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A Second Year Of Racial Justice Protests Outside The Kentucky Derby

Racial justice protesters marched outside Churchill Downs on Saturday in protest of the Kentucky Derby and the continued unjust killings of Black people at the hands of police.

Beginning at noon, protesters greeted Derby spectators on their way into the track chanting “Momma Momma can’t you see what the Derby’s done to me. They locked them up and shut ‘em down, there ain’t no Black Jockeys around.”

Saturday marked the second year of protests outside the Derby following the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by LMPD. The pandemic caused a postponement until last September, when a large group of protesters, including members of the black militia NFAC, assembled outside Churchill Downs and marched around the track ahead of the Run for the Roses 

This year’s march was significantly smaller, a compact group of 16 protesters, verbally scuffling with Derby spectators with chants including “races for racists.” 

“Right now we need to stay together as a group because we don't have the numbers we once had,” a woman said over the noise of the crowd passing by. 

The spectators in straw hats, fascinators, bow ties and pastel suits and dresses, contrasted the dark colors, protest signs and somber tone of racial justice advocates calling attention to what they say is unjust treatment. 

In between leading chants on a megaphone, protest organizer Carmen Jones explained that she grew up living in the shadow of the twin spires of Churchill Downs. She said Black and Brown workers employed by the track continue to be underpaid and exploited by Churchill Downs. Valets who saddle up the horses threatened to strike this year over the track’s failure to negotiate a new contract and improve wages, though they ultimately decided to work.

“You’re a big slave castle sitting right in the middle of the hood. You reap off all the benefits, they are buying up all of this property here, gentrifying so no one else in the South End community can live here and have businesses here,” Jones said. 

Jones pointed to a teenager selling water on the street corner. 

“It’s sad that they need racist institutions like this to even make their bills and even be able to afford anything,” she said.  

Around 2 p.m. a plane passed over the track carrying behind it a banner reading “Protect Black Women. Divest from Police.”

“We commissioned a plane banner this year to highlight the disparate impact of police brutality on Black women specifically,” said Chanelle Helm, Strategic Core Co-Organizer of Black Lives Matter, Louisville, in a press release. 

One Derby Later

A lot has happened in the intervening time between the two Derby protests. Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office presented a case to agrand jury, offering only one charge to consider: wanton endangerment against former LMPD officer Brett Hankison. He was indicted on that charge, which was forshooting into an apartment neighboring Taylor’s, not for shooting Taylor herself. 

After the mayor fired former police chief Steve Conrad, LMPD conducted a national search and hired a new police chief, Erika Shields, who resigned from her post in Atlanta after officers there shot and killed Rayshard Brooks. An independent review of LMPD found a “department in crisis” that disproportionately polices Black people, conducting “field interrogations,” stopping their cars and arresting them more than other citizens, according to the audit.

And most recently, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the U.S. The Department of Justice will investigate LMPD to see whether the LMPD has a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force and violating constitutional rights, an action that could result in a consent decree or a federal lawsuit against the city.

But as recently as two weeks ago, LMPD was filmed repeatedly punching a protester in the face. That protester, Denorver “Dee” Garrett, was outside Churchill Downs on Saturday, continuing to voice concerns with LMPD. 

As was protest organizer Chris Wells, who said he came out Saturday because Taylor has still not received justice. 

“No matter how many numbers we have, we will always fight this fight,” Wells said. 




Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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