The Deep Roots Of Louisville’s Rage Over The Police Killing Of Breonna Taylor

Sixteen years ago, one of America’s most segregated cities almost became “Ferguson before Ferguson.” After police killed a young black woman, it erupted again.

For each of the past two nights, large protests have broken out on the streets of downtown Louisville, Kentucky, much as they have in cities across the country after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a Black man, on Monday.

In Louisville, the focus is another police killing. Hundreds of demonstrators have gathered in Kentucky’s largest city to denounce the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police fatally shot inside her home in March.

Unlike many of the other high-profile deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police that have generated similar protests, Taylor’s was not caught on film. But video isn’t necessary to understand the gruesome and unnecessary nature of her death. Early on the morning of March 13, police executed a “no knock” warrant at the apartment Taylor shared with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, while both lay asleep in bed.

When police entered, Walker — who has said he never heard police announce their presence — fired a single shot that hit an officer in the leg. Three officers ― Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and detectives Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison ― responded with more than 20 gunshots, eight of which struck Taylor, killing her. Audio of Walker’s 911 call was released Thursday: “I don’t know what is happening,” Walker exclaimed on the call. “Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” Kentucky’s attorney general and the FBI are both investigating the killing.

After seven people were shot during Thursday night’s protests in Louisville, President Donald Trump seized on the incident to try to discredit the protesters’ message. But the president’s cynical (and racist) response should not obscure the essential truth: The demonstrations in Louisville, much like those in Minneapolis and other cities, are about much more than one death at the hands of police, or even a handful of them.

“The unrest and the frustration you’re seeing in the killing of Breonna Taylor is just as much of a cumulative effect of years of pain, frustration, anguish and injustice as it is about how horribly devastating this incident has been,” said Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (D), who is from and represents part of West Louisville.

Booker, the youngest Black person elected to the Kentucky legislature in nearly 90 years, is currently running in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary to face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has called for “truth, accountability and justice” for Taylor and condemned the violence in a Friday statement.

“This is not a moment to figure out how to condemn or condescend or dictate how people should protest or express their pain,” Booker told HuffPost on Friday. “This is a moment to understand where their pain is coming from and to respond to it and honor their humanity.”

Booker added: “We have a responsibility to hear them and to honor their constitutional rights and protections under the law. We just cannot afford to miss this opportunity yet again.”

Grafitti artist Resko paints a mural near where a protest march started on May 29 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Grafitti artist Resko paints a mural near where a protest march started on May 29 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Brett Carlsen via Getty Images

Black Louisvillians have been protesting against police brutality for decades, and the anger and urgency on display this week has deeper roots ― in the city’s persistent segregation, its decades of economic neglect of Black communities, its long-standing lack of accountability for police and its refusal to do anything about any of it.

“The shooting of Breonna Taylor here in Louisville was the spark,” said Dr. Kevin Cosby, a pastor at St. Stephen Church and president of Simmons College of Kentucky, a Louisville HBCU. “But the gunpowder in the powder keg is what Martin Luther King Jr. called three things: social isolation, economic deprivation and emotional frustration.”

“West Louisville,” Cosby said of the side of the city where most of its Black population lives, “is one of the most socially isolated, economically deprived communities in America.”

‘We Almost Had Our Ferguson Before Ferguson’

Louisville fancies itself a progressive oasis in the middle of the deeply conservative and mostly rural state. But like many cities of its ilk, that progressivism does not and never has fully extended to matters of race or to the nearly 25% of its population that is Black.

Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in America, but its white residents are shielded from what that means, thanks to the Ninth Street Divide, which functions exactly as its name implies. The majority of the city’s Black population lives west of that line, and on that side of town, a lack of economic opportunity and decades of intentional disinvestment have generated a cycle of poverty that, when mapped, still follows Louisville’s original redlines ― the bank lending barriers responsible for much of the country’s urban segregation ― almost exactly.

It takes something dramatic to break that wall. In 2004, McKenzie Mattingly, a white Louisville metro police officer, killed Michael Newby, a Black teenager, after an undercover drug deal gone wrong. Mattingly originally claimed Newby had been armed and posed a threat to his life; later, it became clear that he’d shot the teenager in the back three times.

It was the seventh police killing of a Black male in Louisville in a five-year span and sparked mass protests in the city. The demonstrations resulted in clashes between police and protesters. The city nearly reached the sort of breaking point that happened instead, a decade later, in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer touched off protests that drew nationwide attention to police brutality and helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We almost had our Ferguson before Ferguson,” Christopher 2X, a Louisville activist who worked alongside Newby’s family at the time, said Friday.

