They call themselves the J-5. That’s the cell most of them were held in at Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, and it’s where most of them met after being arrested for participating in protests on Sunday, May 31.
“They put us in there to stop our spirits,” 24-year-old protester Markice Armstrong said. But that’s not how it worked out.
In Louisville’s Central Park this weekend, about a dozen men and women who were arrested and locked up together gathered again. Though most had just met, they had the ease of longtime friends. Since their release they’ve stayed in touch through text and social media. And some configuration of the J-5 has been out every day to participate in protests against police violence and systemic racism.
“Literally every day we have connected,” Markice said. “This is what they don’t want to see: unity. They don’t want to see us together, standing for the right cause.”
Across the nation and in Louisville, people are protesting against police brutality. Police in Louisville have backed off protesters in the last few days, allowing them to march and chant late into the night. But that was not the case last Sunday, May 31, when police cracked down on protesters with an aggressive response, and the J-5 members were arrested and locked up on charges from breaking curfew to rioting.
They say the night, its violence and dangers, only underscored the reason they were there in the first place.
‘A feeling of fear that you’ve never had before’
It was just after the 9 p.m. curfew on the fourth consecutive day of protests, and there was still a little light in the sky as a crowd of hundreds of protesters marched down Broadway towards the Highlands. As the group made their way under the I-65 overpass, chanting “no justice no peace,” a caravan of law enforcement blocked the road.
There was a brief standoff, then a protester threw a water bottle. Police let loose with pepper balls.
Markice Armstrong was there with his younger brother, Christian, 22. He says the police had protesters trapped.
“Their intention was to put us all in jail that night,” Armstrong said. “There was no way of just trying to get us to disperse because if you boxed us in, how would we leave if we’re trapped in a box?”
In the shuffle, Markice and Christian lost sight of each other.
While Markice fled on foot, Christian hopped a ride with a stranger, another protester who had been following the march down Broadway in his truck. Suddenly, the police cut them off.
Christian said Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) officers pulled them from the car and started hitting him with batons, yelling conflicting instructions.
“Then they give me orders to put my hands behind my back, and then as they are doing that, somebody else is telling me to put my hands out,” he said.
“And there are so many people beating me. I see one of them drop his baton, pick it back up, and then he keeps beating me,” he said.
He was terrified.
“I was just scared out of this world. It’s like a feeling of fear that you never had before,” he said.
The protester driving the car, 20-year-old Hunter Johnson, told WFPL News that police pulled him from the vehicle too, and threw him on the pavement next to Christian. He said he saw about five LMPD officers beating his new friend.
In pictures Christian provided to WFPL News, the skin on his legs was broken and bruised in long marks where he said the baton landed. His right forearm was still swollen and red when he met with a reporter six days later.
Jessie Halladay, a spokeswoman for LMPD, said Christian did not mention any mistreatment or show any sign of injuries when he was processed, but that he is free to file a complaint.
While his younger brother was taking a beating, Markice was getting arrested nearby. He said his arrest was not violent, and he didn’t know what was happening to Christian.
“He could have been the next one on the news,” he said. “We could have been chanting his name out there.”
As young black men, that’s what Markice and Christian Armstrong worry about –that one day they could lose their lives at the hands of police: Like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd did, and like David McAtee would later that night, a few miles down the same street. They were there to protest the police killings of Black people. And in doing so, they said, they experienced violence from police.
Records show Markice was charged with unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct and an unspecified misdemeanor. Christian was charged with first-degree rioting. Though the protests appeared peaceful and non-destructive, arrest documents say Christian was “involved in a riot where property was damaged.”
The Armstrong brothers were taken separately to Louisville Metro Corrections, but they were relieved when they ended up in the same cell — J-5. But they say conditions were terrible, as they were crammed in with at least two dozen other men.
Officers gave inmates masks, but Markice said that very few guards wore them. Ten inmates and at least 24 staff at the Louisville Metro jail have tested positive for coronavirus.
“With COVID-19 being such a big thing… why no mask? We had no soap to wash our hands,” Markice said. “Everybody was basically sitting on top of each other. At one point we had 30-something people in one cell.”
One of those 30-something people was 21-year-old Jorden Ward. Markice met Ward on Sunday night at the protest, before he was also arrested on charges of unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct and an unspecified misdemeanor. Ward said police dragged him across the pavement before arresting him and taking him to cell J-5. Once there, he said people slept on top of each other, head to toe, and that him and his cellmates were denied water for at least 12 hours.
“They had one styrofoam cup for all of us,” Ward said. “And who’s going to use a styrofoam cup after so many have used it, especially in the type of situation we’re in.”
Also in the cell that night was Matt Kaufmann, who happens to be the state’s 2020 high school teacher of the year for his work teaching English at the Marion C. Moore School. Kaufmann, who was charged with violating curfew, said he and his cellmates didn’t get to wash their hands and were not given hand sanitizer.
“And so in my mind, I’m thinking this is like biological terrorism,” Kaufmann said. “You’re putting us here at risk to get COVID-19 and then go out into the community to infect the people we love.”
Kaufmann is white, but he’s especially worried about the impact of COVID-19 on Black Louisville residents, like the men he was locked up with. The disease has already been hitting Louisville’s Black residents disproportionately harder than any other group.
While the men huddled in J-5, Ari Tulay, 19, was in another cell with about 20 other women who were arrested. That’s where she met Ashanti O’Neal, 22, who was arrested for violating curfew.
Tulay was arrested for breaking curfew and disorderly conduct. She and O’Neal say the women were huddled next to each other in the cold cell, and the guards wouldn’t provide blankets. Instead, the women said blankets were visible in the hallway, just out of reach.
“They teased us with blankets, they put them in the hallway,” O’Neal said. “There was no reason those blankets should have been in the hallway.”
Some of the protesters were held for three days without a court hearing. Steve Durham, a spokesman for the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections said in an email that arraignment was unexpectedly canceled on Monday, delaying releases. Durham also said they took precautions to protect inmates from coronavirus, but that distancing was difficult.
“In the specific period you’re asking about, 87 people were processed into custody in a very short time,” a statement from Durham reads.
“You can’t block that much sunlight in a dark place’
A few days after they got out of jail, the group reunited at Central Park. They’re seeing a lot of each other these days, and have been back at protests all week along with the people they met in jail Sunday night. That includes James Robinson, a student at the University of Louisville who was held for three days at LMDC. He said their experience only made them more committed.
“They put us in there, they let us think and fester on things and really have time to speak on it,” Robison said. “Y’all should be afraid of our minds now, and what we are capable of doing in the right way.”
Markice Armstrong said the police who put them in jail may have thought they were discouraging protests. But it didn’t work out that way.
“You can’t block that much sunlight in a dark place,” Markice said. “We all knew what we were fighting for, so that just brought us even more together…You created a bad situation for yourself because we’re not going to stop fighting until we get justice.”