Despite a National Outcry, Activists in Louisville Fight the Breonna Taylor Decision Alone
September 29, 2020
The movement’s success at publicizing Breonna Taylor’s cause on the Internet has not shielded the beleaguered activists on the ground in Louisville from physical and legal risk.Photograph by Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
ast Thursday evening, downtown Louisville looked deserted. The boarded up windows of hotels, theatres, and restaurants faced empty pedestrian malls, and the scent of new plywood hung in the air. Sand-colored Humvees blocked off intersections and police checkpoints kept cars from breaching the perimeter of the city center. The fortification had started earlier in the week, on September 21th, when the Louisville Metro Police Department declared a state of emergency in anticipation of an announcement
about a grand-jury proceeding into the death of Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old Black emergency-room technician who was shot and killed by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department, during a raid on her apartment on March 13th. On Wednesday, Daniel Cameron, the Republican attorney general of Kentucky, announced that no charges would be filed against Myles Cosgrove and Jonathan Mattingly, two of the three officers responsible for Taylor’s death. The third officer, Brett Hankison, the only one of the three who has lost his job, was charged with a felony count of reckless endangerment for firing his gun without a line of sight.
When Taylor was killed, in mid-March, many cities across the country were going into lockdown. Her cause drew relatively little attention until after May 25th, when a police officer killed George Floyd
in Minneapolis. That same day, Memorial Day, a wreath-laying ceremony was held in Taylor’s honor outside the apartment where she died. On May 28th, after the Courier Journal
published a transcript of Taylor’s boyfriend’s frantic 911 call, and as Minneapolis inspired marches across the country, several hundred people in Louisville took to the streets to call for the firing and arrest of the officers responsible. That night, police met them with tear gas and paintballs, and seven protesters were hit with gunfire by an assailant whose identity remains unknown.
The wreath-laying ceremony last May had been organized by Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, New York activists who were among the co-founders of the Women’s March in 2017, under the auspices of a social-justice advocacy organization they founded last year called Until Freedom. Mallory, whose speech in Minneapolis about George Floyd went viral a few days later, had been recruited to advocate for Taylor by Ben Crump, the attorney from Florida who represents Taylor’s family and the families of many other unarmed Black people killed by the police. By June, when Until Freedom held a rally in Frankfort, the state capital, Breonna Taylor’s name was being chanted alongside Floyd’s around the country, and appending “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” to otherwise banal statements on social media became a prevalent meme of the summer. In July, Until Freedom held a protest outside of Daniel Cameron’s house at which eighty-seven activists were arrested. In August, Mallory and Sarsour relocated to live in Louisville, where they have organized food deliveries, voter-registration drives, and trainings in the Kingian principles of nonviolence. They also bring their contemporary public-relations savvy and a cozy and unapologetic relationship with celebrities. Their collaborators include Oprah Winfrey, who funded twenty-six billboards in Louisville calling for the arrest of the officers who killed Taylor, and who put Taylor’s image on the cover of the August issue of O magazine, the first time in the publication’s history that someone other than Oprah appeared there. They helped recruit Cardi B, Alicia Keys, and Tracee Ellis Ross for a video speaking out on behalf of Taylor, and their organization’s donors include Roc Nation, the entertainment agency started by Jay-Z. Sarsour told me that using famous people is “one of the things we do really well.”
In a speech that accompanied his announcement about the grand jury, Daniel Cameron, a protégé of Mitch McConnell
whom the Republican Party elevated to the national stage at the convention last summer, criticized the “celebrities, influencers, and activists who, having never lived in Kentucky, will try to tell us how to feel.” Given Cameron’s own evident national ambitions, and the ways in which the Trump campaign has twisted the Movement for Black Lives into a narrative about urban chaos, this seemed hypocritical. Still, Until Freedom’s success at publicizing Taylor’s cause on the Internet has not shielded the beleaguered activists on the ground in Louisville from physical and legal risk.
As anticipated, local protesters took to the streets immediately after Cameron’s announcement. By the end of Wednesday, police had arrested more than a hundred of them, and two police officers had been shot. A suspect, Larynzo Johnson, was taken into custody. (He later pleaded not guilty, and is being held on a million-dollar bond.) National politicians quickly published their opinions. From Washington, where he is working to push through the confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice before the election, the Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell issued a statement about Taylor’s “tragic killing” and condemned the “lawlessness, riots, and violence”—wording that managed to acknowledge that the killing was wrong while also avoiding calling for accountability. Trump sent his “regards” to Taylor’s family, prayers to the police officers, and added a predictable “LAW & ORDER!!” on Twitter at midnight. Rather than calling for charges against the officers who killed her, the Democrats appeared a little too eager to chastise the activists. McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, quickly posted a statement condemning the shootings of the police officers in Louisville, calling it “unacceptable.” Joe Biden said, in his statement on the matter, “I know people are frustrated and they have a right to peacefully protest, but violence is never acceptable.”
For all the national attention, the daily work of direct action was a decidedly grassroots affair maintained by a relatively small but consistent group of Louisville residents. Jefferson Square Park, which the demonstrators refer to in flyers as “injustice square,” is the size of a city block, and is flanked by municipal buildings. At its center is the memorial to Taylor, meticulously tended, with paintings, flowers, and Christmas lights that blink on and off in the evenings. On the fringes are folding tables where volunteers register voters or distribute snacks. One had a pop-up tent on which had been written, in marker, a frequent chant during the marches: “Breeway or the freeway.”
