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Family and organizers tell how it all started

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It was late afternoon when a few dozen people pulled into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant.

Each had known or heard about Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman fatally shot by Louisville police. And they’d gathered to demand justice in her name.

Taylor’s death had flown under the radar for two months during the coronavirus pandemic. But her story had been picking up steam nationally in recent weeks.

On May 28, 2020, her friends were ready to make their voices heard locally.

At alocal restaurant, they assembled a caravan of more than 20 cars and led it downtown, circling police headquarters.

Soon, the group stopped and got out of their vehicles, screaming Taylor’s name at the agency they wanted to see held responsible for her death.

Within hours hundreds more joined them, shutting down several blocks.

What followed that night looked like a scene from a movie: Police in riot gear clashed with the group, dispensing tear gas, and by early morning, people had damaged nearby vehicles and buildings.

Just before midnight, seven people were shot by an unknown assailant or assailants.

The violence from police and protesters frightened people who were there and watching from home.

But protesters returned the next night and the next, eventually occupying Jefferson Square Park in the heart of downtown for at least six months — becoming one of the largest demonstrations the city has ever seen.

One year later, USA TODAY Network The Courier Journal is looking back at that first night to learn what it was like for people involved.

Breonna Taylor’s family, activists and leaders reflect on a year of Louisville protests

Protesters and family members of Breonna Taylor look back on the past year of protests and progress.

Jeff Faughender, Louisville Courier Journal

Over the last several weeks, we spoke with protesters, city leaders and those close to Taylor about what they recall from that night, known to many as Day 1.

This is the story of May 28 in their words.

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Tamika Palmer, left, embraced her daughter Juniyah Palmer during a vigil for her other daughter, Breonna Taylor, outside the Judicial Center in downtown Louisville, Ky….
Tamika Palmer, left, embraced her daughter Juniyah Palmer during a vigil for her other daughter, Breonna Taylor, outside the Judicial Center in downtown Louisville, Ky. on Mar. 19, 2020. Taylor was killed during an officer-involved shooting. The family chose the vigil site because it is across the street from the Louisville Metro Police Department.
Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal

‘They brought it to her doorstep, let’s bring it to theirs’

Two major events happened ahead of the protest: On May 25, video began to spread of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, killing the handcuffed Black man. And on May 28, The Courier Journal published a 911 call made by Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Police had broken down the door to Taylor’s apartment while serving a search warrant, and Walker — later saying he feared an intruder — fired a shot, hitting a sergeant. Three officers fired 32 shots in return, killing Taylor. “I don’t know what is happening,” Walker’s shaking voice could be heard telling the 911 operator. “Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.”

Floyd’s death and the anguish in Walker’s voice led many to take to the streets.

Angela, a close family friend of Breonna Taylor, who declined to use her last name: That day, they were releasing the 911 tape, and we knew it. Once they released it, it was like, “OK, we’re going to ride around.” We rode around the city and we got back downtown, we circled the police station maybe twice, and then we were like, you know what, forget this, and we parked and got out. We parked, we revved our engines, we got out our cars, and that’s when it started.

Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother: People have said, listening to (the 911 call), they knew that Kenny (Walker) didn’t know it was the police. It just made them outraged.

Tamika Palmer

Tamika Palmer
Jeff Faughender/Courier Journal

Chanelle Helm, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Louisville: I think the catalyst for it was Minneapolis, to be honest. We saw a very organized city in resistance.

Tia Kurtisnger-Edison, board member of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression: I went down there to the restaurant, around 5 o’clock. We stayed there for about 30 or 40 minutes (before forming the caravan). … (Once downtown), what I saw, I wasn’t really expecting. There was so much pain in everyone’s voice and everyone’s face. … I mean, they were screaming her name. It wasn’t chants. They were screaming. And I could hear it in their voices.

