Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

‘We thought it was important to knock down doors’

Lewis Conway Jr., a formerly incarcerated activist running for Austin City Council, sits down with The Appeal.

Lewis Conway Jr. at a recent campaign rally
Matthew Bradford/Hank+Tank Photography

‘We thought it was important to knock down doors’

Lewis Conway Jr., a formerly incarcerated activist running for Austin City Council, sits down with The Appeal.


For Lewis Conway Jr., deciding to run for office was the easy part. The Austin native was a community activist looking for another way to make change. But until mid-August, the fate of his candidacy for City Council was uncertain. He had served eight years in prison and 12 on parole, and although his voting rights were restored, city officials questioned his eligibility. Only this month was he officially cleared for the November ballot.

Conway is chestnut-hued, husky, and 6 feet 6 inches tall. You can’t miss him. Yet, years before he entered the spotlight, he says, he felt like a “walking ghost.”

When he returned home from prison, he explains, his family and community didn’t “know how to deal with somebody they had a funeral for.” Now, years after settling into his purpose, he feels like he’s back from the dead and eager to connect with voters. “I don’t have time to make you feel good,” he said. “I got time to make you feel me.”

Conway, who is married and has three children, isn’t afraid to talk about his past. In 1992, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after he stabbed a man during a fight over drugs he said the man had stolen from him. Conway said it was self-defense. Politics were foreign terrain when he was released from prison in 2000, he says, and running for office definitely wasn’t part of his parole plan.

He did, however, want to find a job, but says it felt impossible to find one. “I realized that I was society’s worse perceived nightmare. I was a big, Black man that had been convicted of a violent crime, expecting to be treated normal.” Denied too many jobs to count, he created his own, working as a DJ, music and video director, and author.  Ultimately, he made his way into community organizing. In 2016, as political director of the Second Chance Democrats, he helped pass Austin’s Fair Chance Hiring ordinance, which prohibits most employers from asking about or considering a job applicant’s criminal background before making an offer.

The first time someone suggested he run for office, Conway, a self-described democratic socialist, was skeptical. “I’m an organizer,” he remembers thinking. “I fight politicians.” Still, in 2017, he decided to join the race to replace departing incumbent City Council member Ora Houston. He quickly learned that according to Texas election code, a convicted felon cannot run for office unless he or she has been pardoned or “released from the resulting disabilities” of the conviction.

Although Conway’s campaign was slowed by the indecision over whether he could run, the Working Families Party endorsed him in early August. He also hopes to secure the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America.  

Conway recently spoke with The Appeal about criminal justice reform, disenfranchisement, and being radical about change.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Appeal: There were a lot of questions about whether you were legally allowed to run.

Conway: The language is purposefully ambiguous to give the impression that someone can’t run.

When I saw it as part of the election code, I was like, “That’s crazy, that’s crazy. I’m not falling for that. I’m not.” And so, I don’t see anything here that says my disabilities aren’t resolved. As a matter of fact, what disability are you talking about? Are you talking about the fact that I can’t get housing? That I can’t get employment? Are you talking about the fact that I go into a place of business and I’m automatically stared at?

The Constitution said I could run for Congress, the Constitution said I could run for president, the Constitution said I could run for Senate.

You got to be crazy as hell to tell me I can’t run for City Council.

Conway files paperwork to run for City Council in Austin.
Credit: Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

You’re part of a wave of democratic socialists running for office nationwide, including Cynthia Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What does that affiliation mean to you?

What it means to me is democratically deciding how our budget is disseminated. Democratically deciding how our community receives services and what monies are being spent to provide those services. Democratically determining, in the community, what participatory democracy looks like.

I think too often leadership from elected officials has been top-down as opposed to bottom-up. And so, we started our campaign with a people’s assembly where we made ourselves available to folks and we wanted to hear what people had to say about their conditions. Because we believe people are experts in their own conditions.

