SOUTHERN INDIANA — Around 40 protesters gathered Friday evening at Big Four Bridge in Jeffersonville, seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, the Louisville woman fatally shot by police, and George Floyd, who died while being restrained by a Minneapolis police officer, who dug his knee into the man’s neck.
The protesters held aloft signs, walked across the bridge to Louisville and back, then gathered at the base of the bridge, where passers-by shouted words of encouragement and drivers honked their vehicle horns.
Some of the signs specifically referenced Taylor: “Wrong apartment. 20 Rounds. Say her name, Breonna Taylor.”
Taylor was shot to death by police who entered her apartment on the night of March 13 while serving a “no-knock” warrant.
Other signs at Friday’s protest made broader references to racial violence against people of color. One such poster board read, “Pick a name, Research and Educate yourself ... say their names.” The sheet was filled with names of victims.
A white T-shirt worn by one protester, a woman of color, stated: “STOP KILLING US.”
At the base of the bridge sat Cara Meeks of Jeffersonville, formerly of Louisville. She organized the protest through social media.
“Breonna Taylor was murdered in her sleep and I wanted to get her name out here,” Meeks said of why she put out the call. But the Indiana University Southeast graduate, who is black, had more reasons to be there.
“Black women are murdered by the state unjustly,” she said. “In addition to men, also black women are targets.”
Meeks said she experienced racism growing up “from classmates to teachers, more the insidious type of racism. We are considered too much of a problem in classrooms.”
She committed to protesting “until the message of justice has gotten through across this city.”
Sitting beside her on the concrete wall at the base of the bridge was Jeffersonville resident and Clark County Council candidate Brandy Brewer. She made it clear, though, that her involvement was personal, not political.
“I’m here as a woman and a mother,” said Brewer, who is white. “I’m a mother who will never have to worry about my children being murdered in the street.
“I’m here as part of the motherhood of life,” she said, “watching out for other mothers’ children not as safe as mine.”
The pair sat together, but at a social distance, Brewer wearing a mask as a precaution against the coronavirus. Several people stopped to ask questions and offer support. Soon they were joined by the demonstrators returning from their walk across the bridge.
Mask-clad Cheryl Herth of Clarksville walked by the protesters, clapping her hands, telling them, “I see y’all. I hear y’all. Proud of y’all.”
The black woman stopped to encourage the demonstrators, before finding a seat across them atop another low concrete wall. She took a photo, and took time to share her thoughts with the News and Tribune.
“I’m impressed. They are orderly and peaceful, coming together for something they believe in,” said Herth, noting she hadn’t seen anything like that since the ‘60s.
She also had some advice for the young people. “Go to the polls. You want to protest, go to the polls and vote. Because too many people don’t.”
More voices for justice
Southern Indiana has had its share of racial justice actions, including in 2010, when a New Albany police officer made controversial comments about Civil Rights. Marcia Booker helped lead a protest around the City-County Building to bring attention to the issue.
In 2013, it was Booker who headed an even smaller group of people in a demonstration adjacent to the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. after a group of Highland Hills Middle School students wore gorilla costumes and President Barack Obama masks to a basketball game.
From the mass sit-ins and demonstrations associated with the Civil Rights movement, to the more personal protests related to issues occurring in her Southern Indiana community, Booker is certainly no stranger to activism and taking a stand. But she didn’t condone what occurred in Louisville on Thursday night, as what started as a peaceful protest over the killing of Breonna Taylor turned violent and resulted in seven people being shot.
“It is a tragedy what happened — a life is gone because of forcefulness from the police department,” Booker said. “The situation in Louisville just got out of control and I’m not in favor of burning and destroying property.”
But that doesn’t mean Booker doesn’t understand the frustration behind the protests.
“Especially in the old days, the only recognition black people would get, is to riot,” she said. “The people don’t want that, the business owners, the property owners, no one wants your property torn up, but that was the only outcry you could do.”
Taylor was killed after police officers entered her apartment in March to serve a warrant for a narcotics investigation. She was shot after officers said they returned gunfire from her boyfriend. According to a lawsuit filed by Taylor’s mother, no drugs were found in the apartment and the person the police were looking for had already been arrested prior to the police officers entering the residence.
Booker said she visited the mayor’s office in New Albany during past administrations to bring attention to what she defined as racial profiling of her son. She said he was pulled over by police about 15 times while driving from Louisville back to his parents’ house in New Albany.
Instead of just worrying about her son making his commute safely, Booker said she also had to be concerned about what could happen to him during a police stop.
