, CPS would come take our kids and be completing an investigation.”

Williams, a mother of 6, she says she could relate to his family.

“When I was talking to the mother and she started crying and she said what people did not know is that he is autistic,” Williams said. “It lit a fire in me.”

In the months to follow, she went on a crusade for police accountability. And in the spring, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths sparked an even bigger movement, a brighter spotlight on Sarah’s activism-- work that’s been the source of some controversy and conflict with police.

She was even arrested for inciting a riot. She says video clips, whether on the news or social media, don’t always tell the entire story.

“There are a lot of personal experiences that tie in to this for me,” Williams said. “Can I say that at every moment I’m going to remain the most composed, politically correct kind of person, obviously not.”

But Sarah is an activist, and says she’ll keep fighting for the things she hopes to see.

“LPD accountability. We want a complete change in the way LPD currently operates.”

Williams and her sister, April Taylor, have both been named in a lawsuit by former Lexington Police officer Donovan Stewart accusing them of defamation. Williams said she stands by her comments. Stewart’s attorney said Fayette County prosecutors cleared him of all wrongdoing from the Fayette Mall incident. Stewart is being sued by the teen’s family claiming he used excessive force.

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