When I began this race, even though it was a nonpartisan race, Austin is a partisan town. The state is Republican but Austin is Democrat. And I have seen what the Democrats have done to Black folks over the last 45 years of my life in Austin, so I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a Democrat.

So, coming into it, I was familiar with Black Marxism, I was familiar with Chokwe [Antar] Lumumba’s campaign in Jackson, Mississippi. And Lumumba’s campaign about [trying to make Jackson] the most radical city on the planet is what I built my campaign after. So, I knew that socialism was going to be the only way that I was going to get the kind of ideas that Black folks needed to embrace in order for us to realize the best conditions in our lives.

You have a lot of work to do on that front. I’ve read, for instance, that Black people in Austin are seven times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana arrests than their white counterparts. Is that something you’d tackle in office?

Absolutely. We [Grassroots Leadership] were the organization that led on the “Freedom City” Resolutions. … In 2015, we put out a Travis County racist-jailing report that showed … Black folks are being arrested at a higher rate and were being jailed for a longer time period than white people are.

So, even with the juvenile curfew, the juvenile curfew was one of the ordinances that the incumbent voted to keep in place [though she later reversed her stance]. And that juvenile curfew, of course, targeted brown and Black kids in parts of town that are historically populated by people of color. And so, the school-to-[prison] pipeline process in Austin is well-entrenched in our public schools. And it’s definitely well-entrenched in the policy that governs how elected officials interact.

You mentioned the Freedom City resolutions. Those restrict police questioning of immigrants and aim to cut down on nonviolent arrests, which tend to disproportionately affect Black and Latinx residents. How much will they help?

There’s always a lot of political will spent in passing these types of ordinances, but there’s little political will spent on the implementations.  I think it’s important for us to realize they are just resolutions; they are not policy or best practices. And we need to really be adamant about making sure that the stakeholders who are involved in this process, that we are working closely with law enforcement and making sure we’re giving folks alternatives besides arrest and incarceration.

Conway speaks at the Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence in Denton, Texas in 2017.
Credit: Jordan Mazurek

Supporters say you’ve served your time for the offense, while some, including the mother of the man you killed, argue that you don’t deserve this opportunity. How do you plan to earn the trust of your constituents?  

As an organizer, we practice transformational justice. And that means that’s a two-way street. That means I have to hold a space for people to feel how they feel. And I have to hold a space for people that I have harmed to hold me accountable.  

So, when the victim’s mother came out and said what she said, I didn’t do a public apology. I reached out to her pastor, I reached out to the reporter, and I opened up a space for her to hold me accountable. Not for me to apologize, but for her to hold me accountable.  

Just like it’s an opportunity for me to advance the cause for more than 4 million Texans with criminal justice involvement. It’s also an opportunity for us as a community to advance the cause of healing.

I don’t ask for any special consideration. I ask the people to judge me based upon my merit. What have I done at City Hall? What have I done at the State Capitol? What have I done on behalf of people who have backgrounds [in the criminal justice system], for people who’ve been in mental health institutions, right?

So, I think that’s a fair question, and my immediate response is, you know, “When do we allow people the space not to be the same person that they were 27 years ago?”

As of July 15 campaign finance filings, you’d raised less in campaign donations than your opponents. Why do you think that is and how important is it?

I couldn’t raise the money because there was this cloud of doubt of if I would even be eligible to run. From July to July, it has been a question about if I can run or not. They wait for the last day of filing to say, “OK, he’s officially on the ballot, right.” I announced my candidacy December 4, 2017. So, for nine months I’ve been having to campaign, and the first question people ask me is, “Are they going to let you run?”

So, that has been the tenor and the tone of the coverage and our campaign. This is the first time we’re actually able to campaign without the miasma of doubt hanging over our heads.

The people who have donated to our campaign up to this point really believed in us, really believed in the power of transformation, really believe in the power of another chance. I don’t like to use that second-chance language because some folks need a third and fourth chance. We need another chance.

