In Breonna Taylor’s Louisville, anger fuels demand for change

Protesters chart way forward after US grand jury delivers no murder charges in police killing of unarmed Black woman.

Breonna Taylor's killing has fueled mass protests across the United States and calls for an end to police violence and anti-Black racism [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

Louisville, Kentucky – It had only been a day since Louisville, Kentucky, learned there would be no murder charges in the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old unarmed Black woman, and more than 200 demonstrators were back in the square that has been the centre of 120 consecutive days of protests.

Many talked among themselves. Every few minutes, someone led a chant, “Say her name.”

“Breonna Taylor,” the crowd shouted back.

At 8pm, long high-pitched alerts echoed from phones throughout the square: a one-hour warning before the mayor-issued curfew would take effect. A few minutes later, a woman on a megaphone told protesters to get ready to march. The night before, different groups got split up, according to one protester, resulting in the arrests of several dozen after the curfew began. On last Thursday night, they were not taking any chances.

“We’re going down a new route,” the woman on the megaphone announced. “Stay together,” she said. The group then headed out.

Breonna Taylor, 26, was shot dead by police on March 13 [Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath/Al Jazeera]

Protests have rocked the city since late May when demonstrations erupted across the country over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Louisville, it is the name of Taylor, who was shot dead by police on March 13, at the forefront.

A grand jury on Wednesday declined to indict the three Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) officers who fired into Taylor’s apartment on charges directly related to her death. Instead, it indicted former officer Brett Hankison, who was fired in June, on three counts of wanton endangerment for “blindly” shooting into a neighbouring apartment.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said in a news conference the other officers who fired their weapons were justified in their actions because Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, fired the first shot. Walker has said he mistook police, who barged through the door while serving a “no-knock” warrant, for intruders.

The highly-anticipated decision left protesters angry and in tears. But the feeling of dejection quickly turned to motivation as they charted a path forward.

In 24 hours following the grand jury’s decision, those next steps began to take shape: protesters and leaders pledged to stay in the streets, called on local legislators to change policies that they say led to Taylor’s death, demanded increased investment in impoverished neighbourhoods, and urged residents to vote.

New strategies

As demonstrators marched in Louisville on Thursday night, organisers were already adapting and changing their strategies.

“Whose streets? Our streets,” the group chanted as it weaved through the city’s downtown core. At one point, those in the lead pack who knew the march plan spotted police, dressed in riot gear, running along the city block where the group was headed.

The organisers quickly switched course. They appeared to do the same on several occasions, including cutting through a McDonald’s parking lot to avoid an intersection blocked by police. Just before 9pm, they headed towards First Unitarian Church.

This is a “sanctuary space”, pastors and others told the marchers, welcoming them to the place of worship where the curfew did not apply. As what appeared to be the last of the marchers made their way onto the church grounds, phones buzzed again with an emergency notification: “Louisville Metro is now under curfew until 6:30am. Please be heading home.”

A police line stands behind a sign outlining the history of the First Unitarian Church, where protesters sought refuge in downtown Louisville [Chris Kenning/Al Jazeera]

Protesters used the restrooms and grabbed food and water. A loud commotion then ensued. “Oh s***,” one protester said. Police marched down an alleyway towards the church where dozens stood crammed together. It was quickly apparent that the church was more or less surrounded, and protesters would be in for a long night.

Soon, whispers of “they got Attica” could be heard in the crowd. Nearby, police had arrested Attica Scott, Kentucky’s only Black female state legislator.

“I did not understand what was happening,” Scott later told Al Jazeera. “It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet,” she said. “They literally rushed us, ‘yelled, circle them, circle them’ so that we couldn’t even get to our cars or across the street to the church for sanctuary.”

There seems to be two justices in America: one for Black America and one for white America

by Benjamin Crump, US civil rights lawyer representing the Taylor family

Scott, who did not march with the protesters, said she was walking near the church with her 19-year-old daughter and others when police encircled them. They were taken into custody and charged with first-degree rioting – a felony – along with failure to disperse and unlawful assembly, both misdemeanours, according to a police spokesman.

Police claim Scott and others “caused extreme damage at multiple locations including setting fire to the Louisville Public Library”, according to the arrest citation shared by local media – an allegation Scott dismissed as “frivolous”.

“It was clear that [police] were targeting leaders,” she said, pointing to Shameka Parrish-Wright, the site manager of the Louisville Bail Project, and Donny Greene, the co-founder of Feed Louisville, who were arrested alongside Scott.

New legislation, more investment

Scott has been at the forefront of the recent protest movement since it began. Authoring a bill called “Breonna’s Law”, she is now leading an effort at the state level to ban “no-knock” warrants like the one used the night Taylor was killed.

Pushing through this kind of legislation is one way Scott and other city and state leaders see a way forward for the movement. Scott said in addition to Breonna’s Law, she and her colleagues are working on other initiatives, including legislation that would require independent investigations for police killings.

