Community

Jessica Sayles was walking the streets she’d protested on the day before, surveying the damage left behind, when she came upon Louisville’s mayor finishing up a press conference.

He was standing at the corner of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. It’s also known at Thomas Merton Square, and a historical marker there documents the revelation that Merton, a Catholic monk, had on that corner.

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people,” Merton wrote about that now-famous moment. “[T]hat they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

Sayles, a 25-year-old Black woman from Louisville, had started protesting at 4 p.m. the day before. She watched Fischer’s press conference at 1 a.m. She saw him denounce the violence, she said, and congratulate the police. But she didn’t hear much about why she and the other protesters were upset.

And she had a question when she walked up and saw Mayor Greg Fischer: where were you last night?

I didn’t know where you were, Fischer responded.

“There were militarized police outside the Yum Center and we didn’t even do anything,” she said, her voice rising as media cameras rolled. “We were sitting down half the time. It is unfortunate… it’s very unfair.”

In an interview later, Sayles said she knows Fischer personally, though she’s not sure if he recognized her within the context of the confrontation. And the night before, she said she was shot with pepper balls as she peacefully demonstrated. She just walked down the block to survey the damage to a bar owned by a friend of hers. She thought the mayor waited too long to say something to people who are still hurting over the March 13 death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Metro Police bullets.

Fischer said thank you. She kept talking.

“You still have officers that are walking around that killed someone in their sleep,” she said, her voice breaking. “An innocent person! And they’re still free.”

With that, as she continued to shout, Fischer walked away.

The previous night, dozens of business owners saw their windows busted out and inventory looted as Louisville Metro Police and Kentucky State Police officers fired tear gas and pepper balls to disperse crowds. On Thursday, the first night of protests, seven people were shot during a protest that was largely peaceful until that moment.

Saturday morning, Fischer was announcing a new state of emergency and a curfew that would be enforced by the National Guard. A reporter asked Sayles if she thought the riots still would have happened even if Fischer came out and spoke. She said she doesn’t know.

“I will say that if they would have came out there and absolutely tried to have a discussion with people, people would have listened, and they failed to do that,” she told a WFPL reporter.

“They came to us with riot gear. They didn’t come to us to have a conversation.”

Sayles said she hopes these protests cause people to pay more attention to the core source of these issues: police brutality, gentrification, poor neighborhood logistics.

“I really think the people of Louisville are tired, and I think that we have a wave of energy happening through the country right now that’s been pent up through years and years of oppression,” she said.

“You can only shake up a Coke bottle so many times before the top explodes. I think we’re starting to see the top exploding right now.”

Kate Howard is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.