Filed under: Analysis, Featured, Police, Southeast, The State, White Supremacy
As in Hong Kong, a new generation of “frontliners” – hardened after months of taking to the streets following the police murder of George Floyd – has been growing across the so-called US. But when riots didn’t pop off in Louisville as expected by both protesters and pundits alike, the question must be asked – why?
The killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky was one of the most high profile incidents of police violence in a year dominated by discussion of the subject, second perhaps only to the murder of George Floyd, captured on videotape, in Minneapolis. The call to “arrest the police who killed Breonna Taylor” has become, in addition to major demand of the ongoing street protests, a cause celebrated by the likes of Beyonce, Lebron James, and Joe Biden, and something of a viral internet meme.
This non-riot forces us to confront the limits and impasses present in this wave of struggle, and to imagine how they may be overcome.
When, on Tuesday, September 22, the mayor of Louisville and the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) announced a state of emergency “due to the potential for civil unrest,” everyone knew that the state attorney general was preparing to make an announcement on the Breonna Taylor case. Everyone knew that they were not going to indict the officers involved, and that meant there would be a riot. A search for “Louisville” on Twitter that day would reveal an endless scroll of variations of “hope they burn Louisville to the ground #BreonnaTaylor,” punctuated by the occasional plea from a verified account begging people to stay home. But Louisville did not burn down. This non-riot forces us to confront the limits and impasses present in this wave of struggle, and to imagine how they may be overcome.
Tuesday, September 22
On Tuesday afternoon, a crowd began to gather in Jefferson Square Park to await news of the attorney general’s announcement. The downtown park has been the site of daily protests since May 28, when thousands of people took to the streets in Louisville after Breonna Taylor’s family leaked the audio of her boyfriend’s 9/11 call. As afternoon turned to evening, those gathered began to grow impatient. When it became clear that no announcement would be made that evening, a hundred or so people began to march out of the park, chanting “Breewayy or the freeway.” Breewayy was a family nickname for Breonna. Some also chanted “burn it down!”
Everyone there knew how the verdict would go. Many in the crowd were armed and flak vests were abundant. Bottles of bourbon were passed around the march, and the smell of smoke was in the air.
The march wasn’t huge, but it felt rowdy and determined as it made its way through the empty, barricaded, boarded-up streets of downtown. As it approached the freeway, the I-64, commotion broke out. Emerging from a nearby parking lot, a lone white counter-protester flashed his gun at the march. The crowd fell back and, in the midst of shouted debates, began to march back to Jefferson Square Park. Arguments continued to breakout throughout the crowd.
Folks in #Louisville already mobilizing for verdict. #BreonnaTaylor https://t.co/Z2YIbYfNzD
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) September 22, 2020
“Why bring all these guns if you’re going to act like cowards?”
“The woman and children should head back to the park where it’s safe and the rest of us should keep going.”
“The last time a white boy pulled a gun out on protesters, two people ended up dead.”
“You’re going to let a man pull on a gun on you?,” a group of women shouted from their car.
Tension was high, and a sense of disappointment hung over the crowd. “Wait until tomorrow,” people reminded each other. Tomorrow, it was assumed, the Attorney General would finally make his announcement. Judging by the mood of the crowd, many anticipated there would be a riot.
Back at the park, some people got busy serving food or organizing donations, someone played music from a small portable speaker, but most just milled about in small groups with their friends. A young black man, particularly flustered by the night’s events, made the rounds arguing for a more militant night march that would head to the nearest commercial strip. He made a short speech to everyone present, saying that we should not be so willing to back down, and that everyone serious should be ready to march again in twenty minutes. Before long, he made the rounds again with a rumor that Three Percenters, a far-Right militia, was staging nearby. The march was called off.
A crowd begins to gather in Jefferson Square Park again early the next day. At 1:30, an announcement was made that the state grand jury had recommended to charge one of the three officers with wanton endangerment, but none of them with murder. The Attorney General, David Cameron, a young, charismatic black Republican, followed this with a press conference where he gave the speech of his life. As a television newscaster wonders aloud if this indictment would be enough to satisfy the protests, his station cuts to live footage from Jefferson Square Park, where the crowd has already begun setting fires. Meanwhile, other protesters are seen starting to distribute shields out of the back of a Uhaul truck.
