Louisville Protesters Mourn Breonna Taylor by Taking to the Streets
Jakia Marie huddled in her car just before 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Louisville, Kentucky. Her phone tuned to a local radio station, Marie listened as state Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced no officers were charged for the death of Breonna Taylor. A 26-year-old emergency medic, Taylor was killed in her home on March 13th after three members of the Louisville Metro Police Department fired into her apartment.
Six months after her death, a Kentucky grand jury filed no charges against two officers — Jon Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove — while indicting Brett Hankison on three counts of wanton endangerment, not for the death of Taylor, but for firing into her neighbors’ apartments. Hankison, a detective fired from LMPD for displaying “an extreme indifference to the value of human life,” posted his $15,000 bail and was released from the Shelby County Jail.
Protesting was a means of collective mourning for Louisvillians, and to feel the solidarity of communal pain. Many told me the announcement hurt, but so did the city and state response. The day before, city officials declared a state of emergency and a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., in anticipation of “civil unrest.” Gov. Andy Beshear called in 500 national guard troops. Police blocked street traffic with concrete barricades and city trucks through much of downtown. Businesses boarded up their storefronts miles away. The number of demonstrators was smaller compared to previous weeks, and some felt police, outfitted in riot gear, outnumbered them.
“[Cameron’s] announcement proves that he is nothing but a black face working to perpetuate white supremacy,” says Marie, a 29-year-old professor of anthropology and African studies at Bellarmine University. She immediately drove downtown to join hundreds of protesters, including her students, who’ve marched all summer demanding justice for Taylor.
While Marie had mutual friends with Taylor, she didn’t know her personally. But for her, Cameron’s announcement was a reminder that “our livelihood means nothing to this country.” Taylor’s memorial, a circular maze of paintings, posters, candles, and charms occupying the plaza of Jefferson Square — renamed “Injustice Square” by demonstrators — has grown to represent a systemic indifference to the lives of black women.
Simon Gebru, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Louisville, was with protesters gathered in Injustice Square when the news came. “Some people were freaking out,” says Gebru, who subsequently marched for over seven hours, zooming through city streets on a green skateboard. “But no one destroyed anything. We were just grieving.”
Gebru points to the vehicles and weapons surrounding him. “This is so much money that could be invested in our system that could solve so many problems of why we’re even protesting. And instead we spend it on this,” he says. “I love Louisville, but it’s embarrassing that we can’t even see accountability.”
For 120 days, protesters have marched across Louisville. On Wednesday, demonstrators walked all the way to the affluent Highlands neighborhood, over three miles from Injustice Square. Over 50 LMPD vehicles clogged four blocks of the area’s most popular thoroughfare — Bardstown Road — while police, many wearing riot gear with wooden batons tucked into the spines of their bullet-proof vests, crowded into the back of pick-up trucks. When a white passerby thanked police for their presence, a female cop told her, “Go inside, find your favorite TV show, and ride it out.”
After protesters dispersed from the Highlands around 5 p.m., LMPD headed back downtown where dozens of police vehicles sped across city streets, sirens blaring. Four helicopters thrummed overhead. For a couple hours, protesters gathered intermittently at concrete barricades until LMPD sounded a verbal warning that all people disperse “or we will dispense chemical weapons and you may be arrested.”
For much of the day, protests were non-violent. Demonstrators ate free pizza and tortellini soup distributed by volunteers. They handed out faux black roses along “Breewayy,” the streets renamed for Taylor surrounding Injustice Square. While an official march was planned for 8 p.m., antsy demonstrators took off just after 7, zigzagging through largely empty streets.
Among them was Dionte Mucker, a 31-year-old high school teacher and basketball coach born and raised in Louisville. Being in a group made him feel less alone. When he first heard the decision, he says, “I was hurt. Because I can only see my aunt, my mom, my sister, and it just burns me up. What would I want to see happen if it was them? That’s what kills me.”
Mucker doesn’t have an answer for what Louisville should do, but charges for endangering Taylor’s neighbors doesn’t feel like it. “Someone was murdered, but the property of the neighbor was more valuable,” he says. “That’s how that comes across.”
After Cameron announced the indictment, he refused to answer specifics, like the jury’s demographic makeup. “I know that everyone will not be satisfied. If we simply act on outrage there is not justice — mob justice is not justice,” Cameron said. “Do we really want the truth? Or truth that fits our narrative?”
Following Cameron’s tight-lipped press conference, Gov. Beshear addressed the state, expressing a continued desire for transparency. Beshear requested Cameron’s office make public sealed information related to the investigation. Beshear, who was attorney general of the state from 2016 to 2019, said Kentuckians deserve to see the evidence in a case that has captured national attention for months.
Charles Booker, a state representative from House District 43, expressed his anger to the crowd at Beshear’s press conference, then came directly to the square. In early summer, Booker’s involvement in the racial justice movement propelled his Senate primary race into the national spotlight, nearly upsetting the Democratic Party’s favored candidate, Amy McGrath. Now, through a nondescript black mask, Booker joined the march downtown.
“Seeing the city barricaded and a state of emergency called before anything happened, it’s disheartening,” says Booker. “It’s tough not just for the community, but a lot of these officers that are trying to follow orders. They’re also in an intense environment, and it can mean a lot of people get hurt.”
Blocks away, about an hour before the 9 p.m. curfew, police dispersed protesters from Injustice Square after a small fire was set near the courthouse. Soon after, shots rang out. Melissa Jones, 43, was marching with roughly 350 protesters a few blocks south of the University of Louisville hospital. She said they were near an interstate overpass when they heard several loud bangs and everyone started running. Police officers tore towards the noise, with “shots fired, officer down,” coming in over the radio. On his way to his vehicle, a male cop scoffed to a group of journalists, “Just one of those nice, peaceful protests.”
Jones was separated from the main group, which soon dispersed. Dozens of cops spread out across the intersection, yelling at protesters to stay back. They took a suspect wearing a tie-dye hoodie into custody, but at a later press conference, LMPD interim police chief Robert Schroeder did not say if the suspect was a protestor. Two officers were shot, neither with life-threatening injuries. Schroeder did not state whether anyone else had been injured in the altercation.
“We have to model leadership that shows up differently,” Booker had told Rolling Stone half an hour earlier. He was disappointed in the large law-enforcement presence brought in by the state. “[Leadership] that doesn’t show up adversarial, with a posture prepared to engage in war with the community, but one that’s ready to be accountable to them and show love and be connected to them.” Morgan McGarvey, a state senator from Louisville, was also wary over the state’s show of force. “I think that Louisville and Kentucky need to come together and root out systemic racism to make sure our community is the safest place with the most opportunity for everyone,” he says.
Back at Injustice Square, a couple small fires smoldered in trash cans while more officers in riot gear blocked a small contingent of protesters from moving further into downtown. In a late-night video, Gov. Beshear encouraged protesters to go home for the night. Louisville’s Courier-Journal reported 127 arrests.
But now, many were just standing around. One man in Nike slides cleaned a grill while another played a piano. A group of women sat along the concrete plaza in front of Taylor’s memorial, encircled with flickering purple lights. No one seemed to know where the main group had gone. They wandered around looking for each other. They grieved. They tried to feel safe.
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