- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Breonna Taylor was killed by police in a late-night raid in her apartment on March 13 in Louisville, Kentucky. Here’s how the New York Times describes her death:
Breonna Taylor had fallen asleep watching TV beside her boyfriend when Louisville police officers punched in her door with a battering ram. Fearing an intruder, her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, reached for his gun and fired one shot, wounding an officer.
The police returned fire: A barrage of bullets from different directions tore through nearly every room in Taylor’s apartment, then into two adjoining ones. They sliced through a soap dish, a chair and a table and shattered a sliding-glass door.
Taylor, a 26-year-old trained E.M.T. who hoped to become a nurse and kept her life goals written on Post-it notes around her apartment, was shot five times. She bled out on the floor of her own home.
On May 25, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protests emerged immediately in response to Floyd’s death, which was captured on video. Quickly, the protests spread. The entire country was in revolt, with some of the largest protests in history taking place over the summer. In Louisville, as details of Taylor’s death continued to leak out, the racial justice protests focused on her case, with activists demanding justice for Breonna Taylor.
On September 23, Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron announced the results of a grand-jury investigation into the events of March 13. Brett Hankison, one of the three officers present at the raid, would be charged for “wanton endangerment” for firing shots that hit an adjoining apartment in Taylor’s building. None of the officers would face any charges for Taylor’s death.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke with Robert LeVertis Bell, a political organizer, recent city council candidate, and Louisville native, about the events that have unfolded in the city since March.
Before we jump into what’s transpired since the grand jury announcement came out, I was hoping you could take us back to the immediate aftermath of Breonna Taylor’s murder.
In the first days after Taylor’s death, a lot of people in Louisville didn’t notice the story. Protests didn’t really start. It was at the beginning of the nationwide shutdown and the story got a bit lost. I’m usually pretty up on things and I didn’t know much about the particulars, beyond that the killing had happened, until April or May. There wasn’t a lot of action at the start.
After a while though, stories started to leak out in the press that suggested there might be more to the story than people had realized. At the same time, there was the killing of George Floyd. If Floyd hadn’t been killed, and people hadn’t protested after it, I don’t think we would be talking about Breonna Taylor, not even in Louisville.
But as of today, it’s day 128 of protests.
When the protests started, what organizations were involved?
At the time, I was running a campaign for city council, so I was there working on behalf of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), and my campaign, etc. A few organizations took the lead in the protests.
One was a group called Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression. The Alliance has been around since the 1970s; it was founded by, among other people, Angela Davis and Anne Braden. They started the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression. I haven’t heard much about other branches of that organization, but the Kentucky Alliance has been a mainstay for my entire life, since the 1980s.
While I can say that they aren’t the force that they used to be, some of the people involved in that organization, particularly a woman named Shameka Parrish-Wright, who is a brilliant activist, bottom-lined a lot of the protests. It was her and another activist, mostly through the Kentucky Alliance, who started the daily protests based around what is now called Injustice Square Park or Breonna Taylor Park — its official name is Jefferson Square Park.
Shameka and the Alliance started doing daily protests, and there were other groups too. Shameka and the Alliance have always worked in collaboration with other groups. There were representatives of various anarchist groups, DSA, other ad-hoc groups — a lot of groups popped up and have shown up at the protests, composed of people who had never engaged before and were suddenly engaged. These groups, as is always the case in movements, form, split, and merge with other groups.
But the main group on one end is the people that have been around the Alliance. And on the other side is Black Lives Matter Louisville, who did a lot of work, especially with Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and with groups based on the University of Louisville campus. And there are lots of people who are just around and doing a lot of work without any particular affiliation.
What did the first few weeks of those protests feel like? I remember during the first Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, there was a feeling that a huge number of people were being brought into protest politics for the first time. There was something really powerful about experiencing that.
It felt like something that I had never experienced in the city before. I’ve been organizing around these issues since I was a child — I’m forty years old now, so that’s twenty-something years of being around this stuff pretty intimately — and I’d never experienced anything remotely close to it in terms of the amount of activity and the number of people who are coming out of nowhere.