Soon several hundred people were marching out of downtown and then through the Highlands, the local equivalent to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. At the front of the march, a row of banner-sized shields. Some windows are broken along the way and fireworks are set off, which some, understandably, mistake for the sound of gunshots. The mood swings between tense and almost festive. Along Bardstown Road’s strip of bars and shops, the march is intercepted by riot police. A scuffle breaks out. Some in the crowd throw bottles, and the police respond with tear gas and pepperballs, and make a number of arrests. A number of arrests. The chaos breaks up the crowd, but at least half of the protesters are able to regroup and keep marching.
“Frontliner gear,” such as shields, helmets, goggles, masks, gas masks, and gloves, was everywhere, as were flak jackets. Lasers though had not seemed to catch on.
Stewart Rhodes, leader of the far-Right + pro-Trump militia the Oath Keepers, was on ground in #Louisville at recent demonstrations for #BreonnaTaylor. Oath Keepers have organized security at Trump rallies, neo-Nazi protests, and regularly face off against anti-racist groups. pic.twitter.com/G2Yxm3DP7b
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) September 25, 2020
The crowd was heavily armed. Some carried rifles, others had pistols with oversized clips sticking out of their pockets, some carried baseball bats or other makeshift weapons. While the armed demographic skewed male, there were plenty of women with firearms as well. A black man on a mountain bike rides by with a rifle in one hand and no shirt on, followed seconds later by a white woman on a dutch-style bike with a bulletproof vest on and a pistol in a holster.
The image of militia-like organizations providing security for demonstrations has become an increasingly familiar sight in different parts of the country, and has a particular history tracing back at least to the Civil Rights Movement. The scene in Louisville though was somewhat different. There was no armed body that distinguished itself from the crowd in any discernible way. Rather, the demonstration itself was armed.
The march got bigger as it went. An ever growing caravan of vehicles trailed behind: cars blasting music with people hanging out of the windows or sitting on the roof; pickup trucks with their rear bed full of protesters, often carrying shields or rifles. The crowd was multiracial, but a significant majority of it was black.
Arriving back downtown, protesters were confronted by the spectacle of militarization their city had become. Concrete barriers blocked vehicular traffic from the city center. Almost every building was boarded up, and certain government buildings had fences built around them. Nearly every object that could be moved, and thus turned into a barricade or projectile, had been removed from the scene. Riot police and the national guard seemed to be staging everywhere. Soldiers carrying rifles guarded the entrance to parking garages. Occasionally a garage door would open or close, giving a glimpse of rows of armored vehicles and armed guards. Helicopters and drones hovered overhead. By nightfall, these various state agencies were joined by their extralegal accomplices, as dozens of militiamen stationed outside of a handful of gas stations and other businesses.
Riot police and the national guard seemed to be staging everywhere. Soldiers carrying rifles guarded the entrance to parking garages. By nightfall, these various state agencies were joined by their extralegal accomplices, as dozens of militiamen stationed outside of a handful of gas stations and other businesses.
With some effort, a small group of protesters managed to push one of the concrete barriers out of the way, clearing the street for the caravan of cars trailing behind the march. Riot police quickly rushed to the scene. The rear of the march paused to confront them, with some throwing plastic bottles, and then glass ones. Most of the crowd was already rallying at Jefferson Square Park at this point. Dozens more riot police slowly arrive, making a big show of pushing the barrier back in place, as if to make clear that even the smallest act of defiance would not be tolerated in this totally controlled environment.
Stepping away from this standoff, around one hundred protesters began to march out of the barricaded-off zone. Before they had made it the length of a block, the march was cut off and then surrounded by riot police and national guard. Those who could escape did, and the rest were kettled.
News begins to spread that the mayor has declared a curfew for 9pm.
The crowd at Jefferson Square Park continued to grow over the course of the evening. As the sun sets, fires are started. First in trash cans, then in the street. Soon the front of the Justice Center is set on fire, as the crowd basks in it’s vindicating glow. Riot police who emerge from the building to try to extinguish the flames are met with a volley of bottles and firecrackers. They respond in kind with pepperballs and flashbangs before making a hasty retreat back inside. A loudspeaker begins to announce that this is an “unlawful assembly,” ordering everyone to disperse.
