When protesters and police converged on downtown Louisville early Friday evening, tensions were already running high. Thursday’s protests over the police shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor had turned violent, with seven people shot from within the crowd.
There were no reported incidents of gun violence Friday. But by every other measure, things escalated quickly and stayed that way long into the night.
Initially, protesters marched in a loop around the blocks surrounding the court house and city hall. Some people played music. Many said they were hopeful there
would be no violence or vandalism.
“That’s what we’re out here for, peaceful protests,” said Simmons College of Kentucky student William Pennybaker. “We want justice for Breonna Taylor. We don’t want to tear up the city or anything like that. We just want justice for Breonna Taylor.”
But that peaceful atmosphere quickly devolved. Protesters shattered windows at the courthouse and threw red paint all over the steps. A group of people pulled down the American and Louisville flags, spray painted them and lit them on fire.
Meanwhile, police in riot gear formed a wall at the intersection of 5th and Jefferson, facing off with protesters. When they attempted to get an armored vehicle down the street, protesters lay in front of it. It wasn’t long before the police fired the first round of tear gas, causing protesters to scatter, eyes streaming.
From that first flare of tear gas, the protest splintered into several groups and never quite found its way back to full strength. The largest group of protesters moved their march to Bardstown Road. That group was, by some estimates, 400 people strong and seemed to move fairly peacefully through the Highlands neighborhood up to Eastern Parkway before they turned around.
Meanwhile, downtown, the remaining protesters engaged in skirmish after skirmish with the police. They’d face up to the police, chanting “No Justice, No Peace, Prosecute The Police” before being dispersed by tear gas. After a lap around the block and some milk for the eyes, they’d confront a different group of officers, who’d respond with flash-bangs and pepper balls.
This went on for hours, and was marked by serious vandalism. Protesters lit trash can fires, broke windows and spray painted buildings. On many blocks, more storefronts were smashed out than were left untouched.
All the while, LMPD kept a large portion of manpower stretched across Jefferson St. At one point, it looked like well over 50 officers were holding the line against roughly 20 young adults protesting peacefully.
Meanwhile, at 4th Street Live, people looted the T-Mobile store, among others, smashed windows and lit bushes on fire. One woman stood outside Gordon Biersch with a baseball bat, hoping to protect the business from further destruction.
“it is very difficult when the crowd has dispersed into these separate groups to try to keep a handle on that,” said LMPD spokesperson Jessie Halladay. “We also know that there are challenges to creating conflict between officers and individuals, so we are trying to stay hands off as we can.”
Mayor Greg Fischer condemned the vandalism in an update a little after 1 a.m.
“There is no excuse for the destruction of property we’ve seen this evening,” he said. “This is not protest. It is violence.”
David McGuire drove downtown to check on his art gallery, Craft Gallery and Mercantile, and found one of his glass windows completely shattered. He was worried about how to protect the expensive art inside, and frustrated about the lack of police presence on 4th Street.
“I have, like, a ball bat inside,” he said. “What am I supposed to do? I’m just a small
business owner. Why is busting my door in helping the situation?”
Breonna Taylor’s sister Juniyah Palmer condemned the vandalism and looting, which went on into the early morning hours.
“What you guys started at the beginning was fine and correctly done,” she wrote. “But once y’all started vandalism, you took my sister’s name out of place.”