It has been more than 160 days since Breonna Taylor, an EMT and aspiring nurse, was killed in her own home when three plainclothes Louisville police officers executing a “no-knock” warrant returned gunfire after her boyfriend fired a warning shot because he thought he was shooting at intruders.
Fueled by uncertainty over the criminal investigation into Taylor’s death, the city has become a powder keg as tensions remain high. On Tuesday, that fragility will be tested as protest organizers look to hold one of the largest demonstrations the city has seen since Taylor was struck by eight police bullets. Organizers plan to interrupt one of the state’s most treasured events, the Kentucky Derby, rescheduled for early September.
The city has been preparing for the protests and protestors have been undergoing training to prepare for Tuesday’s demonstration. Celebrities including NBA superstar LeBron James and Oprah Winfrey have helped to keep protesters’ efforts in the spotlight.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer held a press briefing Monday to address rumors and let the public know the city had been in contact with groups planning to demonstrate.
Fischer said he had been in contact with members of Until Freedom, a New York City-based social justice organization that has been stationed in Louisville since earlier this month. The organization’s mission is to get into “good trouble” in the name of Taylor by conducting peaceful protests every Tuesday.
“Their goal – as John Lewis said – is to create ‘good trouble’ that leads to a better, more racially equitable society and that’s a goal I hope we all can agree on,” Fischer said in reference to the phrase coined by the late-US representative and Civil Rights icon who famously said to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Tuesday’s event, which organizers say is expected to attract people from across the country, is a half-mile march from South Central Park, a central location, to the Louisville Metro Police Training Academy.
More than 200 people – some holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” – showed up on Tuesday chanting “Breonna Taylor” as they walked.
Months of protests
Fischer’s comments came after Louisville Chief of Police Robert Schroeder sent a memo, seen by CNN, to all department personnel declaring an “all work-day,” meaning all hands are on deck and no day off is allowed.
The city has already seen some protests grow tense.
In May and June, some of the peaceful protests descended into chaos, the National Guard was deployed, businesses were destroyed, and at least two Louisville residents were killed. The police chief said he would retire early and was later fired after it came to light that the officers involved in the shooting did not activate their body cameras.
In July, protesters marched to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s front lawn, and 87 people were arrested for criminal trespass, among other charges.
Earlier this month, the LMPD enforced a policy that resulted in the arrest of two protesters and six received citations for obstructing traffic when marching in the streets.
Louisville police said in a Facebook post on August 9 that officers began enforcing an ordinance that stops protesters from obstructing streets – an issue that surfaced during previous demonstrations.
Fischer, during Monday’s press conference, said violence, property destruction and blocking traffic could result in citations or arrests. He noted that racial justice is “a goal that we all support” but stressed the importance of maintaining order.
“We just have to balance the right to protest with our essential duty to preserve public safety; it’s not always an easy balance to strike, people have seen that, but that’s our job and that’s what we’re working hard every day to make possible,” he said.
Fischer acknowledged that there are other groups planning to make the trek to Louisville and authorities will be monitoring them. He said the Louisville police department has “plans in place and is ready to step in when needed to ensure order.”
“Our citizens deserve that, and I ask everybody to work with us on this goal of order and safety for everyone,” Fischer said, adding that their hope and expectation is that protests are peaceful.
Tamika Mallory, a co-founder of Until Freedom, told CNN when the LMPD enforces these types of laws – like barring protesters from marching in the streets – it is an attack on the “rules on a movement about disruption, you’re antagonizing people.”
Celebrities ‘continue to shed light’
The FBI is investigating whether Taylor’s civil rights were violated. Officials have not provided an update on the case’s status. Taylor’s mother has filed a lawsuit in civil court against the three officers.
Cameron, the state attorney general, dismissed rumors on Sunday night that there would be an imminent announcement on the criminal investigation, tweeting “the investigation remains ongoing…we continue to pursue the facts in this case through an independent and thorough investigation.”
What’s seen as a delay of justice for Taylor’s family has moved millions around the world, shaking the consciousness and gaining support from a wide group of stakeholders, including celebrities like James and Winfrey who have spoken out against racial injustice.
Last Tuesday, James and his Los Angeles Lakers’ teammates walked into the arena for their playoff game against the Portland Trail Blazers wearing red hats that looked like the MAGA hats worn by supporters of President Donald Trump. But the text on the hats read: “Make America Great Again Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor.”
The Lakers lost – but James seized the moment to send a powerful message.
“It’s just something that we continue to put our foot on the gas, continue to pressure,” he said.
“The situation that’s going on in Louisville, Kentucky, an innocent woman being killed, by the name of Breonna Taylor, a woman who had a bright future, and her life was taken away from her. There have been no arrests. There’s been no justice – not only for her but for her family. We want to continue to shed light on that situation. It’s just unjust.”