Austin is a gentrifying city and I’ve heard your campaign volunteers are racially diverse. How are you mobilizing different types of people?

There are more white people [than Black people] in Black Lives Matter T-shirts in Austin. … Some Black folks look at civil rights issues in Austin like the status quo, like, this is how it’s always been. Many have been conditioned in Austin since the 1928 master plan, [which segregated the city] almost a hundred years ago, that politics wasn’t and isn’t a significant factor in our lives as Black folk. The reason why I have a coalition of white folks going to doors for me is because the establishment Black folks won’t embrace me, have not embraced me.

Black college kids love me, the white college kids love me, the white old ladies love me. … We have built a multicultural coalition … made up of folks who have fought for criminal justice, who are directly impacted by criminal justice. But also honestly believe that they want a change in their leadership and they believe in diversity in leadership.

Conway holds regular meet-and-greets at an Austin coffee house to reach students and people without access to the internet.
Courtesy of Conway campaign

We’re seeing various forms of activism around criminal justice, most recently the nationwide prison strike. What do you think are the most crucial steps to dismantling mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex?

The top thing that we have to do is rescind the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment, of course, as we know, allows for the enslavement of folks who are incarcerated. For me, as an abolitionist, it goes beyond free slave labor. It speaks to everything that encompasses the definition of slave: loss of identity, no human or civil rights.

When we look at the way our economy is built upon law enforcement, you know, we’ve got local police, we got school police, we got state police, we got federal police, we got secret police, we got secret police that watch the secret police. We got judges, we got lawyers, we got courtrooms, we got prisons. So, our whole economy is built on a law enforcement modality.

In order for us to address the criminal justice system, we have to rethink our business model.

Addressing mass incarceration is going to require us to address re-entry, is going to require us to address alternatives to incarceration, it’s going to require us to address housing, employment. And then there’s the whole sentencing component, right. We have to address federal sentencing laws, we have to address local sentencing laws, stop keeping people in jail because they can’t pay bond.

The prison industrial complex, you have to kind of see it like the music industry before CDs came in, when we still had albums. You had people that pressed up the albums, you had people who recorded the albums, you had people that shipped the albums, you had people that made the album covers. See, there was a whole industry of putting out a piece of music. Well, there’s a whole industry around disenfranchisement of a person. Until you look at it like an industry, as opposed to these single pieces, we’re going to always be having this conversation of mass incarceration.

Any fears in taking on this race?

My only fear is the impact on [two of] my children, you know. There’s a lot of stuff they were too young to know about and now it’s starting to come out in the press. I think that’s my only fear, that they find out I gave up custody and don’t know why.

There have been some vague allegations floated against you regarding that child custody dispute with your ex-girlfriend. What can you tell us about that?   

A decade ago, I was involved in an ugly court battle, like Austin court battles get, and some untrue allegations were made that were false then and are false now. And those allegations were devastating to my family, the relationship with my children. And for me, it’s about all of the other fathers that may not have the same platform to defend themselves.

How hopeful are you about your chances of winning?

Not only are we going to win, but we counted wins along the way. … We felt like it was important to change the narrative, and count that as a win. We thought it was important to knock down doors, we thought that was a win. But most of all, we feel that if the people of Austin elect someone with our background, that is not only a win for District 1, it’s a win for Austin, and it’s a win for Texas and ultimately that translates into a win for America.

Columbus Officer Was Under Investigation When He Shot and Killed Donna Dalton

Community outrage mounts over Officer Andrew Mitchell’s killing of Dalton during an attempted prostitution arrest.

Community members mourn Donna Dalton at a vigil on Aug. 25, 2018.
Katie Forbes

Columbus Officer Was Under Investigation When He Shot and Killed Donna Dalton

Community outrage mounts over Officer Andrew Mitchell’s killing of Dalton during an attempted prostitution arrest.