Mattingly was arrested and charged with murder and wanton endangerment that April, a move that helped quell the protests but not the tension. He was acquitted on all charges in September 2004. When he tried to return to the Louisville police force years later, the chief told him he’d never work as a cop in the city again.

The Newby killing gave Louisville an obvious chance to do something about the systemic and structural discrimination plaguing its city. But while it held one officer semi-accountable, it did little to address the larger problems at hand.

In recent years, the city’s Human Relations Commission, a governmental body, produced reports on housing segregation and a 20-year plan to address it. A local urban planner mapped the links of redlining and current-day poverty and housing, proving the systemic nature of the city’s current inequality; the city held events highlighting the project.

But change has been slow, even as the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter joined the national movement in staging demonstrations against police brutality and other issues. It holds meetings, called Stand Up Sundays, to draw attention to ongoing racial disparities in Louisville. Activists have demanded better affordable housing policies, called for investment into West Louisville communities and asked for real reforms and oversight for police. In the eyes of many activists, not much has changed at all.

“You know how forest fires start. You’ve got these little kindlings of flames happening, and all the sudden if there’s too many of those popping up, there’s a breaking point. And here we go, with another breaking point.”

- Christopher 2X

There are reasons why Louisville has continued this way. Louisville is a one-party town where Democrats have a firm grip on the mayoralty and hold 19 of 26 Metro Council seats, and the police union holds tremendous political power in primaries and general elections.

The biggest reason, though, is that white Louisvillians who, like white Americans more broadly, prosper from the unequal and segregated city they created have refused to listen and decided that nothing needs to change. And white Louisvillians, like white Americans, have continued to demand a police force that protects them and their property from Black communities, rather than one that offers the same protection they receive to Black people too.

Cosby quoted from the 1968 Kerner Commission, a White House-sponsored study of the causes of the race riots that broke out nationwide, and accurately described the problems: “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission wrote in its report. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”

That has only intensified over the last decade, as Louisville has re-urbanized and gentrified communities white residents once fled. Frustration has mounted in Black communities over continued police abuses and white Louisville’s refusal to listen, said Christopher 2X, whose Game Changers organization works with young Louisvillians in an effort to reduce violence.

“You know how forest fires start,” he said. “You’ve got these little kindlings of flames happening, and all the sudden if there’s too many of those popping up, there’s a breaking point. And here we go, with another breaking point.”

‘We Demand Change’

Thursday’s protests began early in the evening. They escalated when police began to fire rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds, according to a protester who was present. (Police have said they didn’t fire tear gas until they heard shots.)

Amid the chaos, gunshots rang out, and at least seven people were wounded, police said. Police have said they were not responsible for the gunshots, and no suspect has been identified.

Protesters gathered outside of City Hall after a peaceful march across the city on May 29 in Louisville.
Protesters gathered outside of City Hall after a peaceful march across the city on May 29 in Louisville.
Brett Carlsen via Getty Images

Taylor’s family issued a statement thanking the protesters while calling for them to avoid the sort of violence “that we see out of police.”

“We are so grateful for everyone giving Bre a voice tonight, for saying her name, for demanding truth, for demanding justice and for demanding accountability,” the family said. “Please keep demanding this. But please keep it peaceful. Do not succumb to the levels that we see out of the police. Speak. Protest. But do not resort to violence. We demand change. We demand reform. But we do not need for our community to get hurt. We need for our community to get justice. Thank you all so very much.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, on Friday suspended police from using “no knock” warrants that allow them to enter homes after merely announcing their presence. Fischer also launched a working group to create a new civilian review board, with full subpoena power, to oversee Louisville police, as many local activists have long demanded.

But that’s just a starting point.

“Everything he said today should have already happened, from the ‘no knock’ warrants to bringing the police department under civilian review,” said Terry Brown, a Louisville blogger and radio host whose father served on the city’s police force. “That should have been done. Everything my dad said should have happened with the police in the 1980s and 1990s, they’re now trying to do.”

Fischer has faced calls from protesters and lawmakers to fire the officers who shot Taylor. Booker, the state representative, told HuffPost that the FBI and attorney general investigations should be “expedited” and that the officers should face “the full weight of the law.”

Fischer has said that he is seeking “truth and justice” in the case through the attorney general and FBI investigations into the killing.

“The easiest short term solution is to fire and arrest all those who were involved,” said Deonte Hollowell, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Louisville’s Spalding University who studies police relationships with Black communities. “People being fired is not the end of the story. Police being arrested is not the end of the story. But I think the public sees that, and they at least have some level of trust in their system to act appropriately.”

Popular in the Community


What's Hot