After five days of escalating clashes between police and protesters Louisville got a reprieve Tuesday night. Police seemed to pull back, allowing a crowd of hundreds to peacefully walk through the streets of the city unbothered.
This apparent change of tactic follows the police killing of David McAtee, a west Louisville business owner shot around 12:15 a.m. Monday when Louisville Metro Police Department and the Kentucky National Guard arrived to break up a gathering after curfew. Officers from both LMPD and the National Guard fired at McAtee. Authorities released a video on Tuesday they allege shows McAtee fired first.
Following McAtee’s shooting death, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Tuesday that he would reduce the National Guard presence in Louisville. Though LMPD made no similar statements, Tuesday evening’s response to a demonstration represented a clear departure from the previous days’ tactics of dispersing protesters with tear gas, pepper balls and flash-bangs.
Mayor Greg Fischer came out to talk with protesters where they had gathered at Jefferson Square around 6 p.m. Afterwards, a handful of officers moved through the crowd, sans riot gear.
They stopped and spoke with protesters, including Charnette Batty. She’d been at the protests every day but this was the first time she’d felt safe talking with an officer.
“It was just nice to have a conversation with someone in uniform after these last couple of days feeling like no one was on my side,” she said. “I think it’s really healing to be able to talk to officers. They’re all just normal human beings. It’s all about the training and conditioning.”
Batty asked the officers if she could sing to them. As she sang a hymn — “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me” — the whole park gathered to listen. Police officers were surrounded by hundreds of protesters, but if they were worried, you couldn’t tell. One of them swayed to the music. Another cheered when Batty hit a high note.
After the gathering in Jefferson Square Park the demonstrators embarked on what would become an epic walk around the city of Louisville, while law enforcement made themselves scarce. Police and the Kentucky National Guard gathered in potential protest hotspots, but stayed out of the way of the protesters.
The demonstrators remained peaceful as they marched around downtown, through Butchertown, Phoenix Hill, the Highlands. They blocked streets — but let cars through as needed. They honked, chanted and played music from the cars that soon joined the walking tour.
LMPD spokesperson Jessie Halladay said in an email that the police had not fired any tear gas or other munitions as of midnight Tuesday, because they had not seen any destructive or violent behavior.
For many protesters, this was a start towards rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the community. Others said it was too little, too late — and several speculated that David McAtee would still be alive if police had taken this more conciliatory approach from the start.
But either way, everyone seemed happy to have a night off from the tear gas and the pepper balls. Without law enforcement to worry about, the crowd walked for hours around the city, eventually ending up at 26th and Broadway, where McAtee was killed.
At one point, right around midnight, police and protesters did intersect, just as the crowd made its way back downtown. It was briefly tense, but then the officers stepped out of the way, allowing the crowd to continue their march in peace.