In the late morning of Thursday, Aug. 23, Officer Andrew Mitchell of the Columbus Division of Police in Ohio was working undercover, looking for women selling sex on the city’s West Side. He tried to take Donna Dalton, a 23-year-old mother of two young girls and sex worker, into custody. After what police called “an altercation” in his car, Mitchell shot and killed her.

Mitchell and Dalton were brought to the same hospital; he had wounds where police said she stabbed him in the hand. Officer Mitchell underwent surgery. Dalton was pronounced dead. A media release from the police department, known as the CPD, later described her as “an armed suspect.”

In the days since the incident, more information has trickled out about Mitchell. According to police records in a county court database he has already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018, overwhelmingly of women. And the Columbus police confirmed to The Appeal that he is the subject of an internal affairs investigation, opened before the shooting, and multiple previous complaints.

Donna Dalton’s killing has outraged her family and their extended community in Columbus. Around 100 people gathered for a vigil in her honor two days after her death, calling for answers and an end to police killings in a city where no officer has been indicted for an on-duty lethal shooting in 20 years.

Dalton was part of a huge family, explained Bobbi McCalla, her older sister. (Though Donna was identified as Donna Castleberry, her married name, by police, she went by Donna Dalton, McCalla told The Appeal.) She “wasn’t just a nobody, that’s the bottom line,” said McCalla. “She was a friend, she was a family member, she was a mother, she was so many things to so many different people. The loss that we feel is deep and immediate.”

McCalla said she frequently drives by the spot where her sister was killed. There are still women out on the streets, she said, and police are also a constant presence. CPD spokesman Sgt. Rich Weiner acknowledged this on the day of the shooting: Sex work, he said, “is such a nuisance to the neighborhood—that’s why we work these types of incidents.”

The Columbus police department described Officer Mitchell as a 30-year veteran. It declined to discuss the dozens of arrests he made for prostitution-related offenses like “soliciting” and “loitering soliciting.” And it could not provide The Appeal with the overall number of such arrests this year, though it did offer a chart with 596 arrests categorized as “prostitution” so far in 2018.

Officer Mitchell faced at least eight complaints since 2006, according to data obtained by The Appeal, and in two he was found be “outside of policy.” CPD public information officer Denise Alex-Bouzounis would only acknowledge there had been some complaints and say the internal investigation of Mitchell was still open. She also confirmed that Columbus police have an audio recording of the incident with Dalton made by Mitchell as part of his undercover vice investigation. The Appeal requested the recording from the Columbus police but was told it would not be released at this time.

Donna Dalton’s death comes on the heels of a number of other fatal, on-duty shootings by the Columbus police. In 2018, there have been 17 incidents involving officers shooting people, CPD confirmed. Seven of those people died. Between 2013 and 2017, CPD officers fatally shot 28 people.

Columbus officers are also almost always cleared of wrongdoing. This year so far, at least seven CPD officers who fatally shot people were found to have been within department policy for use of force. In fact, since Franklin County prosecutor Ron O’Brien was elected in 1996, he has never indicted any officers for fatal on-duty shootings. “There are probably only a handful of these cases over the years where it was even close,” O’Brien told the Columbus Dispatch in 2015.

For McCalla, knowing this background puts her sister’s death in context. “When I first found out that my sister passed and it was all over the news, I refused to look at the news stories for a day or two,” she said. “And then I decided that I was ready, and I Googled, ‘officer-involved shooting on the West Side,’ and I was appalled at how many [there were] this year.”

People gather near a memorial honoring Donna Dalton in Columbus, Ohio.
Credit: Katie Forbes

On the Saturday after Donna Dalton’s death, her family and friends, along with several community organizations, gathered at an elementary school before dark for a vigil. They released balloons in pink and black, her favorite colors, while a helicopter hovered above. Donna’s mother, Michelle Dalton, spoke, as did Adrienne Hood, the mother of Henry Green, killed by CPD officers in June 2016. “It was heartbreaking,” McCalla said. But “it made me want to rise up and it gave me the strength to go ahead and start.”

