Protesters gather at Arkansas Capitol to oppose wide range of legislation targeting civil rights

Issues range from transgender health care and reproductive rights to education funding and citizen-led ballot measures

By: - February 23, 2023 8:00 pm
Activists rally on the Arkansas Capitol steps on Feb. 23, 2023, to protest several bills moving through the Legislature that they say infringe on civil rights, including affirmative action, access to public education, health care for transgender youth, citizen-led ballot initiatives and several others. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Activists rally on the Arkansas Capitol steps on Feb. 23, 2023, to protest several bills moving through the Legislature that they say infringe on civil rights, including affirmative action, access to public education, health care for transgender youth, citizen-led ballot initiatives and several others. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

A crowd of about 75 people gathered Thursday afternoon on the Arkansas Capitol steps so legislators would know that the people they represent “are not sitting quietly” in the face of attacks on their rights, said Kymara Seals, a co-organizer of the protest.

“We are at our house, the people’s house,” Seals said to a chorus of applause. “This is our house and we are here.”

Thirteen people spoke at the 45-minute rally to protest a wide range of legislation that activists have said target the civil rights and liberties of historically marginalized groups, including racial minorities, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community.

The proposed laws include the elimination of affirmative action; restrictions on transgender people’s use of bathrooms and locker rooms; higher thresholds for citizen-led petitions to get on the statewide ballot; and a sweeping education overhaul bill that would, among other things, divert public funds toward private schools.

Legislation facing pushback

Activists at Thursday’s rally mentioned several bills, both out loud and on the signs they carried, that have been introduced in the Legislature since the session began Jan. 9.


  • Senate Bill 294, or the LEARNS Act, would create a school voucher program, repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, ban “indoctrination” in schools and limit classroom discussions of gender and sexuality.
  • Senate Bill 81 would allow an appeal process for library content deemed “obscene” to reach local elected officials, who would decide whether to remove the material, and would make deliberate distribution of the material a potential Class D felony.

Justice and prisons

  • Senate Bill 71 would eliminate affirmative action, meaning programs that encourage state agencies, public schools and colleges to hire people of color and women.
  • House Bill 1002 and Senate Bill 2 are “shell bills” that would open the door to prison expansion as well as changes to parole and sentencing laws, anti-incarceration activist Zachary Crow said.

Transgender rights

  • Senate Bill 199 would allow doctors to be sued for medical malpractice for providing gender-affirming care to transgender minors.
  • House Bill 1156 would require students’ gender assigned at birth to determine their access to bathrooms, locker rooms and where they stay on overnight school trips.
  • Senate Bill 270 would make it a felony for anyone to be in a changing area that does not align with their assigned gender at birth if there are children present.
  • House Bill 1468 would prohibit school employees at all levels of education from using the correct pronouns for transgender individuals, not limited to students.

Reproductive rights

  • House Bill 1174 would classify the termination of a pregnancy at any stage as homicide and allow prosecution of both the doctor and the recipient of an abortion. It would also repeal any legal provisions that allow people to encourage others to obtain abortions.


  • Senate Bill 260 and House Bill 1419 would raise the numbers of both counties and signatures required for citizens to put initiatives on the statewide ballot.

Many individuals have overlapping identities, which makes uniting against injustice all the more important, said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas.

“We need to show up and demand our voice be heard, because if we are not at the table, we are on the menu,” Masseau said.

Seals, the policy director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Citizens First Congress, co-moderated the rally with Holly Dickson, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

More than two dozen organizations were included in the rally, including Indivisible of Little Rock and Central Arkansas, the Faulkner County Coalition for Social Justice, the Arkansas chapter of Moms Demand Action and Central Arkansas Pride.

Most rally-goers held signs, with a few saying “Politicians do not belong in transitions,” “Vouchers: Government handouts to people who don’t need them” and “Faubus back on steroids.” The last one referred to Gov. Orval Faubus, who tried to stop the racial desegregation of Arkansas schools in the 1950s and 1960s.

The crowd represented Arkansans from “all walks of life,” Seals said.

“We do not want our rights to be violated, so we are going to be respectful of just the simple humanity that we bring to the table today,” she said.

Dickson was one of the rally’s speakers who have testified against some of the bills in question at legislative committee meetings since the lawmaking session began in January. Others included Barry Jefferson, president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, and Dr. Gwendolyn Herzig, who runs a Little Rock pharmacy that provides gender-affirming hormones to transgender individuals.

“A patient is a patient to me, and I make sure people are taken care of,” Herzig said. “I wish our legislators would take that approach.”

The speakers repeatedly joked that they could only speak for two minutes each, a reference to the limited debate imposed by legislative committees when members of the public have spoken against the bills referenced at Thursday’s rally.

“They don’t care what they push through, so we’ve got to speak up and speak out,” Jefferson said.

He led the crowd in a chant of “Speak up, speak out.”

Transgender rights and bodily autonomy

Several bills focused on transgender individuals have been introduced this session, though only some have advanced.

The House Education Committee planned to take up House Bill 1468, which would prohibit school employees from using people’s correct pronouns, Thursday morning. The bill was pulled from the agenda shortly before the meeting.

House Bill 1156 would restrict bathroom use in public schools based on students’ gender assigned at birth. The bill passed the House and will be discussed in the Senate Education Committee for the second time, likely next week, after being amended.

Additionally, Senate Bill 199 would allow private enforcement of a ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors that a federal judge blocked in 2021.