I arrived in downtown Louisville on Thursday night, as another march began. Street parking had been prohibited by police order, and I hastily parked my car in the lot of a Hampton Inn in order to catch up with a group of activists who had just walked past. I noticed only as I left the lot a group of armed militia members standing around their cars. More armed men wearing Kevlar vests, who, according to the Daily Beast, belonged to the far-right group the Oath Keepers, surrounded the perimeter of a Shell gas station across the street. It was shortly after eight o’clock in the evening. I caught up with the activists as their phones blared with an emergency alert announcing a nine o’clock curfew. They moved swiftly through the dark streets, monitored by helicopters above. We passed a modernist building, the Louisville Free Public Library, where I heard someone bludgeon a window. “Not the library!” someone yelled out.
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The march did not last very long. By the time of curfew, the protesters, who likely numbered fewer than two hundred people, had taken sanctuary in the parking lot and yard of the First Unitarian Church, which had also served as a safe space the previous night. A clause in the curfew order made an exception for people returning to and from houses of worship, but there was also the symbolism of the thing.
An eerie two hours followed. Within minutes of the marchers’ arrival, members of law enforcement with armored vehicles had surrounded the church, including a line of officers with their batons out who stood in a line under the streetlights at the end of an alley. Tear gas from somewhere down the street occasionally wafted over the group, setting off coughing and sneezing. A drone with green lights hovered overhead, and the crisp white floodlight of a helicopter passing over cast revolving shadows of trees as it circled. The protesters were mostly young and mostly Black. More than one had guns. I saw one with an aluminum baseball bat tucked in her backpack, and several wearing shin guards. Most of them, however, had shown up in T-shirts and face masks, and they now seemed very vulnerable. The amount of force there to meet them looked disproportionate, as if law enforcement had planned their logistics according to the chaos evoked on Fox News instead of this small, local reality. Oprah wasn’t here, nor any national political figures. The deluge of Twitter posts about Taylor seemed very far away. Two white people from the church, one in a clerical collar and the other in monk’s robes, crossed a parking lot to try and get information.
Activists on their phones started sharing a piece of news. “They arrested Shameka and Attica,” someone announced. Shameka Parrish-Wright is a manager at the Louisville Bail Project. Attica Scott, a state representative who was marching through her own district, is the only Black female legislator in the Kentucky General Assembly. Both have been prominent organizers against police brutality in Louisville since Taylor’s death. Scott had introduced a bill, “Breonna’s Law,” that would ban so-called no-knock warrants statewide. Police had arrested the two, along with Scott’s teen-aged daughter, as they attempted to cross the street to the church. They were later charged with first-degree rioting, a felony; the arrest statement claimed that they had attempted to set the Louisville Free Public Library on fire. As Scott later pointed out, to the Courier Journal, the library is in the district she represents. “What I have done nothing but fight for and try to get funding for—you’re going to accuse me of trying to set fire to it?” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”
The police finally allowed the protesters to go home. When I got back to my car, the militia members were still standing around the Shell station. Their presence after curfew, and all of their weaponry, were not deemed a threat by law enforcement.
The marches, rallies, and press conferences continued on Friday. In the morning, in Jefferson Square Park, members of the national media gathered for an announcement from Taylor’s family and Ben Crump. Wearing a face mask with Taylor’s name on it, Crump called for the release of the transcripts of the grand-jury trial, which Cameron had not made public. (After a legal complaint filed by an anonymous member of the grand jury on Monday challenged this decision, he has since announced that he would release a recording of their deliberation.) The harshest criticism for Cameron, who is Black, came from Tamika Mallory: “We have no respect for you,” she said. “No respect for your black skin. Because all our skin folk ain’t our kin folk, and you do not belong to Black people at all.” The conference concluded with a ceremonial releasing of butterflies. Later, the University of Louisville men’s basketball team led a march from Cardinal Stadium. A group of faith leaders held a press conference at the First Unitarian Church to express their support.
On Friday evening, shortly before curfew, Attica Scott, who had just been released from jail, returned to march, a quiet and mostly unnoticed presence in gray leggings and a T-shirt at the back of a crowd of several hundred. Earlier that day, the union that represents the employees of the Louisville Public Library had released a statement: “We have seen no proof that the flare thrown into the library has done any major damage, nor that Representative Scott had anything to do with it,” it read. I asked her how she saw the arrest. “They set us up,” she said of the police officers who had taken them in the previous night. “It was clear they were trying to box us in, give us contradictory directives, just so they could arrest us.” She spent the night in jail, she said, with a group of seventeen women, fourteen of whom were “Black, indigenous, or Chicana, so that says something.” She reiterated that she would never have attempted to burn down a library in Taylor’s name.
The march moved through a neighborhood of pubs and restaurants, then reached a highway underpass that was blocked by police officers. The police threw crowd dispersants known as flashbangs, sending marchers running in disarray. I saw a boy and his mother holding each other in tears, panicked by the sudden chaos in what had been an otherwise calm evening. I saw organizers loading protesters with children into cars to get them away from a situation that seemed on the verge of turning volatile. But, a few moments later, the march regrouped, now on the sidewalk, and continued back to Jefferson Square Park.
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