My dinner with Stacy Shaw: how one Never Trumper formed an unlikely friendship amid a year of upheaval

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March On Kansas City from September 2, 2020. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

The summer of 2020 will always be one of those times that will be remembered in the same way our grandparents speak of the Great Depression, the Summer of ‘68, or 9/11, depending upon your age. We will all have stories to tell our grandchildren—and few will have as many stories to tell as Kansas City attorney Stacy Shaw. A woman who went to her very first protest on the first day of June 2020, just because her sister wanted to see what it was all about. By the beginning of October, Shaw was living in a tent on the front lawn of City Hall and refusing to leave until protest demands were met.

Her evolution from a practicing attorney for a small firm to one of the most visible protest leaders in KC has been a journey of pain and trouble for Shaw. She has been threatened, sat in an Overland Park jail cell singing Freedom songs, and had her car broken into twice. 

Recently, I visited her midtown apartment for a home-cooked Southern-inspired meal and a five-hour conversation that covered a range of topics; systemic racism and why runny eggs go well with salad. To say nothing of learning the ground you can break by leading the interview with “I like whiskey.”

Before this summer, 37-year-old Stacy Shaw was best known for her local television ads reminding you of the importance of legal representation for traffic charges. Now she is known as “Public Enemy #1” by the local police union, vilified by KCPD as a terrorist, and painted as a violent extremist who promotes riots and threatens the families of police on social media.

While covering many protests throughout the summer, I have witnessed Shaw’s evolution. I wanted to find the real person behind the media’s portrayal of her. There has always seemed to be a disconnect between the individual I’ve observed speaking at protests and various social media accounts of her appearance that materialize afterward. A recent Vice News report showed a “Back The Blue” rally at police headquarters, where one police supporter was demanding that Shaw be disbarred for “leading a mob and trying to incite people to violence”. She continued on, asking why this Stacy Shaw character couldn’t be more like “the lady in the skirt over there, in the yellow” who was promising a peaceful counter-protest. The woman in yellow she pointed to actually was Stacy Shaw. 

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The People’s City. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

A native of Wichita, Shaw grew up in a conservative Catholic home with many military ties. Now she is a practicing Buddhist who chants the names of those killed in KC by police at a butsudan in her home office. As a child, she originally wanted to be a nun. She graduated from Harris-Stowe State University with a degree in Business Administration and then graduated magna cum laude from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas, where she was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She was also considerably more conservative before this summer, once even advising her sister not to get locs in her hair because it would hurt her job chances.

As we stood in her kitchen, dining on the evening’s first course of a caprese salad, Shaw talked of her life before KC. She traveled a lot, backpacking through France and 12 other countries experiencing life. A former kitchen and bar employee, she can lecture extensively on salt properties. She has an affinity for black salt (which has more sulfur in it) but her favorite is French salt which she discovered while visiting an aunt who lives in France. She laughed as she told of the odd looks she received from customs when she returned to the U.S. with 8 lbs of butter and French salt in her carry-on luggage.

For nine months, she lived in the Virgin Islands while her younger sister (also a lawyer) served a clerkship for a judge. After helping her sister move into a small one-bedroom apartment with no air conditioning in a hip neighborhood, she decided to stay on the island. With little money, she worked at a bar, as a private vegan chef  (because they were too poor to afford meat), and a fitness instructor. The apartment was across the street from a church and next door to a strip club. This experience changed her perception of life. She realized while watching tourists come off cruise ships to wander the town that money was not an end-all for her. These tourists worked 60+ hours a week to afford taking 10 days of vacation, spending them on the island paradise she lived on. Said Shaw, “It changed how I planned my life. Do I want to have money? Do I want a vacation home? Or do I want to live a life that is blissful?”

They walked everywhere, living an impoverished existence in paradise. The Virgin Islands were also where she first became aware as an adult of the violent undertone directed against people of color in our society. Fiercely protective of family, Shaw still speaks with rage of the walk home at night when her sister was called a “nigger bitch” and threatened with robbery to “teach her a lesson.” Reflecting on that moment, Shaw said, “There is a thought that, if you do this, you’ll be safe. If you do that, nothing bad will happen to you. Now that’s not true. America has gone to hell! We used to have this collectivism, we watched out for our neighbor and did what was best for the community in general. Now it’s so individualistic. People value themselves over their community. And when you have this individualism, it just devolves, it doesn’t matter what people do.” It was a realization that carries on in her protest work today.

