It wouldn’t be Kentucky Derby day without a group of out-of-towners descending on downtown Louisville. But the crowd gathered at Cox Park was not there for a party.
It was almost all white men, many of them armed and wearing military style gear. Some wore patches with the logo of the far-right militia group known as the three percenters.
Dylan Stevens, who organized the protest, kicked things off. He’s popular on Facebook under the pseudonym the “Angry Viking.” He said the gathering was a show of support for police.
But it was also an implicit warning to those planning other protests for later that day. Several national groups had come to town, hoping to use the spotlight of the Kentucky Derby to draw attention to police brutality, racial injustice and the killing of Breonna Taylor.
Speaking to the crowd, Stevens praised the actions of the 17-year-old white kid who shot and killed two people during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin late last month.
“He better not have to buy a beer the rest of his life,” he said.
After a few hours of mingling at the park, the group headed downtown, where they collided with the exact group they’d just been railing against. The armed self-described “patriots” faced off with a group of about 100 Black Lives Matter protesters.
It was tense — there was shoving, there was yelling, there was negotiating, as leaders of both groups tried frantically to keep their members from escalating the situation.
But, there were no police, for nearly an hour. Officers arrived only after the group led by Stevens had begun to pull back. LMPD Deputy Chief LaVita Chavous said in a press briefing later that police had been nearby.
“Sometimes when we go into a situation or an area, it may escalate the situation, tensions may rise,” she said. “So we monitor the situation and look to see that both parties were trying to break apart. And so we had no need really to go into the situation until it was safe to do so.”
That was the most volatile situation of the day, though the day itself was far from over. As the 7 p.m. post time got closer, two other groups of protesters began gathering en masse near Churchill Downs.
NFAC, a Black militia group, gathered at G.G. Moore Park. They were dressed in all black, guns slung over their shoulders, as they lined up in military formation. Their leader, John Fitzgerald Johnson, who goes by Grandmaster Jay, said they were there to demand action.
“There is no other way to speak to power except with power,” he told the people assembled. “The guns emphasize our power. The guns are just a tool. Power only respects power.”
NFAC members marched to Churchill Downs where they sat on the grass, across the street from a line of police.
Meanwhile, at nearby South Central Park, hundreds of people gathered for a non-violent protest organized by the national group Until Freedom.
Atlanta Pastor Jamal Bryant said the Derby shows that Louisville has its priorities wrong.
“But the same way that you protect those horses, you ought to be protecting Black children from being gunned down in the street,” he said. “We’re glad the police have shown up today, but where are the police when it is that [people] are being mowed down senselessly like dogs in the street?”
Khalila Collins has been protesting in Louisville for 101 days.
“I’m tired, I’m tired of this,” she said. “I’m tired of having to protest. I’m tired of being scared of being shot in my home. I’m tired for my children, my brothers, my sisters, we’re always a target and I’m tired of it.”
The group set off to march around Churchill Downs with police following closely. Eventually, with 20 minutes until race time, they arrived at the front of the venue — running smack dab into NFAC.
There was tension between the two groups for a moment, but then, NFAC left. Hundreds of protesters remained, chanting louder and louder as race time drew closer.
After a long day of protests — and the fastest two minutes in sports, which saw Authentic winning the roses — the crowd broke up peacefully, heading back to the park for a bite to eat.
Reporters Ryan Van Velzer, Jacob Ryan, Ryland Barton and Stephanie Wolf contributed to this story.