Tamika Palmer: Initially, I thought (the gathering) was just about George Floyd, because everybody had just heard about what had happened. And then, you started hearing them yelling Breonna’s name. I thought, “Oh my God.” It had been two months of us trying to get people to even listen to what had happened to her. So, to know that people were saying her name — you had this feeling, “They’re listening now.”

Angela: (Louisville Metro Police) wanted to sweep it under the COVID rug. But we wasn’t forgetting about her. … Our exact words were, “They brought it to her doorstep, let’s bring it to theirs.”

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The gathering grows

Members of Metro Council were in a meeting at City Hall when they noticed the crowd gathering outside. As it grew, Taylor’s family watched live-streams of the protests, but many did not go downtown that night — with the exception of Taylor’s younger sister, Ju’Niyah, who sneaked out with cousins to observe the protests.

Keisha Dorsey, Louisville Metro Coucilwoman, District 3

Keisha Dorsey, Louisville Metro Coucilwoman, District 3
Jeff Faughender/Courier Journal

Metro Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey, a Democrat: I think we were in the middle of council meeting, and I was in my office on the second floor at that time. … I heard horns and different things happening, so I looked out the window  … (Later), I went outside: “What’s going on?” I remember stepping outside and seeing some people — knowing what was going on, maneuvering my way to where people were huddled, and I saw Chanelle (Helm) directing people. And the public official in me was like, “Oh my God, they’re not in masks.” I remember going up to my office and grabbing boxes of masks and sanitizer, paper towels, and walking back downstairs with them and I’m walking around giving them to people like, “OK, put on your mask!”

Ju’Niyah Palmer, Taylor’s sister: It was me, my cousins and we all ‘went to the store.’ It was downtown. And we were like, (the protesters) would be four blocks down, and we were in front of them, watching from the car, and every time they got close, we’d try to sneak back so … we (weren’t seen). We wasn’t that sneaky.

Ju'Niyah Palmer

Ju’Niyah Palmer
Jeff Faughender/Courier Journal

Tamika Palmer: At one point, I called, like, “Well, what store did y’all go to? Y’all better not be down there.”

Ju’Niyah Palmer: I’m like, “Yeah, ummm,” … and then I tried to lie and say my phone died.

The protest grew as images of the gathering spread online and through texts, the organic crowd soon overwhelming the streets of downtown Louisville. Early in the night, protesters blocked a Megabus.

Amy Hess, Louisville Metro Government’s former chief of public services: It was a heightened sense of anxiety, because nobody knew where this was leading. All these people, that were not only visible on the monitors and increasing in numbers, but we’re seeing and hearing on social media and other places that there’s going to be more. More people are coming. Well, how many more? And what are they going to do when they get here? And what should be the reaction to it?

Amy Hess is the former chief of public services for Louisville Metro Government

Amy Hess is the former chief of public services for Louisville Metro Government
Jeff Faughender/Courier Journal

Angela: The first night was really so surreal. I think we had that Megabus blocked for hours upon hours upon hours. The Megabus people, the man was sitting there like, “Oh my God, y’all not gonna let us through?”

Hess: When it really shifted was when that MegaBus was surrounded and they attempted to board the bus. We started getting calls, 911, again, right on the other side of (the Emergency Operations Center), started getting calls from people on the bus who were scared and who were very worried about what was going to happen. … I think the biggest shift for me was to realize, “OK, well there’s people surrounded on a bus, let’s go in there and try to take care of the situation” — and then you realize you can’t. Because the police are greatly outnumbered at this point. If anything, if they go in there, it could potentially make the situation worse. And yet, you’ve got people calling 911 who are scared, and you can’t get to them. And that’s when it was, I think at that point, this shift to an “uh oh.” That’s your “uh oh” moment.

(Hess would days later become chief of public safety and oversee LMPD, but the agency did not report to her as of May 28, 2020.)

Trained organizers, including Helm and Kurtisnger-Edison, attempted to keep the crowd in order. But a group split off , where they were met by police.