As we moved on to the next course of dinner, a runny egg and kale salad, she told how she originally came to Kansas City because her former husband lived in Wichita, KS and KC was the closest “city” to Wichita. She loves KC because the city gives people a chance and were welcoming to the young lawyer. She had never spent a night in Kansas City before coming here to start her business. She rented a podium at the Super Flea, because there was no booth space available for rent, and hung a banner on it that simply said, “Stacy Shaw, Attorney at Law. I fix traffic tickets $99. A self-proclaimed “educator of the law for people,” she explained that “nobody knew to hire an attorney [for traffic tickets]. Everyone thought attorneys were really expensive.” Back then, it was between $75 and $250 for an attorney to fix a ticket. She decided on a median price of $99 and warned her flea market patrons what would happen if they didn’t hire a lawyer.  “That was my strategic advantage.” She then began advertising her services on television. The fact that nobody had seen a Black woman attorney advertising on TV brought in scores of clients to her fledgling law firm.

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Stacy Shaw. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

It was shortly after she hired her first associate for Stacy Shaw & Associates that she realized that racism does not just happen to the poor and uneducated. It also happened to her, an educated professional. While attending a trial in a courtroom north of the river, she sent her young, white, male associate in first to see if he was asked to provide his bar card as proof that he was an attorney. It was his first visit to that court and instead of being asked to provide his card as proof, he was waved through by security. However, Shaw was stopped and asked to provide her card.  It angered her associate, who wanted to make a scene about the discrimination, but Shaw instead made it a teaching moment. “This is what it is like. Understand that your clients are Black and your going to be using your privilege for their benefit. This is what they go through. I’m your boss, this is the first time you’ve ever been here. I’ve been up here multiple times and this is how I’m treated versus how you’re treated. So you have to remember that when you’re representing clients that this is what they go through. And you’ve seen this for yourself.”

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At this point, we moved past the salad courses of dinner and began eating fried okra with hot sauce. Shaw has a wide variety of hot sauces in her home, including a homemade habanero sauce. As the food got spicier, so did our conversation, as it turned to both local and national politics.

I asked if she was worried about the criticism that protests create fodder for President Trump’s “Law & Order” campaign ads. She replied, “So what? Trump will use anything including what has already happened to win.  No way to change that dynamic. Trump will just be Trump.” Trump supporters confuse Shaw, because they vote against their own economic interests. A lot of blue-collar jobs are gone and it’s not because of people of color but because of technology. The situation they are in now is not because of people who look like her, but because Jeff Bezos needs a bigger bottom line. As she points out, people have been pointing blame at Black people throughout history.

When local politics came up, I asked about her views on KC Mayor Quinton Lucas, who faces threats of a recall due to his handling of the twin crisis facing KC- racial unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic. “I like him personally, and I always want to recognize the humanity in people. It’s because I’m Buddhist, so I’m always going to want to see the good in people but I also understand the gravity of the moment and we need somebody that we can depend upon. Someone that when you say something, we can take that to the bank. And that’s not Lucas right now,” said Shaw. “Who he is and what his ideology is changes from moment to moment. You can’t depend on what he says. I think that’s the largest problem with him- he gives so many different answers.”

Her disappointments with Lucas aside, Shaw does not support the efforts to recall Lucas. It was a move that she originally called for early in the summer when many did not feel the mayor was moving quickly enough on police reform. “I don’t like the reasons the “Recall Lucas” people are trying to recall [him] for, because it’s all racist. These are people in the Northland who don’t think he arrested enough looters. It puts a lot of people, including myself in a difficult situation. Now if they succeed, then they will just want to put someone else in there who also has a racist agenda.”

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Stacy Shaw. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

Shaw’s demeanor at protests has changed, as summer progressed into fall. She originally started attending in the role of a lawyer to protect the rights of protesters. When criticized by family members involved in the military for the flag burned on Westport Road on the 4th of July, Shaw responded to them by saying, “that’s their constitutional right and I’m there as a lawyer to protect their rights, not the flag.” She was also quick to point out that her protecting the rights of others does not equate with wanting to burn flags personally. “I did not burn the flag,” she stated emphatically. 