Some families are bringing their kids outside in front of their houses to watch the protesters as they march through #BlackLivesMatter #Louisville pic.twitter.com/BcFoM1UrMY
— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) September 23, 2020
At 8:30pm, a crowd of around 350 begin to march out of the park. People use baseball bats to shatter the glass on bus stations and any windows that remain unboarded and trash cans along the way are set on fire. But riot police managed to stay ahead of the crowd, blocking every exit out of the downtown corridor. Repelled onto Broadway, the march found itself facing a line of police charging down the avenue. A volley of projectiles emerges from the crowd. There is the sound of fireworks, then flash bangs, then gunfire.
The line of police scatters. For a moment, the world stood still. “He’s firing a real gun!,” a woman screamed at a man who had opened fire on the police while running. Suddenly, most of the crowd dispersed, taking off running into alleys or down the street, or taking cover behind cars. The police, who had retreated to a neighboring parking lot, fired off a volley of pepperballs, and then reemerged with their guns drawn. The LMPD would abandon the pretense of less-than-lethal weapons for the rest of the night, and patrol the area with live ammunition ready.
While the armed demographic skewed male, there were plenty of women with firearms as well. A black man on a mountain bike rides by with a rifle in one hand and no shirt on, followed seconds later by a white woman on a dutch-style bike with a bulletproof vest on and a pistol in a holster.
Brief moments of chaos punctuated the rest of the night. One minute, dozens of kids could be seen running as fast as they could down Broadway, leaving a trail of broken glass in their wake. Another minute, a caravan of cars were speeding out of downtown towards the gentrified NULU neighborhood. Rumors abound about where the crowd might be regrouping or what might be taking place in the rest of the city. But the crowd never regained the upper hand. Order prevailed in Louisville.
The small groups wandering downtown that night, trying to find the action, or at least find each other, often just found themselves arrested at gunpoint and forced to lie face down on the sidewalk while handcuffed. By midnight, a hundred protesters had managed to regroup at Jefferson Square Park, only to be dispersed, with many ending up in a mass arrest. At least 127 people had been arrested by the end of the night.
Meanwhile, diffuse looting began to spread throughout the rest of the city. Taking advantage of the concentration of police downtown, crews drove around the highways and neighborhoods that circle the city, breaking into strip malls. Stores were occasionally set on fire as well. Liquor stores and pawn shops were the common targets, as well as Family Dollar, Walgreens, and Home Depot. At least 16 stores were looted, according to the LMPD. This pattern of looting and arson spreading throughout the county after the protests downtown winded down was repeated every night for the rest of the week.
Most of those arrested the night before are held in a jail neighboring Jefferson Square Park. The crowd, which once again had gathered in and around the park, and grows steadily as the afternoon goes on, cheers for them as they’re released over the course of the day. While the news focuses on the two police officers who were shot, they are both quickly released from the hospital and fade from the public’s view.
At 7pm, like clockwork, a march leaves from the park, this time heading to the nearby Hampton Inn, the downtown hotel that militias are rumored to be staying at. Protesters pour into the hotel parking lot, aggressively confronting the not-yet-geared up militia members, who, in turn, keep their composure and refrain from responding, but, as the confrontation drags on, slowly start unpacking guns from their trunk. The protesters fall back and, tensely, march back to the park. Arguments break out along the way. This was now the fourth march in three days repelled back before it was able to get out the several block radius surrounding the park.
Back at Jefferson Square, tensions were high. An argument about the course of the march turns into a fist fight. A circle forms around the two men and watches them punch it out and then fight to a finish on the ground. Their friends stop anyone from intervening. Later, an older man, told to keep his voice down while a venerated Civil Rights leader gave a speech, pulled his gun out.
#Louisville is still going strong in the streets for #BreonnaTaylor. https://t.co/08DFtYG7hF
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) September 27, 2020
Similar incidents happen throughout the course of the night. More than once, arguments within the crowd lead to guns being pulled. Franz Fanon would likely have something to say about how, unable to direct their capacity for violence at what oppresses them, the oppressed can redirect it towards each other. Violence, also, is simply more present in the lives of black proletarians than it is for many other Americans. Different levels of proximity and accustomedness to violence is something that multiracial struggle, one way or another, will have to come to terms with.
The crowd is again heavily armed. A man in a bulletproof vest and a pistol in a holster rests his rifle nozzle-down on the sidewalk while he smokes a blunt with his friends. Another man walks around with a large branch that he’s wrapped the ends of in duct tape to serve as grips. Someone else carries a sword. Crews of women wander the park with bats. It would be hard to speculate how much of the crowd had concealed pistols.