Police move protesters back as they tried to move their patrol cars on May 28, 2020.

Police move protesters back as they tried to move their patrol cars on May 28, 2020.
Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal

Ju’Niyah Palmer: The part that plays in my head most was being right there in front of where the police were actually lined up. The protesters were making their way, and I do remember seeing just a whole bunch of police just standing there, like really telling these people, “Y’all need to disperse.” … The protesters got in their face, yelling, making their statements, and the police backed off, and then they moved out the way and the people started protesting more. They just went right back to what they were doing.

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Breonna Taylor’s sister thanked demonstrators for bringing attention to her family’s case but called for protesters to disband to prevent violence.

Courtesy of Sam Aguiar, Louisville Courier Journal

Hess: There was a police officer … who was barricaded in, and you could see that on either the news footage or the CCTV, but you’re watching this happen on the big screens and you’re thinking, “I don’t know if this officer is going to make it out.”

By 10:30 p.m., the separated group had returned, followed by police wielding tear gas and batons. The officers angered some protesters, who threw water bottles and yelled at them. Several protesters attempted to flip a prison transport vehicle, and gunshots soon rang out, injuring seven people. Police used flashbangs and pepper bullets to break up the crowd. Protesters fought back, using picnic tables as barriers between them and the officers.

Kurtisnger-Edison: Then when the shots happened, I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I didn’t know if they were real gunshots.

Hess: And then, of course, EMS couldn’t get through the crowd to get to them. That was one of the biggest discussion points, too, was how to get EMS — emergency services, an ambulance and medical personnel — into that area. Because there was just no way to navigate, to maneuver, in there. That’s when, as I recall, the police began using dispersal techniques, in an attempt to control the crowd, which ultimately escalated. 

Helm: It was total (expletive) chaos. … Everybody is running everywhere, there’s still a line of officers (outside Metro Hall). One is moving her arm behind her back, telling me to move behind her. They have pepper bullet shooters. … An officer shoots me straight up five times.

Savion Briggs, who left a high school graduation party to attend the protest: We could hear from down the block, you heard the sirens, you heard just these big loud noises of BOOM, BOOM. You just really didn’t know what it was. It sounded like bombs going off in the center of downtown. In our heads, it’s like no way is this happening, because we see people walking, it’s people leaving. … You see them crying, you see them just very in distress.

A protester holds up the hand of King Louis XVI after it was torn from the statue during a protest on May 28, 2020.

A protester holds up the hand of King Louis XVI after it was torn from the statue during a protest on May 28, 2020.
Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal

Helm and other activists set up a makeshift medic area in Jefferson Square Park, across from Metro Hall, to attend to people injured in the fray. Meanwhile, police continued to toss tear gas canisters into the crowd.

Helm: I’m asking folks to get ready to throw the bombs back (at the officers). These are children, not trained protesters.

Kurtisnger-Edison: Literally, I confiscated three bats that night, because young men had a bat and were just going to the police officers. And I’m like, wait a minute, we can’t do that, can’t walk up to somebody with a gun with a bat.

Briggs: We’re out here trying to fight for change, to get change, to get justice, and the reaction is to tear gas, to pepper bullet. … Going out there for the first time, (there’s) the adrenaline that’s rushing because you think you’re going out here just to fight for something, but you’re really fighting for your life at the same time.

Tamika Palmer: I remember when the looting first started, and things were really getting heated up, that was the first time I heard from the mayor. … I remember thinking, “Wow.” That it took all of this for him to even reach out at the time. … He offered condolences, but the real issue was you wanted me to come out and try and stop these people. I’m like, “It’s not my fight. They don’t want to hear from me, they want to hear from you. They’ve heard from me for the last two months.”

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‘The whole world was helping us’

Ju’Niyah Palmer recorded a video that night, and at 12:21 a.m., Mayor Fischer’s Twitter account posted a video of her saying: “Louisville, thank you so much for saying Breonna’s name tonight. We are not going to stop until we get justice, but we should stop tonight before people get hurt. Please go home, be safe, and be ready to keep fighting.”