When discussing the violence at some protests this summer, Shaw spoke about the many different factions that come together at a protest. Some of these factions, especially the younger ones, are prone to vandalism and sometimes violence. Shaw claims that her age actually puts her at a disadvantage in controlling them. “I’m the old person and this new movement is a young person’s movement,” she said. “I’m usually at least 10 years older out there than anyone else, at least. And I still want to have an amount of trust with them. Now if it’s something where somebody is going to get hurt? I intervene where somebody is going to get hurt.  There was a gray pickup truck when that Jackson statue got spray painted. This guy had come up in a pickup truck and everybody was about to jump the guy in the pickup truck. I intervened. But if I see people spray painting? That’s not worth my exercising of influence, you can clean off a statue. I really always reserve if I’m going to interject myself for when someone’s going to get hurt.” Anything else, she said: “I’ll tell you all not to do it, but I’m nobody’s security guard, I’m not going to be that guy.”

As the summer progressed, Shaw became more “radicalized” by what she observed and experienced. As she told me over fried okra: “before this summer I had a much different perspective on police. I could see both sides. After this summer, I’ve been maced in the face. And I was literally just standing there.” Two arrests and being maced initiated her change from lawyer to activist leader. She became the “little general,” as one member of the political activist group, Black Rainbow, described her. That move towards more active leadership in the actions of protesters grew out of one of those arrests that she blames on the lack of discipline on the part of the protesters. “As protests went on all summer they got more violent across the country. In order to continue on, we had to get structure. The police were not prepared for the crowds and would interpret any movement as violence.” At the next protest, she started giving instructions. As they followed instructions, the protesters gained confidence. Said Shaw, “that confidence reduces the chances of chaos starting. That creates an environment that gets people killed.” An added benefit is that “If you see people being disciplined, it scares the shit out of people” so agitators behave better and don’t look for as many opportunities to create violence. “It also freaks out the police to see the protesters acting in unison,” she claims.  

This emphasis on organization was especially evident at a protest in late August, where Shaw led a march to the home of the Overland Park mayor. Before the actual march started, she taught hand and flag symbols to the marchers. She gave instructions on how to contact a lawyer if arrested, and how to obtain bond money from bail organizations. As the march reached the home of the mayor, police intervened and threatened arrest. At this point, Shaw led a small group of protesters who could not afford to be arrested for civil disobedience, back to their vehicles. She then returned to the protest, which had been moved by invitation onto the front lawn of one of the mayor’s neighbors. There, she gave an educational lecture on the movement before peacefully leading them away. She also had members of Black Rainbow stationed along the way with flashlights, to ensure no one tripped over a curb while walking through the streets at night.

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Stacy Shaw. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

While reflecting upon that night, over the main course of fried fish and coleslaw, Shaw said: “The movement is getting more organized. [This] fall, into the winter, we are going to be doing a lot of training. When we re-emerge in the spring and summer, it will look completely different than it did. We will be marching for systemic change in the infrastructure of things. We’re talking about a 5-year struggle. What does that look like? Not just a summer, not just 15 weeks, but we’re talking people 5 years into systemic struggle with specific goals for those 5 years. I don’t want to be marching for 30 years. When we get out of the streets, that means we have mission accomplished.”

The idea of an extended movement that will exist past this year is something that often gets lost in discussions about the Black Lives Movement. Yes, Stacy Shaw wants to abolish the police. But she is also aware that such a move is not something that can instantly be accomplished. While it may take 30 years to reimagine how we can safely self-police our communities, but the decision to work towards this needs to be made now. She is adamant that re-investing in our communities can lower crime rates far more effectively than any amount of a police presence in those neighborhoods.

“People are affected more by being poor than being Black. But the system is set up to keep Black people poor.  You don’t see Black engineers and lawyers doing drive-bys. You don’t see affluent Black neighborhoods like the Citadel with a high crime rate. You don’t see a high crime rate there because people have money. Gun violence is coming from neighborhoods that don’t have money, but disproportionately, those people who don’t have money are Black.”

I asked if she thought the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement would move forward quicker if groups would work towards more peaceful and less confrontational methods than disturbing quiet neighborhoods or vandalizing police statues. More of a Martin Luther King than a Malcolm X approach. It was here that her frustration with the situation showed.

