LOUISVILLE—Rochelle Mitchell sat in a small park called Jefferson Square in the heart of Louisville. The crowd around her was beginning to grow, and Mitchell thought she sensed a heightened edginess.
It was Friday night and Mitchell and her friends had been protesting for 121 days. The last few days had been particularly anguishing. The state’s Republican attorney general announced on Wednesday that three police officers would not be charged for the killing of Breonna Taylor. The city was already under a state of emergency in anticipation of the decision. Then, just hours after the announcement, a man took aim with a handgun at Louisville officers, injuring two. There had been scattered looting in downtown and more than 150 arrests. Many of the roughly 400 protesters gathered in the square on Friday felt certain the police wanted revenge, that a confrontation was inevitable.
Mitchell, a 32-year-old biology pre-med student at the University of Louisville, wore glasses, long black braids and a purple Black Lives Matter t-shirt. Nothing about her stood out until she reached down, lifted a friend’s AR-15 and slung it over her shoulder.
“I always pray that we never have to use any type of deadly force,” she said. “But you never know.”
The night’s march was scheduled to begin in half an hour. Several of Mitchell’s friends, women dressed in black, were putting on their gear. They had radios attached to their shoulders, where they addressed one another by code names—Suzie Q, Phoenix and Lara Croft. One carried a baseball bat; another had a 9mm handgun covered in pink swirls. They stuffed bottles of saline in their backpacks to rinse their eyes of tear gas. The three women—two Black, one white—belong to one of several homegrown security teams who patrol the park, breaking up fights and asking agitators to leave. Officers with LMPD, the Louisville Metro Police Department, rarely come inside the park, where protesters have dubbed their agency the Louisville Murder Punk Department. Occasionally, an officer will issue a warning or command over loudspeakers in the square. Protesters shout profanities until it stops.
In Louisville, as in many of the demonstrations across the country, there is no single person or group in charge. The protests are decentralized and sprawling, and the mood on any night can shift depending on who shows up and who holds the megaphone. But small groups have sprung up and developed loose organizational structures to bring a semblance of order to the nightly marches. It’s vital, they believe, to sustaining momentum, and why they’ve been able to keep the demonstrations going since May. Along with security teams, volunteer medics wear helmets and treat everything from rubber bullet wounds to asthma attacks. Demonstrators have their own news correspondents traveling the city on foot and bicycle. The reporters call themselves “502 Livestreamers,” named after the city’s area code, and broadcast live on Facebook. “We’ve had our own independent media from day one,” Mitchell said, because other media “always depict us as the villains.”
The presence of the armed security teams are a reminder of how far the nationwide protests, now entering their fifth month, have come from the mostly spontaneous demonstrations that erupted in the days after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. Now, a state of tense permanence has taken hold in cities across the country where almost nightly marches proceed with clockwork regularity through shuttered downtowns. But the routine is spiked with an air of unpredictability. With weapons in the hands of people on all sides—the protesters, the police and the right-wing militias who periodically appear—any night is a cat-and-mouse test of constitutional limits in which the guardrails against deadly violence are fragile at best.
“This is a war zone, basically,” Mitchell said. “The very moment I decided to come here the first day to protest, I knew that I was prepared to die for this. I am prepared to sacrifice my life for the betterment of my people.”
Mitchell finished her dinner of shrimp fried rice and an egg roll, as one of her favorite livestreamers, Chea, walked by recording on her iPhone. Behind her, Miss Felicia, another regular, yelled through a pink megaphone, urging people to get registered to vote. A protester walked by wearing a shirt that read, “Get yo knee off my neck.” Another wore a facemask that said, “No Justice, No Derby,” a reference to the city’s famous moneymaking horse race which had been run earlier in the month. Mitchell saw a friend walk by and called out, “Hey, Jay Bird!”
“Hey!” he replied. “Ready for some shit to go down?”
“As always,” she said. “Stay prepared.”
Mitchell’s group was known around the square as the Louisville 87. Many of them met for the first time in July while protesting outside the home of Daniel Cameron, the state’s attorney general, who was at the time investigating the police raid that had killed Breonna Taylor after midnight in her apartment. They wanted to pressure him to charge the three officers involved in Taylor’s death. They sat cross-legged on the lawn with arms clasped and refused to leave. Eighty-seven were arrested that afternoon. After riding in police vans together, getting mug shots taken together, singing Lion King songs in cells and using the not-private jailhouse commodes together, they quickly became close. They organized Zoom calls and weekend barbecues and became regulars in the square.