People downtown heeded the call. But as they left, many knew they’d be back. If it wasn’t before, Taylor’s name was now nationally known.

Hess: A lot of folks thought, well, this may continue tomorrow, but it won’t be nearly as bad as this. This has got to be the worst we’re going to see. I think there was that in people’s minds. So when that second night happened, and all the sudden, you have twice as many people … a thousand people downtown instead of several hundred — and then, of course, you have the looting and destruction on that second night — that’s when I think people realized, especially people in the EOC and I, realized: “I’m not going home anytime soon.”

Bianca Austin, Taylor’s aunt: May 28, it was like, finally. That was a relief, like, “Oh, they hear us now. They believe us now.” Because for the first couple of months, it was just her family and our lawyers, and trying to get the word out and bring awareness to her situation, and then, May 28, when the city came out, we were like, “Thank you.” It was a relief. Let’s move forward with this. They believe us.

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Protests over the death of Breonna Taylor headed north on 3rd Street Friday night toward Broadway in downtown Louisville.

Courtesy of Nick Tirella

Dorsey: I just remember thinking, “Wow, this is what the ‘60s were like.” I remember, when you read the books, you hear about what happened. And I never understood it until in that moment, standing there. And you see all these — not just Black people, also white people — but it wasn’t just anger. It was hurt. And that’s what struck me more than anything was, I think everybody called it “the first night of protests,” but I’m like, “No, this a revolt.”

Ju’Niyah Palmer: It was no longer just a family, personal fight. It was the whole world was helping us. … It was like, dang, they’re really down here for her. They’re down here for Breonna. They’re not down here just because George (Floyd), just because Ahmaud (Arbery, a 25-year old Black man killed in Georgia while on a run). They’re down here for our family. They helping us.

A foundation for more

A year later, many protesters feel they still have not received justice for Taylor. Only one officer faces a criminal charge for that night, but none were charged in her fatal shooting.

But the demonstrations succeeded at refocusing the city’s attention on racial injustices, pushing elected officials to implement a range of police reforms and equity measures.

Ju’Niyah Palmer: It was still just a bittersweet type of topic. It’s one of those, “Yeah, they’re out there for us, for my sister.” But then it’s like, at the end of the day, we still got to go home and we still don’t have my sister. So it’s like, I’m thankful for everything and everybody, but it’s like, we get it, but we still have to go home and face the world that she doesn’t come back.

Hess: It catalyzed the need for change, and that was necessary. Because otherwise, I’m not so sure we would’ve seen some of those changes. … Changes like no-knock warrants, or the expansion of body-worn cameras, an elevation of supervision of search warrants and the oversight of search warrants, the civilian review board, the inspector general’s office.

Kurtisnger-Edison: The occupation (of Jefferson Square Park) created the community. Because a lot of these young people, the young Black youth, they didn’t realize there were white people who were allies. It opened up their eyes.

Briggs: Protesting was just that foundation for so much more of what we’re doing. You have Breonna’s Law, you have people organizing together, you got people that met each other that are organizing together. It was like that foundation to put people in the same proximity so they can start organizing, even on a bigger level.

Dorsey: A 31-year-old woman who grew up in this city was there. Not a council person. Not an elected official, but a Black millennial female who has lived through this was present for that moment. I’m glad I was downtown, I’m glad I wasn’t working remote. And I wouldn’t change any of those moments ever. That was the first re-awakening of the civil rights era in Louisville.

Tamika Palmer: Oh, (Breonna) would’ve loved it. … She loved for people to come together and stand for something.

Ju’Niyah Palmer: She definitely would’ve been down there.

Follow Hayes Gardner, Bailey Loosemore and Darcy Costello on Twitter: @HayesGardner, @bloosemore and @dctello. 

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