Other groups, including Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus, have also organized against police violence in Columbus, and now against the targeting of sex workers in particular. “This is going on everywhere,” said Dkeama Alexis, a co-founder of the group, “police targeting sex workers who are just trying to earn their living, who are doing solid work.” Alexis also noted Columbus vice officers planned the recent sting operation against the adult entertainer Stormy Daniels. Whether it’s people of color, queer and trans people, sex workers, or people belonging to all of these categories, said Alexis, “a lot of different communities are under siege.”

Tynan Krakoff, lead organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbus, agreed. “She wouldn’t have been in a position to have to defend herself or be killed if sex work was not criminalized,” Krakoff said.

As Dalton’s family waits for information from the Columbus police, they’ve drawn support from the community around them. Another rally is planned for Thursday evening, beginning at an intersection where Donna was recently arrested. “I feel alone. But we’re not,” McCalla underscored. “This isn’t an isolated incident.”

Additional reporting by George Joseph.

More in Explainers

Two Cops Said They Saw A Man Grope Women. The Women Disagreed. The DA Charged Him Anyway

An 11-month prosecution of a ‘forcible touching’ case in Manhattan sharply diverges from the office’s treatment of Harvey Weinstein, defense attorneys say.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance
Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

Two Cops Said They Saw A Man Grope Women. The Women Disagreed. The DA Charged Him Anyway

An 11-month prosecution of a ‘forcible touching’ case in Manhattan sharply diverges from the office’s treatment of Harvey Weinstein, defense attorneys say.


One night in March 2017, two NYPD officers, Peter Cassidy and Manuel Silva, were patrolling the Times Square area when they became suspicious of a Black man they saw walking around. His eyes “were down” and he was “looking at people’s waistlines,” one said. The officers claimed they then saw him touch three women’s buttocks. They arrested him and interviewed the three women. But there was a problem with the officers’ allegations: The women said they didn’t feel anyone touch them inappropriately.

Still, the cops were determined to press charges.

The man, who requested anonymity via his attorney to avoid reputational damage, asked the officers how they could arrest him if one of the women was saying that he didn’t “do anything.”

“Doesn’t she have to press some charges on me?” he implored, as he secretly recorded the conversation. One officer said, “I don’t care what she says,” and began questioning him on the spot, asking, “How long you been out here for?”

The man’s phone, now in police possession, kept recording. In the audio, one officer seems to tell another that he tried to persuade one of the women to go along with an arrest. “I told her ‘this guy, this guy’s trying to get into your purse,’ just so she could get a little too … And she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t bite. She wouldn’t bite.”

Undeterred by the women’s refusals to implicate the man, police charged him with “sexual abuse in the third degree,” and “forcible touching” of one of the three women. The forcible touching charge carries up to a year of incarceration and the sexual abuse charge carries up to three months. The cops had no cooperating witnesses and did not attempt to find surveillance footage to corroborate their claims. Later, one of the officers even said in court that he had made his observations of the defendant from 100 feet away with “a lot of traffic of people walking by.”

Despite these weaknesses, the Manhattan district attorney’s office chose to take the case, putting the man through an 11-month ordeal, which ended with his acquittal in February.

Defense attorneys and legal experts argue that the case points to the disparate treatment defendants can receive at the hands of the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Last year, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance came under criticism after news broke that his office had declined to press the same charges against former film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2015.

In the Weinstein case, unlike this one, a woman actually told police that she had been touched without her consent. The woman even wore a wire, which caught Weinstein saying “I won’t do it again,” when confronted with the allegation. Yet the Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to file charges, claiming it could not prove criminal intent in the allegation because the touching took place when the two were discussing her becoming a lingerie model.