Herzig spoke against Senate Bill 199 before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 13, where she said she is a transgender woman. Sen. Matt McKee (R-Pearcy) asked her about her genitalia, and Herzig said she would not answer the “highly inappropriate” question.

She said Thursday that she “was naive” to expect the committee to see her as a human being. She was willing to answer legislators’ questions about her lived experience but received none, she said.

“It’s really sad and disheartening knowing that [testifying] wasn’t going to change their minds at all,” Herzig said.

Public dissent did result in one bill being “gutted,” said Tien Estell, ​​advocacy and resource organizer for Intransitive Arkansas.

Senate Bill 43 originally defined drag performances as “adult-oriented” and overtly sexual and would have banned them within a certain distance of places children frequent. Activists said in January that the bill’s language was vague enough to criminalize any kind of performance or self-expression by a transgender or nonbinary Arkansan, whether in public or in private.

As of Feb. 2, the bill no longer mentioned the word “drag” and instead restricts performances that feature complete or partial nudity and the exposure of real or prosthetic breasts or genitalia. The bill’s sponsors said the new language would survive a legal challenge.

The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday and is now on Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk.

Another bill that targets bodily autonomy is House Bill 1174, which would charge abortion recipients and their doctors with homicide, said Ali Taylor, president of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network. Abortion has been illegal in Arkansas since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

House Bill 1174 has not advanced because it is “wildly unpopular” even among anti-abortion activists, Taylor said.

“Let’s make sure it stays that way,” she said. “We must be swift and strong and loud in our opposition to further criminalizing abortion.”

Senate Bill 261 would create tax credits for fetuses and has not yet been heard in committee. It was not mentioned at the rally.

Several pending bills would enhance health care services for pregnant and postpartum women and children, but they have either been voted down or not yet heard. The fiscal impact of planned education overhaul and prison expansion policies would have to be considered first, said Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville), who is sponsoring several of the bills.

The Legislature should not use taxpayer money to fund its “addiction to cages,” Zachary Crow of Decarcerate Arkansas said.

“We look at historical moments that have grown the carceral state, that have expanded mass incarceration, things like convict leasing and the Black Codes and the War on Drugs, and I think we are at a similar watershed moment in the state of Arkansas right now,” Crow said.

Education and expression

The 144-page Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, covers teacher pay, school safety, career readiness, literacy, “indoctrination” and a variety of other topics.

Dozens of people testified Wednesday about the LEARNS Act, and Jefferson was one of several to speak against it. The bill passed the Senate on Thursday and will be amended in the House.

Masseau mentioned that the LEARNS Act does not mention children with disabilities, and Seals said the Legislature is “rushing” the bill through the lawmaking process.

“[They] don’t want us to know how bad it really is,” she said.

The bill includes some good initiatives, such as enhancing childhood literacy, Arkansas Education Association president Carol Fleming said. However, the initiatives might not be accessible to all students, she said.

“What about our special education students?” Fleming said. “Have we even thought about them? What about our children that live in our rural areas? Those children deserve to have a quality education as well, so we need to be putting our funding into all of our schools. Parents should not have to question whether the school in their neighborhood is great or not. It should be great.”

A patient is a patient to me, and I make sure people are taken care of. I wish our legislators would take that approach.

– Dr. Gwendolyn Herzig, a pharmacist who provide hormones to transgender Arkansans

Fleming also mentioned a proposed law to allow elected officials to regulate school and public library materials. Senate Bill 81 passed the Senate on Wednesday and would open the door to criminal liability for librarians who distribute content considered “obscene.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) is sponsoring both the library bill and a measure that would end affirmative action in Arkansas. Senate Bill 71 awaits a second Senate committee hearing after being amended.

“[Sullivan] had the nerve to say there is no racism … I beg to differ,” Jefferson said. “We see it all the time. We get calls all the time.”

The Legislature is also considering an attempt to make it harder to put citizen-led initiatives on the ballot. Senate Bill 260 would require canvassers to gather signatures from at least 50 counties — up from the 15-county threshold laid out in Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution — to get a referendum, initiated act or constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot.

The Legislature is allowed three proposed constitutional amendments per regular session to refer to voters, while “we can do as many as we want,” especially if legislators pass laws that do not represent their constituents, said Kwami Abdul-Bey, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel’s elections coordinator.

“Participatory democracy means that we own this house,” he said, gesturing at the Capitol building.

In November, Arkansas voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have raised the threshold to pass a citizen-led initiative from a simple majority to 60%.

Strength in numbers

Eric Reece, director of the Arkansas chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, said regularly protesting is exhausting but encouraging.

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“I’m still going to be joining with you because this is the vanguard,” he told the crowd. “We are the folks who have been holding this line at the state Legislature, not just this year but in the past.”

Seals led a chant of “stronger together” at the end of the rally.

Salina Abels of Little Rock appreciated this sentiment, she said in an interview.

“The main point of this legislation is trying to divide people, and I think as much as we can [we should] stand up and band together and speak out, because what’s happening to our neighbor affects us too,” Abels said.

Jessica Disney, a transgender activist who works with marginalized youth in Conway, said the rally was a reminder that “it feels so great to be seen” by community members and allies. People who do not yet feel safe enough to be themselves should know they are supported, she said.

“To see people out here fighting for them to be who they are, I know personally how good that feels to know that people have your back,” Disney said.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.