There were groups of doctors and lawyers. Our teachers’ union came out pretty strong. A group of white coats, doctors, came out in the hundreds. It was a coming together of the city in the first few weeks, even as the first few nights of protest were a bit chaotic as far as the amount of violent police repression we experienced.
But despite that, there started to be a spread of the signs you’d see — hand-written at first, then professionally printed — all over the city, proclaiming that black lives matter and calling for justice for Breonna Taylor. It was primary election season, and you’d see politicians who had never previously shown up at protests expressing their solidarity with the protests.
There was a lot of energy, a lot of people, talking about a lot of ideas that hadn’t really been in circulation much beforehand in the city. I think that’s pretty typical for the rest of the country at that time.
You mentioned the teachers’ union, and also doctors and lawyers, and I want to ask about the role of organized labor. Labor’s role, in relation to the movement, not just in Louisville but nationally, doesn’t get enough discussion.
There’s widespread support for some of the demands that the movement is raising, and yet organized labor — a force that could help achieve those demands, adding pressure to them — seems a bit absent. I’m curious about labor’s role in Louisville.
It’s been a bit of a disappointment, I have to say, with the exception of Teamsters Local 89, which is probably the most militant labor union in town. They are closely aligned to TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), and they have been singular in their support.
Other labor unions have had people out there. For example, the public bus drivers’ union was present, and representatives of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) were there too. But when the call was made for more labor activists to join the protests, Teamsters Local 89 was the only one I recall bringing a whole bus.
But I’d say the labor movement did not show up as much as one might, in one’s wildest dreams, hope.
As a teacher, how do you connect demands for not only justice for Breonna Taylor, but broader racial justice demands, and your job?
The teachers’ union was definitely an exception here, and showed up. Teachers, whether as representatives of the union or just as citizens, teachers have been a significant part of the protests. For example, there have been several teachers’ marches. Part of that is because it’s less of a jump for a lot of teachers to understand precisely how bad it is out there for a lot of people, particularly with regard to white supremacy, racism, etc.
We are a large public school district in a very segregated city. Everything we experience in our day-to-day lives as teachers gives us an understanding of the social problems that people are experiencing. Teachers, more than most professions, engage on a day-to-day basis with the biggest problems in our society, whether you’re talking about white supremacy, people without homes, people without health care, or the problems that our kids are experiencing in their homes in general.
Most public school teachers, in their day-to-day lives, have more of a relationship with the burdens of being an oppressed person in this country, even if they aren’t experiencing it directly themselves — especially if you are in a district like ours, which is extremely segregated between the well-off schools and the schools that are primarily for poor kids.
It’s pretty dire, and you see it every day. So when I saw how many teachers were out there, when I saw how much our teachers’ union has responded in a more thoughtful way than some of the other unions in town, that’s because that’s what being a teacher is like in a public school in a large city.
I’m not 100 percent sure — and I don’t think anybody is — whether in Breonna Taylor’s murder, and the targeting of the block in Russell where her ex-boyfriend was, was specifically related to efforts to gentrify the neighborhood.
We can say, definitely, that the gentrification of Russell has been on the agenda for the major developers and the city’s government — the mayor, in particular — for a very long time. Russell is directly to the west of downtown Louisville. It is prime real estate in so many ways, and has been for ten years or so.
To what degree that has resulted in over-policing in that neighborhood, and then on top of that, that this over-policing had to do with the killing of Breonna Taylor — who was not killed in that neighborhood but her ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, who was the ostensible target of the raid, allegedly frequented — I don’t know, and I don’t think anything has been particularly substantiated.
But you can say that there is a trend: if you make a place unbearable to live in for the people who live there, you can drive them out. That’s been a part of gentrification in a lot of places.
On September 23, the news comes that there are no charges being brought against the officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor. One charge is brought, wanton endangerment, for the officer who shot into the neighboring apartment, but there are no charges related to Taylor’s death. What was the response from the movement?
Most people weren’t surprised. It was to some degree telegraphed by the city itself: they made downtown Louisville a police state before the verdict, so everyone was anticipating this outcome. A lot of people expected at least Hankison, the cop who did get indicted for wanton endangerment, might get a manslaughter charge, but that was the most anyone expected, and even that was a measured expectation.