“Just because you’re a black person and have tinted windows doesn’t mean that you’re selling drugs,” she said. “He could have been killed. He could have been shot.”
Policing the communityFloyd County Sheriff Frank Loop is quick to brag on his employees, as he said they’re irreplaceable.
Police departments must have integrity in hiring to be successful, Loop said, but he emphasized that most importantly, there also be a high standard for training.
“I have a very, very good police department. The public loves us. But I also know that spend a huge amount of time training,” Loop said Friday.
What frustrates the sheriff is the lack of importance placed on training. He said in many cities, training budgets are often slashed as governments seek to watch expenses. That can be a costly decision if an officer makes a mistake in the field.
“My question as a law enforcement executive is, what funding have taxpayers provided for training? Louisville in itself has a huge issue right now — they continue to cut the budget of the police department and they continue to hamstring the police department,” he said.
As for the protests in Minneapolis and Louisville, Loop said officers have to be disciplined not to react negatively when someone is inches away from their face yelling insults and baiting them into action.
He added that he supports the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and protest. However some of the actions taken by protestors push the limits of what’s a demonstration and what’s a crime, Loop said.
“I don’t have any issues with [protests], but when they start setting things on fire, doing vandalism, shooting at each other, then at what point does the rest of the public say, ‘wait a minute. We need to step up there and do something’,” Loop said.
Booker agreed in that she said it doesn’t make sense to resort to violence when you’re protesting the killing of an unarmed person. However, she believes certain police protocols such as no-knock warrants should be banned.
“There needs to be a change in the laws with the police going in and just shooting up a household. There could have been more than just one lady shot,” Booker said.
Floyd County deputies do not wear body cameras. Loop said that was his decision based on what would be required for the department to meet state and federal mandates of keeping the footage on file for up to two years.
“Police departments across the state took those body cameras off their officers and threw them in a drawer because they could not follow the state law,” Loop said.
As part of the jail renovation budget, Loop said $240,000 will be set aside to keep footage on file from the cameras inside the facility.
The psychology of protests
A riot can erupt out of celebration from something like a basketball team winning a championship game, or due to anger and fear because of long-standing frustration, said Greg Phipps, a New Albany city councilman and a senior lecturer in sociology at Indiana University Southeast.
Riots can be spontaneous and they tend to be violent.
“What usually happens when you have this underlying frustration that’s been building is there’s a trigger event,” Phipps said.
“I think the frustration that we see in Minneapolis and Louisville is this ongoing institutional racism with the criminal justice system where people of color are treated differently.”
The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, one of whom was charged with third-degree murder Friday, spurred protestors into action in Minneapolis, he continued. The brooding angst of Taylor’s death coupled with Floyd’s killing fueled the Louisville demonstration Thursday, Phipps said.
“Oftentimes a riot is a way for powerless or disenfranchised groups to be heard. It’s a way of causing a social disruption in the community as a way to draw attention to this issue that they feel is not adequately being addressed,” Phipps said.
“Martin Luther King Jr. once said ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’ and I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing in Minneapolis and Louisville. “
Those who criticize the actions taken by protestors often can’t relate to the struggle those who are fighting oppression have experienced, he continued.
“It’s very easy for privileged groups to sit back and criticize people who are disenfranchised because they really don’t understand the discrimination or the inequality they’ve had to deal with in their daily lives,” he said. “If you are in some way an oppressed minority you’re going to see the world from a different point of view.”
Booker believes a major part of the solution for black people who feel oppressed by political and societal systems is to show up on election day.
“The ballot box is a good example of how to change things,” she said, adding that voting isn’t enough, as people still must have regular communication with elected leaders and hold them accountable.
Booker would like to see more community meetings of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds so that people can learn about the struggles and views of those who are different from them in order to bring about more understanding.
Loop said there are great police officers in the community who really care about others, and added that it’s unfortunate that the actions of some cast a bad light on the profession. He believes at a young age, children should start having a relationship with law enforcement through school resource officer programs.
“I think that’s a foundation to build trust. When a child sees that officer every day, and can depend on that officer every day, and they can talk to one another, that builds trust,” Loop said.
The public must be able to engage with officers during routine times, not just when a crime has been committed or there’s a call for service, he continued.
“Our relationship with the public is paramount,” Loop said. “We need to spend as much or more time with the good people of the community as we do with the people who are going to get our attention.”
News and Tribune Editor Susan Duncan contributed to this report.