It’s not yet been two weeks since Louisville protests for racial justice began, but already demonstrators — many whom have never protested in their lives — are organizing.
From the first night’s spontaneous outpouring of grief amid gunshots and tear gas, to last Sunday, when demonstrators transformed Jefferson Square Park to something akin to a neighborhood festival with live music, speeches, free food and drinks, voter registration, a community-run medic tent and a large blue and white memorial for Breonna Taylor.
A decentralized framework of nonprofits, advocacy organizations and people just showing up are coordinating the demonstrations. They are receiving and sharing donations, taking turns at the microphone and coordinating action.
But there is one group that’s seems foundational to almost everything else: the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
“Every day we’ve been out here bringing supplies; it’s a coalition of groups that are all against police abuse and brutality and all want to see justice for Breonna Taylor,” said co-chair Shameka Parrish-Wright. “We are just asking that those officers are fired, arrested, prosecuted. She was murdered, there’s no other way around it.”
Stand around the square long enough, and eventually you’ll hear a protest public service announcement from someone like Chris Will, Formation In Racial Matters (FIRM), president.
“Hello everyone,” Will said Sunday. “Y’all know what we about to go over.” Will explains that protesters who are injured should cross their arms in an “X” over their heads, and everyone nearby too, to help medics identify the injured. “We had 26 incidents yesterday, zero casualties,” Will said.
Jefferson Square Park has the feel of a block party right now. Heard there were large groups out here earlier, still a couple hundred milling about at least. You can hear music, people laughing, conversing. pic.twitter.com/Um7UFE0rXE
— Ryan Van Velzer (@RyanVanVelzer) June 7, 2020
The medics are all volunteer. They handle dehydration, low blood sugar and sprained ankles. But should someone get seriously injured, their goal would be to keep someone alive until an ambulance can arrive.
“Some of us are more basic first aid types, some have had a lot more experience and medical training and there are even some people who are former combat medics,” said one volunteer medic, who declined to give their name.
When the protesters start marching, medics follow along in cars. They maintain a presence in the front, middle and back of the demonstration. The marchers also work with people in cars who drive ahead to block, redirect traffic at intersections and handout water, Will said.
Here you see protesters doing their own traffic management on Broadway. pic.twitter.com/NCRDvj9r37
— Ryan Van Velzer (@RyanVanVelzer) June 8, 2020
They are also policing their own, and that includes talking with anyone who might be mulling throwing a rock through a window, Will said.
“We are just holding everyone accountable. I think we are just preaching that ‘accountability’ word, like any guys in the middle of a protest that are like, ‘Oh I’m going to throw a rock,’’ he said. “The whole crowd is checking like, ‘No you’re not going to mess up this peaceful protest.”
Donations of food, first aid supplies and water are flowing in, according to conversations with volunteers. Over the weekend, Chaunda Lee fed hundreds home-cooked meals: catfish, baked beans, potato salad, mac and cheese and green beans.
“I just come out to help my community,” Lee said. “Everybody deserves happiness and if I can help them with their happiness just by giving them a plate of my food. That’s what I’m going to do every day of my life.”
The square has also become a place for dialogue, speeches and voter registration.
In the last week, lists of demands have been posted to social media and shouted over megaphones. They range in scope, but the themes include: firing and arresting the police involved in Breonna Taylor’s death; revising police union contracts; ending no-knock-warrants; and defunding the police. The notion of defunding the police is based on the belief that police budgets have swelled to address societal problems that they are not equipped to solve, like homelessness and drug addiction.
And people who have never protested in their lives are showing up at Jefferson Square Park for civics lessons.
Robert Thompson spoke Sunday night about his petition to make police union contract negotiations more transparent.
“We want to make sure that the police can do their job, that’s what the union is for, so that they are treated fairly,” Thompson said. “But when you have people who are doing bad things and they are being protected by the same contract, something has gone wrong.”
The language in his petition calls for transparent bargaining between the police union and the city. He said he’s already received more than 500 signatures.
Over the last nearly two weeks, several voices have begun to rise to prominence. One of them belongs to Emanuel Mitchell, 31, who has led marches since the first day of protests, and was also at 26th and Broadway announcing a small victory over a megaphone when police left on the day after law enforcement shot and killed David McAtee.
“They always told me you get a little bit more with sugar than you do with salt, you know, so I feel like we’ve really found the love and the peace that we was looking for in our community,” Mitchell said of the unity that’s emerged.
Long-standing figures in the community have also appeared in Jefferson Square Park, giving their blessing to younger generations. Rhonda Mathis, 69, is the former chair of the Kentucky Alliance and has been involved in the fight for racial justice for decades.
“It feels good to see the changing of the guard and the young people rising to the occasion,” Mathis said. “And they are standing their ground and not backing down.”
If the question is what happens next? The answer from protesters is clear: “organize.”