The city had set up concrete roadblocks all over downtown. The National Guard was called in. You couldn’t go in and out of downtown in a car the day before the verdict. So everyone in the city anticipated what happened: no charges, and that people would respond by going downtown to protest.
There were thousands of people out the first few nights, and the police were once again really aggressive. They boarded up the city beforehand, before the verdict — there was plywood over every business downtown, and plenty of places away from downtown, and there was almost an anticipation of riots, a drumming up of the idea that people would riot immediately. But there wasn’t anything that I would describe as a riot. There was definitely some riotous behavior, but it was mostly a handful of people throwing water bottles.
So people were upset but not surprised. They responded the only way they knew, which was to go downtown and be among everyone else who was upset.
You’ve mentioned the role of the police and repression. After the non-indictment was announced, a curfew was imposed, and footage of that night shows police out in heavy force. A lot of people talk about the violence of the protesters, but I’m curious about the violence that has come from the police.
Every night I’ve been there, when it got kind of crazy, it’s been in response to police charging people. At the beginning of the protests, you saw peaceful crowds being shot with pepper balls by the police. It seemed clear that they had a mandate to be aggressive, to incite. I can’t count how many times there were crowds doing absolutely nothing, and the police would charge for no apparent reason.
The first few days after the grand jury decision came down, it seemed like there was no rhyme or reason to when the police would attack people. There might have been geographic boundaries that weren’t clarified to anyone outside the police as to where protestors could and couldn’t march — you’d be in the street marching one way, and the police would stand down, and then you’d keep moving, and suddenly they’d charge you.
The only logic to me was that the point was to be illogical, the very point was to prevent us from ever feeling comfortable protesting in the city or expressing dissent.
And in Louisville, protestors have been shot by the police, and killed.
Shootings happened twice. The first few nights in the first round of protests, the National Guard was brought in after there was some disruption, or rioting. For whatever reason, the National Guard was told to go to west Louisville. Louisville is segregated, and west Louisville is the black part of town.
They set up at the corner of 26th and Broadway. There was no protest-related reason for those police to be there. No protests had gone down there, no one had marched down there, because in case people broke windows, they didn’t want that to happen there. But the National Guard went there.
Remember, this is still during COVID-19, in early June or late May. So people are outside: it’s summer. I grew up over there but I wasn’t there for this, I just saw photos and watched livestreams of it. And there’s this guy David “Ya Ya” McAtee, who’s known around town because he sells barbecue.
The details are fuzzy, but it seems as if in the middle of the night, people were out near where the National Guard was, and the police told people to go inside. David may or may not have shot a gun up in the air, and then he was shot and killed by the National Guard. People knew Ya Ya. When he got killed, that was a big deal.
Then, a few weeks later, a young man who’d been at the protests almost every single day, and had been arrested with the protestors, came to the protests again. He’s had struggles with mental health, and had been asked to leave Injustice Square Park earlier that day for behaving threateningly, in some manner. But he comes back, and he grabs one of the protestor’s guns, and starts shooting wildly in the park.
He ended up killing a twenty-seven-year-old named Tyler Gerth, a photographer, who was there to support and document the protests. Some of the security, mostly anarchist security, took the guy down and got him under control without any further violence, which is notable since the police would’ve just killed the guy.
It was horrific. Between Ya Ya and Gerth, and constant violence from the police, a lot of people who have been at the park are suffering. It’s been really hard emotionally. There have been multiple times people have tried to ram cars into the protestors, and people have been hurt that way as well.
There are so many guns at the park. A lot of the protestors carry guns, and the 3 Percenters come through every so often and antagonize people with their guns. The Boogaloo Boys come through with their guns. And of course, there’s the police and their guns. It feels like a war zone sometimes, with the number of people walking around with guns.
The other night, after curfew, I was helping take people home and we passed a gas station parking lot where the police were. This is after curfew, but the 3 Percenters are out there, chatting with the police. So you see that camaraderie between the police and the people who have said that they’re there to kill you, the same people who make a hero out of Kyle Rittenhouse. It’s a very tense situation, even when the park is often a safe, jovial place. There’s a feeling that something could go wrong.
