This story has been updated.
Standing on the steps of Louisville’s Metro Hall, where so many of Louisville’s leaders have called for justice for Breonna Taylor, a new voice emerged Saturday.
The voice was flanked by men and women in black body armor, black boots, black button shirts and black weapons.
“Can y’all hear me?” John Fitzgerald “Grandmaster Jay” Johnson called out first to the hundreds of protesters gathered at the base of the steps, then to his formation of armed Black militia members standing in the middle of Jefferson Street in downtown Louisville.
Johnson’s voice resounded from the same steps where protesters have cheered at the passage of Breonna’s Law, the same place where protesters were shot during the first night’s demonstration, where people have been tear gassed and pepper balled, where peaceful protesters have put their bodies on the line to demand justice for Breonna Taylor.
But on Saturday, the “Not F***ing Around Coalition” founder presented a radically different message to the city of Louisville. Backed by an estimated 250 armed militia members, Johnson demanded transparency and answers into the investigation of the police shooting of Breonna Taylor.
LMPD officers shot and killed Taylor in March. The investigation into her death has been turned over to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who has so far declined to put a timeline on when his investigation might conclude.
Over the last week, Johnson has spoken with Metro Council President David James and Cameron. On Saturday, Johnson alleged the reason the investigation has taken so long is because LMPD did not properly investigate Taylor’s death, and now the state has to start from scratch.
“They gotta go figure out which way the bullets came from. They got to go and do everything that should have been read and written down,” Johnson said.
The validity of those claims is unclear. Attorney General Daniel Cameron released a statement confirming he spoke with Johnson and was committing to a thorough investigation into Taylor’s death, but that he wouldn’t “comment on any specifics related to the timeline of the investigation.”
Jean Porter, a spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Fischer, said in an email the Kentucky Attorney General has no qualms with LMPD’s investigation, however Cameron’s office has not itself said that.
“[The Attorney General’s Office} has had the file since late May. Both LMPD and Amy Hess, chief of Public Safety, have been in contact with the AG’s office and been told they have no questions or concerns about the quality of the [LMPD Public Integrity Unit} work,” Porter said.
Over the last two months, thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for Taylor. On Friday alone, police arrested 76 protesters in NuLu. Both Johnson and protesters say it’s taken too long to get that justice. And now, Johnson said, he’s bringing a different approach.
“You all look like you all need a little help. Not the kind of help that you could sing about. The kind of help that puts people in the hospital. That put people in the ground. Like they’ve been doing us,” Johnson told the crowd.
Johnson’s militia has been around only about two months. The group marched through Stone Mountain, Georgia, outside of Atlanta on the Fourth of July, opposing white supremacy and calling for the removal of the large Confederate monument there.
Earlier in the day Saturday, the NFAC gathered in Baxter Park to prepare for the march. While there, one member accidentally discharged a firearm, injuring three people.
An estimated 50 right-wing, mostly white, militia members also appeared downtown Saturday, separated on the east side of Fifth Street by police barriers.
Later, downtown, Johnson explicitly threatened violence if officials fail to provide answers within four weeks in the Taylor investigation. He recommended Louisvillians arm themselves and organize. Then, in call and response, he asked the crowd to repeat after him:
“I need y’all to repeat after me: if we don’t get the truth, the whole truth, and the mother****ing truth, we are, going to, burn this mother****er down,” he said.
J.J. MacNab is an expert on extremism with George Washington University. She says ultimatums are a common tactic of extremist groups. However, she said this one appeared to be much more direct than others.
“There’s usually all these extra little catch phrases in the middle. But this was much more in your face,” MacNab said. “He had a list of demands, and he had his private army beside him to backup those demands, that if he didn’t get what he wanted he would be effectively unleashing his private army onto Louisville.”
Some protesters are not happy the NFAC is here and oppose any calls for violence. Rosie Henderson, who has helped in the background to organize protests since they began, said she doesn’t want to see any armed outsider groups in town. She believes peaceful, intersectional protests are the right way to preserve Taylor’s memory, she said.
Others, including Chanelle Helm with Black Lives Matter Louisville, did not necessarily oppose the use of force, but did not appreciate an outside organization coming into town and not working with local movements.
“[Johnson] really needs to mind his own business. If he’s down from Georgia he needs to do work down there,” Helm said. “There is a proper protocol in Black resistance work, and that was a show that was put on today.”
Helm and others say that you cannot discuss the use of force in the context of a Black militia without understanding the history of violence perpetrated against Black Americans.
Shameka Parrish-Wright, co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, said Black people have been victims of racist violence throughout the country’s history, including police violence.
“I think police threaten people every day. I think the people have terrorized people and made people feel unsafe. So if this makes people wake up, if it makes them pay more attention, I think that’s great,” she said, noting that is not how she operates.
City officials have not yet responded to Johnson’s threat.
This story has been updated to clarify that three people were hurt by the discharge of the firearm.