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Civil Rights Advocates Say Police Met Peaceful Protesters With Excessive Force

Protesters march on overpass near Churchill Downs in Louisville on August 25, 2020.
Protesters march on overpass near Churchill Downs in Louisville on August 25, 2020.

Rev. Stephen A. Green spent more than 18 hours in a Louisville jail on Tuesday. He was among 64 protesters who were arrested for their involvement in a peaceful march aimed at raising awareness about the death of Breonna Taylor and the racial injustice her death symbolizes.

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Green and local pastors said Louisville Metro Police Department’s response to the march was excessive given the demonstration's peaceful tone.

“So, we are calling on this entire city to join hands with us as we collectively push back on the draconian decision of Mayor Fischer, to demand that peaceful protesters have the right to occupy our streets,” Green said.

LMPD interim police chief Robert Schroeder and Mayor Greg Fischer say they support the right to protest; but must also protect public safety.

"We want to respect the right for people to express their First Amendment rights, but we also have to ensure public safety for the whole community and the protesters themselves," Schroeder said during a press conference Tuesday evening. LMPD declined further comment.

Organizers with the social justice group Until Freedom announced their intentions for a peaceful demonstration several days in advance.  The march, called "Good Trouble Tuesday", concluded four days of BreonnaCon events.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at a park, then marched past a police training facility and Churchill Downs Tuesday. After passing the race track, protesters encountered hundreds of police officers on an overpass beside Cardinal Stadium.

Ahead of the march, LMPD's interim chief designated Tuesday an “All Work-Day” for officers, requiring them to be available for work because of the protest.

Standing in a line blocking the overpass, police wore riot gear and carried batons and riot control weapons capable of firing tear gas and pepper balls. Some wore patches designating their unit, but few wore name tags.

Dozens of police cars blocked traffic on both sides of the bridge. Nearby, officers wearing military-style clothing stood holding long guns in front of an armored vehicle.

Protesters announced their intention to sit in the street and asked those who did not want to be arrested to leave. Sixty-four protesters sat on the asphalt and waited their turn for arrest including Green, and Pastor Timothy Findley of the Kingdom Fellowship Christian Life Center.

Police charged them with obstructing the roadway and disorderly conduct.

Findley, who said he was the first person arrested, said the display of force was excessive and demonstrated the city’s unwillingness to acknowledge discrimination toward the city’s Black community. Findley said during the arrests, officers treated him and other protesters as threats even though they had not been aggressive.

“What I am concerned about is that our city is at a tipping point and it’s because for some reason we do not understand that black communities are policed differently, black bodies are handled differently,” Findley said.

In recent weeks, civil rights attorneys and others have also challenged the city’s response to racial justice protests. The ACLU of Kentucky and attorney David Mour have sued LMPD over actions they say could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.

Since protests began in May, LMPD has fired less-than-lethal weapons at peaceful protesters, destroyed protester supplies and trashed protesters’ camping equipment. In July, police arrested 87 protesters with Until Freedom during a sit-in on Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s lawn. Cameron is currently in charge of the investigation into Breonna Taylor, who police shot and killed in her apartment in March.

After the sit-in on Cameron's lawn, police charged protesters with felonies for “intimidating a participant in a legal process.” The Jefferson County attorney later dismissed the felony charges.

During Wednesday’s press conference Louisville Urban League President Sadiqa Reynolds called on the city's residents to speak out against racial injustice and what she described as LMPD’s excessive response to protests.

“Your boarded up windows won’t protect any of us,” Reynolds said. “The problem is your boarded up hearts.”

She asked the business community, in particular, to stand with protesters and pressure the city to acknowledge they have been treated unfairly.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.