I want to ask you about Daniel Cameron. He spoke at the Republican National Convention (RNC), quoting [Dwight D.] Eisenhower when speaking about Breonna Taylor.
Later, he announces that no charges are being brought in Taylor’s death. In the past few days, there’s been some drama playing out: one of the members of the grand jury is trying to release the deliberations and documents that they were given, claiming that they weren’t allowed to consider indictments against the officers.
Daniel Cameron, a protege of Mitch McConnell, is a thirty-four-year-old black man. He’s never practiced law, but he’s always been primed to be a political figure. He won the election for attorney general last year, and he’s a guy for whom the Republican Party has high hopes.
To go back to the expectation around the grand jury decision, part of my suspicion that there might be an indictment came from his RNC speech, and then Trump short-listing him for the Supreme Court. My thinking at the time was: it’s possible Cameron would feel OK cutting a cop loose and throwing the book at him in order to improve his political standing among black people in Kentucky, which could then possibly be parlayed into a sense that he crosses the aisle, he’s not a typical Republican, and so on. In this state, the attorney general position is often a springboard to other positions.
So he’s a politician, and this is his first real test for his political future. He did some calculations as to what degree he was going to appease his people. The way McConnell does politics is to bring home the bacon to the people he has to deliver for; he’s just a powerful, power-brokering politician.
It was conceivable that someone who was working in McConnell’s footsteps would make some overtures to the large number of people in Kentucky who were upset and wanted to see charges brought for the sake of closure, but Cameron also was appeasing the more virulent right-wingers in the state who didn’t want to see any charges.
After Cameron announced the result, it was clear he had never pursued anything close to manslaughter or murder. It seems like he was stretching the truth in the press conference, which is what provoked the grand juror. The transcripts of the grand jury were just released, and that’s being reported right now, but it’s clear that Cameron was seeking a non-indictment. That’s disappointing to a lot of people, and surprising that to some degree, he failed the political test, and handled it with so little grace.
What comes next for the movement in Louisville and nationally? There’s an immense amount of anger and support for change, and at the same time, the political climate is a roadblock toward achieving even minimal changes.
On the one hand, there are a lot of people who are still very angry, who are still in the streets, and who have been transformed in their understanding of police violence, and the utility of that violence to the power structures of this country. So I don’t want to be too pessimistic about the long-term effects of this movement.
In the short term, especially in Louisville but I think in a lot of places, when it comes to the political solutions people were seeking — people were substantially discussing defunding the police, reinvesting in communities, working toward abolition — these ideas getting in circulation is good, but the pathways by which those ideas become policy anywhere, especially here, does not look good. I’m not optimistic about that in the short term.
This is a majority-Democrat city, and the governor of our state is a Democrat. But there is no political will or interest among elected officials to do anything other than take half-measures, or non-measures. It’s a good thing that they’re pushing what Rep. Attica Scott is calling Breonna’s Law at the state level, which includes a ban on no-knock warrants. But the vast majority of people who are killed by police are not killed by no-knock warrants. That’s fighting the last war.
The next war is to capitalize off what we have here and the education that’s happened over the past few months, and create substantial change in matters of how this country treats matters of crime and public safety. Crime is a public health issue, and should have a public health solution. We know policing is a failed model, and a lot more people realize that than did six months ago. But there’s a lot more work to be done, both in the war of ideas as it were, and to make those ideas reality. In the short term in Louisville, I don’t see outlets for that right now.
Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about that you’d like people to know?
I’d just add that when it comes to liberal solutions, it’s not just that liberal anti-racism is inept; it’s that it poses no answers to how we get out of where we are. We see a lot of legitimate anger from people of all political stripes about the killing of Breonna Taylor and the problem of over-policing in general. These are issues that could use a lot of attention and resources, and they’re being held up by, among other things, police budgeting.
People see that problem, but the solutions offered are always shy of redistribution, they’re always shy of anything that is going to fundamentally change the lives of black people in this country. You see politicians floundering, offering rhetorical solutions and legislative half-steps, but forever shying away from the massive transformative changes that we demand. The bright part of all of this is how many people are starting to realize that.