Activists have already seen some victories at the hyper-local level with a city-wide ban on “no-knock” warrants and other promised police reforms. But politicians, including Jecorey Arthur, who grew up and continues to live in one of Louisville’s predominantly Black neighbourhoods, say measures must go beyond police reforms.

The 28-year-old Democrat says when he takes his Metro Council seat in January, he will focus on economic development in the city’s mostly-Black areas, including the West End. “The policies that I’m thinking about are wealth-building policies, so that we don’t have to resort or don’t feel like we need to resort to a life of crime, which of course attracts police to our neighbourhoods,” he told Al Jazeera. He also wants the city to allocate more funds to neighbourhoods such as the West End that experience higher levels of poverty.

Back at the church on Thursday night, protesters agreed: without investment in the city’s predominantly Black neighbourhoods – which are the product of a long history of codified and informal segregation – true change would be impossible. “Come clean up the West End,” Jomikha McGee said as she and other protesters remained holed up at the church.

“Clean this s*** up. We need to do something,” the 28-year-old told Al Jazeera, comparing the city’s West End and downtown area to predominantly white areas of town. “This ain’t right.”

Protesting for 120 consecutive days, McGee says she is even more enraged now that she knows no police officers will face murder charges in Taylor’s killing. McGee, like many activists, dismissed the idea that the officers were justified in firing back after one was hit. “I’m angry. I’m so mad because you know, it could have been me,” she said. “It could have been my mama.”

That rage pulsated throughout the church grounds as protesters shouted at police who stared on, helmet shields down, batons in hand. “How do you spell racist? L-M-P-D,” the crowd chanted.

Protesters gasped as they watched officers tackled a man who crossed the perimeter and load him into the back of a police transport truck. Organisers and church staff, meanwhile, negotiated with police to allow protesters to go without being arrested. “How can we believe them?” one protester asked, referring to the police.

As time went on, small groups of officers slowly left the area. At 10:57pm, what appeared to be the last of the officers climbed onto truck beds and headed out – ending the two-hour standoff.

Turning anger into votes

At a news conference back in the sun-filled square the next morning, the tone shifted to one of demands and calls for action beyond protests and legislation.

Benjamin Crump, a prominent US civil rights lawyer representing the Taylor family, demanded that Cameron, the attorney general, release the full transcripts of the grand jury proceedings. “So we can know if anybody was giving a voice to Breonna Taylor,” Crump said as he spoke in front of a large mural of Taylor.

The lawyer said the three wanton endangerment charges stemmed from bullets that entered white neighbour’s apartments, not Taylor’s or other Black residents. “No wanton murder charges for the bullets that mutilated Breonna Taylor’s body?” Crump asked, standing next to Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. “There seems to be two justices in America: one for Black America and one for white America.”

In a statement read by Bianca Austin, Taylor’s aunt, Palmer said: “I knew Cameron would never do his job. But what I do know is that him and countless others will go to bed sleeping with Breonna’s face, still hearing her say her name.”

Other speakers called for all the officers involved to be fired. “We will make this city as uncomfortable as it can be,” said activist Tamika Mallory. Crump urged people to turn their anger into votes. “If you were protesting for Breonna Taylor, if you signed a petition for Breonna Taylor, we need you to go sign a ballot and vote” in November, Crump said.

Following the more than one-hour news conference, just a small group of protesters along with some media remained. Among them was Bail Fund’s Parrish-Wright, who had only gotten out of jail hours before.

Walking towards the Metro Corrections jail to check on a fellow activist who was also arrested on Thursday night, the 43-year-old said she is hopeful for the movement’s future. “Even through all the trauma, and the continued aggressiveness from LMPD, I feel like I see a light in our youth being more activated,” Parrish-Wright told Al Jazeera, her voice full of energy, but eyes heavy from lack of sleep.

She said the youth will lead the movement as it moves forward. “We have to be led by our young people because even history tells us all of the major gains in the fight started with young people being bold, so we have to get behind it,” she said. “That’s hope. This is hope in action.”

That action was again on display on Friday evening – Day 121 of the protests – as the sun began to set.

A memorial for Breonna Taylor has been set up in Louisville [File: Bryan Woolston/Reuters]

Protesters again marched in downtown Louisville, at one point stopping at businesses they believed had not heeded demands to hire more Black workers. Police declared the march an “unlawful assembly” because people were walking in the street. They then set off two thunderous flashbang rounds to “get the crowd’s attention”, a police spokesman said, and made two arrests before protesters eventually headed back to the square.

With less than an hour to go before curfew, a lull took over the park. One man said things would soon get “real different”, encouraging some to find a safe place. By 8:20pm, 40 minutes before curfew, about two dozen of the remaining protesters marched towards the church they had sought refuge at the night before – this time with little police presence.

Within sight of the church, phones buzzed with an alert: “A curfew is beginning at 9pm … Please begin heading home.”

“Hello and welcome,” a former minister said, as the group reached the yard. There, a familiar call-and-response broke out between small groups. “Say her name … Breonna Taylor.” How long they would be saying that name in Louisville’s streets to win change, no one was certain.

Source: Al Jazeera