In the Times Square case, the Manhattan DA argued that such criminal intent could be “inferred from the circumstances of the crime.” To make this inference, they relied on Sgt. Cassidy’s claim that the man followed behind a woman for a block and then intentionally touched her.

The DA’s seemingly contradictory decisions in these two cases does not surprise Eliza Orlins, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice in Manhattan.

“I’ve seen countless cases that have been prosecuted on far less than what Vance decided not to go forward on Weinstein with,” said Orlins, adding that prosecutions without cooperating witnesses are fairly typical in her experience. Had it been one of her clients, rather than Weinstein, who admitted to touching someone’s breast on a recording, Orlins argued that prosecutors would have inferred criminal intent.

Data provided to The Appeal by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) show that in 2017, the Manhattan DA was responsible for a disproportionate 46.5 percent of total convictions in cases where forcible touching was the top charge. Across the five boroughs, 933 cases were resolved where forcible touching was the top charge, of which 490 led to a conviction. Prosecutors declined to prosecute just 24 of these cases citywide. There were only 40 cases disposed where sexual assault in the third degree, a lower offense, was the top charge. The statistics represent just the tip of iceberg, as the charges can accompany more severe charges like felony assault and thus do not show up in DCJS data.

The accused man’s lawyer, Andrew Stengel, a former Manhattan prosecutor himself, argued in a phone interview that the case should have never gone to trial. “The two people who matter most denied that my client touched them,” he said. “From a prosecutor’s point of view, I don’t see how the case could have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Jocelyn Simonson, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School, told The Appeal: “The discrepancy between the two cases reveals the presumption of truth-telling given to police officers, where in parallel circumstances a complainant is not necessarily believed; and the presumption of innocence given to more privileged, well-resourced defendants, whereas a less privileged person who is arrested on police officer testimony alone is often presumed guilty.”

Arrest numbers point to substantial racial disparities in who gets arrested for misdemeanor sex offenses like forcible touching. Citywide, 41.1 percent of individuals arrested for these offenses were Black, even though just 24.4 percent of New Yorkers identify as Black, according to arrest data published by the New York City Police Department.

The district attorney’s office said it could not comment, because the case was sealed after the man was acquitted at trial. When asked about the Weinstein case the office declined to comment.

At trial, Stengel was able to undermine the officers’ credibility as witnesses, thanks, in part, to the audio recording the client made during the arrest. Under oath, Sgt. Cassidy claimed that police never asked the accused man any questions after his arrest. The audio plainly disproved this assertion. It also showed that he had to ask if he was being arrested and had, at that point, not been read his Miranda rights.

Furthermore, during a cross examination, Officer Silva seemed to omit key pieces of information about what one of the supposed victims had told him after the arrest. Under oath, he admitted that one of the women told him she didn’t want to cooperate with the police, but didn’t recall the fact that she had also told him she didn’t feel that she was touched.

The man was eventually acquitted of all charges, and is now suing the officers, New York City and NYPD for false arrest; malicious prosecution; emotional distress; negligent hiring, training, and supervision; Miranda violations; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and other violations.

Though the outcome was favorable in this case, defense attorneys argue that defendants without extreme wealth or influence could be saved the stress of unnecessary cases if the Manhattan district attorney’s office were to hold equal charging standards for all defendants, regardless of their wealth or connections.

“The Manhattan DA could choose not to go forward on cases with scant evidence, no witnesses, no video, no property recovered,” Orlins said. “It speaks very clearly to the two-tiered justice system: The poor get one form of justice, and the rich get another.”


If you are a current or former Manhattan District Attorney’s Office employee, please contact us with tips. Reporters George Joseph and Simon Davis-Cohen can be reached on the secure phone app Signal at 929-282-2471 or by email at gmjoseph@protonmail.com or s.davis.cohen@protonmail.com. If you want your messages to be end-to-end encrypted or set to disappear, create a free Protonmail or Signal account to send a message.

More in Podcasts