On this night, her group would help organize the march. A couple hundred people already had arrived and more kept coming. There had been persistent rumors that the protests would get unusually large over the weekend in response to the attorney general’s decision. The bustling square stood in contrast to the rest of downtown, which had the eerie feel of an abandoned movie set. Most ground-floor windows were covered in plywood and 2x4s, including city hall and the courthouse. The owners of restaurants and shops had scrawled messages of support in spray paint over wooden boards—“We LOVE BLM”—perhaps hoping their buildings would be spared broken windows or worse.
Mitchell’s job that night was to be a marshal. She’d walk in front of the crowd, helping to direct a couple dozen bicyclists dispatched to close streets along the way. She’d also keep an eye on the lines of police officers along the route, calling back to warn of any trouble.
She took her place in the lead as protesters lined up behind her. About 6 p.m., they started walking, fists raised, voices chanting, “Say her name!” In the front of the line, walking quietly, was Taylor’s mom, Tamika Palmer, who’d said earlier in a statement that the attorney general’s announcement left her with no faith in the police, legal system and laws that “are not made to protect us Black and Brown people.”
Mitchell walked a few blocks before she spotted the first group of five city police officers wearing helmets and face shields as they stood beside silver patrol cars. She looked straight ahead, not making eye contact. Behind, she heard voices growing louder. Hundreds of protesters advanced toward the officers. Many began chanting, “No justice, no peace, fuck these racist ass police!” One woman, wearing a flak jacket and helmet, stopped in front of the officers and raised a megaphone. “Say her name!” she shouted at them, over and over. The cops gazed back impassively until the crowd passed and the street around them again fell quiet.
Mitchell had grown up in a housing project not far away, in a neighborhood called Smoketown. She first heard about Taylor’s death in March from a friend who’d lived in Taylor’s apartment complex. Long before the case hit the national news, Mitchell was troubled by the story. “That could have very easily been me or my sister or my nieces or my friends,” Mitchell said. “I look in the mirror each day and see Breonna. I am Breonna.”
The state attorney general’s decision not to charge the officers with Taylor’s death left Mitchell even more angry and frustrated.
“It’s basically a spit in my face, saying that I don’t matter, Breonna didn’t matter, black women across America don’t matter. I feel like I’m not safe anywhere I go, whether I’m in my home or whether I’m in public,” she told me. “So we are out here fighting for our sanity, because this is insane. We shouldn’t have to walk around in fear for our lives every single day, wondering, ‘Are we going to be next? Am I going to be the next person to lose my life and be a hashtag?’”
As Mitchell helped guide the crowd through downtown, her eyes scanned the city’s office towers, taking note of police snipers on rooftops and in parking garages. Around her, scattered throughout the crowd, dozens of volunteer “security officers” were doing the same.
One of them, trailing a couple feet behind Mitchell, goes by the code name Lara Croft, after the protagonist in the video game Tomb Raider. She’s a 21-year-old white woman from Louisville who gives her first and middle name as Emma Peyton. She marched in all black—boots, pants, shirt and knit stocking cap. She carried a Taurus G3 handgun on her hip, which is legal because Kentucky is an open-carry state. She learned how to shoot in the junior ROTC and competed on her high school rifle team. She volunteered to help identify outside agitators—people sent in to start trouble and make the group look bad. Her greatest fear, she said, is that an out-of-towner will show up and fire on cops, causing them to unload into the crowd. (The man accused of shooting the officers on Wednesday is from Louisville.)
“If we think someone is suspicious, we ask them to leave,” she said. “Our only goal is to protect everyone out here.”
She also helps break up fights between protesters, although her group tries to be mindful of race. If Black men are fighting, they send over a Black man. If it’s white women, she’ll step in. But that’s about the limit of what she sees as her role to keep the peace. She doesn’t believe it’s her job to stop anyone from vandalizing property or being aggressive with cops. “As a white woman, I don’t want it to come off that I’m interfering with Black anger,” she said, “because I believe that anger is valid.”
Another of the security regulars is Denorver Garrett. He’s a felon who served prison time for robbery so he can’t carry a firearm, but he wears tank tops to display his huge biceps. While marching, he wears a bulletproof helmet, has soccer shin guards strapped on his forearms, and carries a baton. He intervenes if he sees people fighting in the crowd. “I give people three warnings, and then I will remove them,” he said. But he doesn’t interfere with vandalism either. Black trauma expresses itself in a variety of ways, he said, and sometimes it looks like shattered windows. He said as a Christian he doesn’t condone it, but he understands.