Following the Lakers’ game against Trail Blazers on Monday, James echoed his commitment to using his platform to elevate Black people. “I’ve got half of my brain locked in on the playoffs,” he said, “and the other half locked in on how the hell I can help Black people become greater in America.”
Winfrey’s O Magazine, in collaboration Until Freedom, erected 26 billboards around Louisville – one for each year of Taylor’s life to amplify her story – demanding the police officers involved in the shooting be arrested and charged. One of the billboards was vandalized, with red paint splattered across Taylor’s forehead.
As a rallying cry, the hashtag #SayHerName has been plastered across signs and social media, and sung at rallies by marchers for social justice across America this summer as the investigations for the deaths of Black men at the hands of police – including George Floyd – seem to have moved faster through the criminal justice system.
A different kind of Kentucky Derby
Since 1875, the Kentucky Derby has gone uninterrupted since World War II. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was rescheduled from May. The horses will also race without the cheers of fans in the stands.
The Churchill Downs racetrack is expected to be the focal point for demonstrators preparing to interrupt the sporting spectacle if Cameron fails to announce a decision on the criminal investigation before the Derby that happens on September 5.
The Not F**king Around Coalition (NFAC), an organized Black militia, is gearing up to interrupt the Derby if there is no resolution.
John Fitzgerald Johnson, founder of NFAC, which made its first appearance in Louisville on July 25, checked in with the proper law enforcement officials ahead of time before landing on the ground. The group, which consists of legally armed Black men and women, marched from downtown to the Hall of Justice to exercise their First and Second Amendment rights, said Johnson, who is also known as “The Grandmaster Jay.”
Johnson announced a call to action on the steps of the courthouse that day and demanded Cameron and Beshear be more transparent with the public about Taylor’s case. Johnson gave a stern four-week notice to the law enforcement agencies to start talking or “we gonna come back here” to make their presence known.
During their visit, one of the NFAC members accidentally dropped their weapon causing several shots to go off that injured three people. No arrests were made and the injuries were non-life threatening, police said.
Every time a notification of a news conference is published, or rumors spread throughout the community, it puts everyone on the edge, said Reece Chenault, the community coordinator for Black Lives Matter-Louisville.
“They board up their businesses in preparation … we are also dealing with a pandemic, so we are all on the edge,” Chenault said. “We are not familiar with this type of thing. The government just does not know how to handle this with the community, so people are left to speculate.”
‘Not going to stop fighting’
Since Taylor’s death, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously voted to pass “Breonna’s Law.” The city law bans the use of “no-knock” warrants, regulates how search warrants are conducted and mandates the use of body cameras during the searches.
While those measures are positive steps, State Rep. Charles Booker said there’s a lot of disappointment and frustration in the community on how the investigation is being handled.
Christopher 2X, local activists and the executive director of the Game Chargers, said the last time a police officer was indicted for killing a civilian in Louisville was in January 2004. The officer was fired from the department, indicted for the murder of 19-year-old Michael Newby, and acquitted after a jury trial by September of the same year.
“Every case after the Newby case has been slow moving – a five, six, seven, eight-month timeframe which has ignited the community … no officer had ever been held accountable for any of those shootings, even though they were questionable,” said Christopher 2X.
But Booker says, “there’s also a lot of resolve, too.”
“And that’s the part that gives me hope because you know we’re waiting to see what the decision is from our attorney general, the FBI investigation is underway, but we also realize that the bigger work of addressing generational poverty, structural racism, institutional racism and the dynamics in our city where equity has been perpetuated for years and years and years,” said Booker, adding, “We are not going to stop fighting.”
In a press conference on Monday, activists and the families of Taylor, Floyd and others impacted by police brutality, introduced a state version of Breonna’s Law – similar to one passed by the Louisville council members – and renewed their commitment to getting justice for Taylor.
The Breonna’s Law bill, introduced by Democratic State Rep. Attica Scott, would eliminate no-knock warrants. It also requires police to get tested for drugs and alcohol after an officer-involved shooting and mandates that body cameras be turned on before a warrant is served.
Many at the press conference – including Brandon Williams, Floyd’s nephew, and attorneys Lonita Baker, Ben Crump and S. Lee Merritt – spoke out about the death of Taylor and need to stop police shootings.
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, pushed for communities to keep fighting for the justice of those who died.
“We got to continue this fight, we got to continue to struggle,” Fulton said. “And it’s not easy but we have to do it. And we can do it together, we can do it united, and we can do it, we definitely can do it.”
Several also referenced the recent shootings of Trayford Pellerin in Louisiana and Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, and emphasized their desire to end their “club” of families who have lost people in police shootings.
“We don’t need new bodies,” Merritt told reporters. “We have enough – we have enough tragic stories to go around. And if we are going to declare an end to it, we do it in the names of the bodies that already exist and in the names of the people who still yet to come. We have to stop this culture. We are done dying.”
CNN’s Mark Morales and Taylor Romine contributed to this report.