“You have to have a Malcolm,” Shaw said. ” America does not respond to positive reinforcement. It’s not in the history of America. Our country is only built on the stick. Every single time that there is any movement, it never came cordially. People had to raise hell. People had to die, many people had to die in this country. Violence is the only thing people respect. I do not like graffiti, I do not like destruction, I do not like violence. I do not like it. However, I have to respect the position of the activist on the ground because if they are students of history, they see that America knows no other way. I mean we can march, we have marched, we have sent in letters, we have sent in emails, we have made phone calls.  You say the perception of me since I first started has changed. You first saw me wearing a t-shirt at marches, then I became more militarized and radicalized because I saw no end to the brutality of the police. There’s no end to racism. Every time I think, “Oh, they’re not going to do THIS,” then they do it!”

Her observation was reinforced in late September, when, less than 24 hours after city officials announced plans for a new initiative to reduce crime and improve relations between police and the community, a 9-months pregnant woman was body-slammed by an officer while executing an arrest. Shaw now represents Deja Stallings in her lawsuit against the city. The arrest led to an occupation of the front lawn of City Hall by protesters. It also led to Stacy Shaw’s biggest mistake when she spoke at a rally in front of police headquarters in a video that went viral. You don’t think that we know where all of y’all live? You don’t think we don’t know where your children go to school?” she said in the video. 

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Because of these comments, Shaw issued an apology that read:

On Friday, I made regrettable statements that I in no way intended as a threat. I sincerely apologize for the brief moment that I was not upholding the values of love and transformative justice I have consistently championed. To be clear, I do not endorse nor will I ever tolerate harm to police families or children. We all deserve better. This video has become a distraction from the important work of organizers and activists that are on the brink of changing so much in this city and country. I am taking time to focus on self-accountability and how I may be of further service in this historic movement.”

Shaw explained to me later that she was tired and dehydrated from a day spent at the camp at City Hall and did not realize how easily her words could be perceived as a threat. She admitted she shouldn’t have been speaking, as tired as she was, but had ignored her own instincts to sit that particular protest out. “I take full accountability for what happened, but it was also used as a hit piece by Brad Lemon [head of the local police union].”

Backlash from the union, community, cops, retired cops and others has made Shaw very aware of how dangerous her activism can be. The police union has actively called for her disbarment as an attorney. When asked about that possibility, she said: “I don’t care if they take my law license. I already know who I am outside being a lawyer. I can go back to being a bartender, which I loved.  I will go cook somewhere or clean houses because being a lawyer doesn’t define me. Being on TV, or the radio, or being some sort of “big shot” doesn’t define me. I can still have my place and move up without that license.” 

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Stacy Shaw. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

But there have been other threats more serious in her eyes. She has received multiple death threats. Enough that she is now always accompanied on marches by a military vet who acts as her security. She spoke bluntly of the risk. “It’s why I operate the way I do now because I don’t know…somebody could put a bullet in my head by this time tomorrow. But I know that as long as I am here, I’m going to go full force as long as I can because I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow. I’ve had conversations with my family. I might get hurt, I might go to prison, I might die and you are going to have to be okay with that.”  Her sister recently purchased the burial plot next to her mom, a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threats against her.

These threats have also spurred the Black Rainbow members to train themselves in self-defense tactics, as well as have an onsite security team for events. Said Shaw, “If you come to a protest and start tripping, you might get your ass beat.  We want people to know that.” 

“A lot of people think we are just ragtag kids but no, we are getting to the point that people need to know that we are not playing around and we’re not afraid. This is not going to be another Kenosha. We are actively training to disarm long guns, pistols, knives, baseball bats. If you come with a firearm and we have to disarm you, you’re getting your arm broken. That’s it. We are going to disarm you by force. We are not doing anything illegal but there are people who are trying to harm us and we are not going down without a fight.”

The movement that Stacy Shaw stumbled into early this summer has led her on a strange and transitional path. The child who wanted to be a nun is now literally fighting City Hall, to the annoyance of many. But the opinions of others do not bother her. Her experiences this summer have led her to the place where she bluntly said over a final dessert course of cake topped with banana creme, “I’m going to say what I think! I can say what I think and if people like it, great! And if not, doesn’t bother me.”

Categories: Politics