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Mayor Reflects, Briefly, On Year Of Pandemic And Protests

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer stands at a podium during a July 2020 news conference.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County have nearly doubled in a week, with samples all showing the delta variant.

A spreading pandemic, massive protests, consequential police reform, record high homicides and surging overdoses. This year has gutted the economy and thrust into the forefront racial injustices that have permeated for years in Louisville.

But Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer doesn’t want to talk about it for long. At least, not with local reporters.

Fischer on Monday hosted a round of end-of-year interviews: five minutes per news outlet. The rapid-fire, virtual sessions offered little chance for the mayor to reflect on the tumultuous year that’s passed or wrestle with the months ahead.

“There’s plenty of interviews and opportunities to engage,” he said. “We’re just trying to please everyone in the time we’ve got allotted.”

He began Monday’s briefing with a 10-minute scripted statement that highlighted his administration’s efforts on two fronts: combatting the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and addressing the demands of protesters who occupied the city’s streets for much of the summer in response to Louisville Metro Police officers killing Breonna Taylor.

“We’ve reached an inflection point in our evolution as a city,” he said. “Let’s seize this moment and transform our city together.”

A complex web of systemic racism, historical segregation, police militarization and government failings have led to this so-called inflection point. Reconciling these issues is no easy task. And Fischer, who will be term-limited out of office in January 2023, is balancing his time between serving the needs of his constituents and as the president of the US Conference of Mayors. But he said he is committed to the work.

“Even through these difficult moments, I see signs of strength, resilience, determination and community connection that I believe put us in a position to emerge from this period as a stronger, more unified, and more equitable city than ever before,” he said. “And my team and I are working with many community partners to make that a reality.”

Asked how his legacy will be shaped by the following year, Fischer deflected, saying “let’s revisit that question a year or two years from now.”

“I can tell you I will be as dedicated over those two years as I have been this year to make sure that our city is a city that’s full of opportunity for everybody, a more equitable city, a city with more positive police-community relations,” he said.

Protests Leave Lasting Mark

Police in Louisville made more than 800 protest-related arrests from May to October — charging people with crimes ranging from violating curfew or unlawful assembly to felony rioting, including state Rep. Attica Scott. Some face federal charges for burglarizing pharmacies and gun stores.

In the first few days, officers blanketed crowds with teargas and other nonlethal munitions, and struck people with batons. LMPD leaders painted a picture of a war-like scene when asked to describe the protests in local council meetings.

For his part, Fischer instituted city-wide curfews and initially said he couldn’t fire the officers who killed 26-year-old Taylor because they had to get due process. His decisions were often criticized by protesters and police, alike. During the height of the protests his posts on social media would flood with responses demanding he resign. When the grand jury was meeting to consider charges against the officers, he barricaded the downtown area.

On Monday, he described the protests as “righteous,” and more “pronounced and widespread than anything since the 1968 civil rights era.”

One of the officers involved in the raid that left Taylor dead, Brett Hankison, was fired in June and now faces three counts of first degree wanton endangerment for firing into a neighboring apartment, not Taylor’s.

Fischer also fired former police chief Steve Conrad just days after the protests began. LMPD officers and National Guard personnel went to26th and Broadway in the early morning hours of June 1 to break up a crowd. There, more than 20 blocks from the center of the protests, police and the National Guard fired a volley of bullets at David McAtee, a popular barbeque chef, who was standing in the entryway of his restaurant. Police said he fired a gun out the door, after LMPD officers sprayed the restaurant with pepper balls and several people ran inside for cover. McAtee was killed by a single National Guard bullet.

Since then, Fischer has hired two interim police chiefs — he promoted then-deputy chief Robert Schroeder, then hired former LMPD commander Yvette Gentry when Schroeder retired. Fischer is due to announce a new, permanent chief any day. He is keeping the list of finalists a secret, however.

He’s also tapped the Kentucky State Police to investigate police shootings involving LMPD, a move intended to bring additional investigatory oversight. Instead, it’s brought concerns of more secrecy after KSP initially refused to release body camera footage — a sharp change from LMPD’s policy of making the footage public within hours.

A Year Later, Economy Takes Center Stage

Fischer began 2020 trumpeting the city’s economy and the potential for Louisville to be a “break-out city.”

“We just need to stay the course,” he said on the January 2 episode of his podcast.

He touted the city’s tourism industry, job opportunities, the bourbon industry and even the newly named Muhammad Ali International Airport.

Within weeks, much of that would change as the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on the country. Louisville’s first case was March 6; last week, the county recorded 20,000 cases.

Yet still, Fischer remains bullish that the city’s economy will sustain and carry through to brighter days.

On Monday he touted investments made to support people struggling to pay for necessities like housing and utilities. And he’s hopeful that the city’s core industries will only strengthen as the pandemic comes to a close. Tourism and conventions — and the jobs and revenue they bring — will come back, he said.

But he’s not focused on getting back to “normal.”

“We must ensure the post-COVID economy is more equitable than our pre-COVID economy ever was,” Fischer said.

To do that, he pledged to focus on addressing the racial injustices and inequalities that have existed for decades, and will continue to exist in the coming year.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.