“It’s like Martin Luther King Jr. said. ‘The reason people riot is because they are not being heard,‘” Garrett said.
A bigger threat to the group lately, the security officers say, are groups of white nationalists who show up heavily armed almost weekly. The perception is that the Louisville police won’t intervene, that the protesters are on their own. They say they hope an increased presence of security volunteers, visibly armed, will deter counter protesters. Several said they had reached out to the armed Black militia group, Not Fucking Around Coalition, to help with security, but they’d been busy with their own demonstrations, including a show of hundreds who’d arrived to protest the Kentucky Derby in early September, when they were greeted by a couple dozen armed white militia members.
Security officers marching on Friday said they didn’t know the man who’d been arrested for shooting the two officers two nights earlier. But they didn’t express outrage over it, either. “Lara Croft” was livestreaming near the shooting but initially thought the noise was flash bangs, only realizing later what had happened.
“If you think about how war really works, you lose people. You lose bodies,” said Mitchell, who said she was not there during the shooting. “If you look back at every movement in the history of this country, there have always been people who had to sacrifice their lives for a change.” The Black community, she said, has already lost so many, including Taylor.
It was almost 7 p.m., an hour into the march, when Mitchell spotted trouble. Just after turning on Main Street, about a mile east of the square, she saw a thick wall of Louisville police standing beneath an interstate overpass, blocking the path back to Jefferson Square. This was about 10 blocks northeast of where the officers had been shot two nights earlier. Blue and red lights flashed from patrol cars, parked beside an armored personnel carrier and a police van. Dozens of officers stood in a thick line, each holding 3-foot wood batons. The protesters would either have to press forward or turn around. There were cops parked behind them, too, and the protesters worried the police force was trying to hem them in.
Mitchell turned around and shouted to the crowd, “Police up ahead! Police up ahead!”
She shouted a warning: “Do not engage with police!”
Mitchell hopped on the side of a blue Ford SUV, moving closer for a better look. She shouted to the people around her. “Allies to the front! Allies to the front!” White marchers stepped forward. It’s a strategy the group deploys when they fear a confrontation with cops. The police, they believe, are less likely to use violence against white protesters.
For a long moment the marchers stood still in the street about a dozen yards away from the cops, uncertain what to do. Then came a thunderous boom. And another. People seemed to think it was gunfire and started sprinting away from the bridge. Others recognized the sound of flash bangs. They watched officers toss them into the air, a few feet from the crowd.
The police strategy worked. The mass of marchers dissipated into chaotic strands. A couple of children started crying. A couple of protesters fell and struggled to get out of the way of the running crowd. The volunteer security guards moved among them, helping people up and urging calm. Hundreds of people scattered in small groups across the city, trying to find their way back to Jefferson Square.
Mitchell stayed in the blue Ford, watching. As she smelled the burnt air, she felt what she would later describe as a swirling mix of sadness and anger.
By the time everyone made it back to the park it was 8:30 p.m. A couple minutes later, cell phones bleeped through the crowd, an emergency text alert warning that the city curfew would take effect at 9 p.m. “Please begin heading home,” the message said.
A couple hundred demonstrators once again began to march, this time toward the First Unitarian Church, which had offered itself as a sanctuary during the curfew. Mitchell made her way there. A female clergy member with blond hair stood smiling with arms spread wide open. “Hello and welcome! Rest your weary souls! Fastest way to food is straight up the ramp.”
People filled paper plates with chicken tenders and penne pasta and grabbed bags of Goldfish and Ding Dongs. As Mitchell made her way, unarmed, into the church, she passed tables offering medics, legal help and an arrest support hotline. There were a couple boxes of Marlboro Reds, available to anyone who needed one, and a supply of blue facemasks. Mitchell sat alone in a quiet spot, plugged in her phone and took a few deep breaths. People around her debated whether to go back out, whether to spend the night in the church or a jail cell. Mitchell could hear the helicopters coming closer, circling above. She decided to go home and sleep.
She returned to Jefferson Square after 4 p.m. the next day. Organizers were hoping to stage a “massive occupation” that Saturday night in defiance of the curfew. Mitchell looked around at the growing crowd, hoping they’d keep pushing forward without going too far.