City Hall

McKinney Council Member, a Black Lives Matter Activist, Brings the Fight to Dallas City Hall

La'Shadion Shemwell wears a T-shirt in support of the Amber Guyger verdict at Tuesday's police oversight board meeting at Dallas City Hall.
La'Shadion Shemwell wears a T-shirt in support of the Amber Guyger verdict at Tuesday's police oversight board meeting at Dallas City Hall. Lucas Manfield

The activist who confronted Chief U. Renee Hall at the heated police oversight board meeting on Tuesday at Dallas City Hall doesn't live in the city. He’s McKinney City Council member La'Shadion Shemwell, a barber and activist who was voted into office in 2017 following the McKinney pool party incident that exposed racial tensions in the rapidly growing city.

Since then, Shemwell has been working to reform police oversight in Dallas. “I don't think that my responsibilities are solely in McKinney. I think we're responsible to bring about change across this country,” Shemwell said.  Activism in the region centers on Dallas, and the impact “trickles down” to its suburbs, he added.

Shemwell said he was “shocked and surprised” there was going to be no period for public comment the night of the board meeting. He had on a blue McKinney shirt at the time, but after being called names by the crowd, he “went into activist mode” and changed into a red T-shirt referencing Amber Guyger's trial for murdering her black neighbor.

Hall initially tried to kick him and other activists out of the room. Shemwell, meanwhile, attempted to inform her that, thanks to recent Texas legislation, the public had a legal right to a comment period. “I was showing her the actual law on my phone,” he said.

"(W)hen your officers have temper tantrums in the street, they usually end in death.” — La'Shadion Shemwell

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Hall later apologized, but Shemwell doubts its sincerity and doesn’t think she deserves credit for her handling of the situation, though the meeting shortly resumed and continued without incident.

“It's convenient that you're able to apologize after your temper tantrum. However, when your officers have temper tantrums in the street, they usually end in death,” he said.

In 2015, a white McKinney police officer pulled a gun on a group of high schoolers and violently restrained a black 15-year-old girl at a neighborhood pool. A video of the incident posted to YouTube went viral and generated nationwide outrage.

Shemwell was one of the first on the scene, according to a biography posted on the McKinney city website, which describes his path from a childhood in Los Angeles marked by homelessness to community organizer to policymaker.

Since taking office, he’s embraced the dual role of activist and politician. “Sometimes it's a gift and a curse. A lot of the times I feel like I'm behind enemy lines,” he said.

He’s the only black member of McKinney’s seven-member council. Nearly a third of the city is black or Hispanic.

Because of this, he says he has had to accept small victories. The city recently installed water fountains in parks on the east side of town, where much of the city’s minority community lives. Parks in the richer areas, he noted, already had water bowls for dogs.

He’s also fought for better public transit and services for children and the elderly.

But his city job pays only $200 a month, a situation, he argues, that deters low-income people from seeking office. He still cuts hair out of his McKinney barbershop.

Shemwell’s confrontation with Hall was not his first clash with police. When he first met the McKinney chief of police, he told him he was going to petition online for his removal.

In 2018, he was pulled over for speeding and arrested when he refused to sign the citation, accusing the officer of pulling him over not for speeding but for being black. Shemwell later apologized for the incident. He said he did not believe the officer was racist but was “upholding a racist system.”

Also last year, the McKinney council contemplated easing the path for recalling its members after Shemwell was arrested for the alleged assault of an ex-girlfriend. A grand jury later refused to indict him.

He was also found guilty of assault in 2007 and kidnapping in 2009, again involving violence toward women.

Shemwell said his constituents knew his past when they voted him in. “It makes me somebody that’s imperfect, and that’s OK,” he said, and his experiences in the criminal justice system have informed his activism.

He’s worried by what he saw in the meeting Tuesday, where police officers walked committee members through a PowerPoint presentation outlining their responsibilities. “This is not a police board. This is not a liaison. This is not a partnership. This is an oversight board that should be independent,” he said.

The city needs a board, he said, that represents the people and not the police. “We will continue to show up until we see that happen,” he said.
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Lucas Manfield is an editorial fellow at the Observer. He's a former software developer and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Contact: Lucas Manfield