The thing that surprised me was the guns.
That morning – Thursday – I’d been speaking to Latoia Stafford and Milly Martin, two young women who’d taken to the streets to protest against the killing of Breonna Taylor, 153 days before. They’re still protesting every day, and their movement has caught fire across the country. No matter who the US choses as its president next week, they vow they won’t stop until they get justice.
Taylor was a Black woman shot dead in her own apartment by two White police officers in March. The killing happened in Louisville, Kentucky, where my own (White) family dates back generations. Like so much of the US, Kentucky has a shocking history of racial injustice and police brutality. So why was Taylor’s case, in particular, the tipping point?
“It was a woman. She was in her home,” Stafford told me. “We’re used to this happening to men, it’s been going on for 400 years. But now, you can’t even be free in your own house, that you actually work and pay for? That’s what’s got me out of my bed and into the streets.”
White men with guns
I joined them that evening in the pouring rain outside the city’s imposing public library. TV news coverage of Black Lives Matter protests usually shows scenes of violence or looting – it wouldn’t be news otherwise. This march was quite different.
There were only about fifty people. They made jokes, sang songs and drove cars cheerfully honking their horns. They had seasonal slogans – “No Justice, no Halloween” – and promised mulled cider and cookies at the end of the demo. The only police sirens we heard were fakes, played as gimmicks by the protestors. They danced in the rain. Aaron Jordan, one of the movement’s emerging leaders, tried to mimic my British accent.
But, as we started marching away from the library, I noticed we were surrounded by men with guns.
At first, I thought we’d been quietly joined by a right-wing militia group. The first armed men I spotted were tattooed, bearded, White; wearing bullet-proof jackets and carrying massive weapons. But then I noticed a Black teenager was also carrying a rifle. So was a Black man in his 30s, his face almost entirely hidden by his hoodie in the rain.
They were guiding the protesters across the roads and waving politely at cars who’d stopped to let us through.
I asked one of the men why he was armed (‘open carry’ is legal in Kentucky, which means anyone over the age of 18 can openly carry a gun without a permit). He explained: “We live in a racist state. So, we form a perimeter around the protest and we keep people safe”.
Canoeing past history
On that night they needn’t have bothered. At 8pm on a Thursday evening, downtown Louisville was deserted. Shop after shop was boarded up along the wide streets; most restaurants and bars were closed. A few businesses that didn’t have shutters or boarding were labelled “Black owned” – but it hasn’t been the protests that have shut down the city. COVID has kept things eerily quiet for months.
In the pouring rain, we marched past the grandiose Brown Hotel. Nearly a century earlier, during the Great Flood of 1937, my grandfather had arrived there in a canoe. The story has become family folklore. My resourceful Aunt Cat had ‘taken up’ with the owner of the Brown, so my granddad, his younger brothers and parents managed to get shelter there from the rising waters of the Ohio River, which devastated Louisville that year.
Like most Irish Americans in the city then, my grandfather's family lived in the West End. Now the neighbourhood is predominantly Black, and my grandparents live out in the suburbs.
The Brown Hotel appeared to be one of the few businesses open as we marched past it on Thursday night. The lights were on at least, but it was empty. Peering inside at the fading white tablecloths, the antique crockery and finishings, it looked like a dusty museum display: a scene that might have been recreated for passing tourists, curious about how people lived in a different time.
No love for Biden
To be confident of victory, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris need to win more Black votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Given Trump’s record over the last four years, that would seem easy. But on my journey to Louisville I’ve spoken to voters all across the country, and I’ve been asking everyone what they think of Biden. It’s complicated.
Teri, aged 74, has lived in Louisville and worked as a teacher for decades. She’s now part of the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement, which campaigns for reparations for Black Americans. Teri will be giving Biden her vote but, as she says in the video above, with an important caveat: “I don’t want him to think he can backstab and forget us. I want him to remember that we built this country.”
That sentiment was echoed by many of the activists I’ve spoken to in this city. Jecorey Arthur – also in the video – is the youngest person ever to be elected to the Louisville City Council. He told me he’ll be voting ‘down ballot’, which means voting in the local race, but not the presidential one.
Milly Martin, who knew Breonna Taylor, also cited Biden’s infamous role in the ‘Crime Bill’ – the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act – which resulted in skyrocketing incarceration rates. She put it bluntly: “I do not like him at all.”
Others like Latoia Stafford take a more pragmatic approach but, as you can see from her face in the video, ‘unenthusiastic’ would be an understatement.
Looking ahead, I asked Stafford what she thinks is missing from the media coverage of this moment in US history. She answered instantly: “They’re missing the love. The passion. The community. They’re missing the truth, honestly – because if you’re not out with us here from sun up till sun down every day, you’re missing all the good.
“There’s been music and art produced here, new relationships formed. We’ve saved some of our homeless people. We’re bringing a Black fresh food market to the West End.”
“So what I’d say to people who are home, who aren’t in the streets: dig a little deeper. And then maybe you’ll come out too.”
Follow me on Twitter @maryftz to get live updates from the ground in key swing states during the final days of the US election.
And: read all openDemocracy's election coverage here.