At 8pm, with an hour before curfew, several hundred people, dressed mostly in black, marched out of the park, moving quickly to try to clear the barricaded-in perimeter before police can get the jump on them. Once outside the perimeter, protesters begin breaking windows and covering whatever surface is available in graffiti. The sound of shattering glass elicits cheers from the crowd. Although moving swiftly to evade the LMPD, the march is determined to leave a defiant trace.
Different levels of proximity and accustomedness to violence is something that multiracial struggle, one way or another, will have to come to terms with.
The largely evacuated downtown left little options for the potlatch of destruction except to move elsewhere. But the LMPD was determined to contain the march within the area and managed to stay one step ahead. Any exit towards other neighborhoods, or onto the freeway, was blocked.
Those most determined to do something thus set their sights on whatever hadn’t yet been boarded up and emptied out. Would-be rioters vandalized city buses, broke the windows of a hospital, and threw a flare into the window of a public library. Bonanno remarks somewhere that liberatory action is often excessive by nature. It is like the blow of a tiger’s claws that rips but does not distinguish in its destruction.
After an hour of trying its best to stay ahead of the police and not get kettled, several hundred protesters ran into the First Unitarian Church, which had earlier offered itself as a sanctuary for protesters violating curfew. The LMPD and national guard quickly formed a perimeter around the church. Debates break out. The most militant faction feel like they were led into a trap. The clergy warns everyone not to use profanities in a holy space. The smell of tear gas wafts in the air.
Small groups trying to leave the church are arrested. This includes a state senator and a prominent organizer, both of whom are charged with multiple felonies, partially related to the “arson” attempt at the public library. The union representing the public library workers, AFSCME Local 3425, released a statement the next morning basically saying that throwing a flare through the window of a library isn’t that big of a deal. After several tense hours, the clergy negotiates safe passage for everyone who agrees to return to their cars. At least 26 arrests took place that night.
For the second night in a row, diffuse looting spreads along the highways that circle the city. The LMPD reported at least 16 cases of break-ins. One Game Spot had an SUV drive through the front entrance. A Home Depot in a largely white suburb outside is set on fire. For a second time, rumors that the Jefferson Avenue Mall is being looted turn out not to be true.
Friday / Saturday
The first public call for a demonstration is for Friday, a full two days after the announcement. The crowd gathering in Jefferson Square Park isn’t substantially larger than previous days, but is significantly more white. The demonstration marches through the gentrified NULU neighborhood, stopping to shame various local businesses who haven’t supported the movement, before being kettled and dispersed.
Protesters slowly regrouped in Jefferson Square Park. The crowd is significantly less armed than previous nights. At 8pm, with an hour before curfew, protesters march back to the First Unitarian Church, without making any pretense of being disruptive, or of violating curfew. A black teenager marching with a road flair is publicly shamed. LMPD and the national guard again surround the church, but after a few hours clergy is able to negotiate safe passage for protesters back to their car.
“George Floyd got some kind of justice because Minneapolis burned, while Breonna Taylor got nothing because Louisville didn’t” has become something of a truism this Summer.
Diffuse looting throughout the county takes place again, but with a little bit less energy than previous nights. A Home Center in the city reported at least twenty televisions stolen.
The next day, a call for a “massive occupation” of Jefferson Square Park doesn’t exactly pan out. Protesters instead gather at the Square until an hour before curfew and then have an orderly march to the Church. After an hour of sanctuary, two dozen protesters marched across the street, breaking the windows at several buildings on a nearby college and then using fireworks to set a security car on fire.
Twenty-two people were arrested that night for curfew violations. At least seven stores were looted Saturday night, including a phone store, a pharmacy, and two Game Stops.
“George Floyd got some kind of justice because Minneapolis burned, while Breonna Taylor got nothing because Louisville didn’t” has become something of a truism this Summer. Friends around the country with little previous exposure to radical politics find in that phrase justification for their sudden enthusiasm for riots. The phrase was repeated over and over again in the streets of Louisville this last week, in between variations of the chant “burn it down!” Why, then, didn’t Louisville burn?
Anti-police riots tend to be spontaneous, and thus require some event to prompt them. Either police murder or shoot someone, people from the neighborhood gather, and that gathering magnetizes people from across the city. Or, an event of police violence is recorded and that recording is later released and goes viral, causing outraged people to pour into the streets, even days or months after the initial event occurred. Such was the case with Breonna Taylor, as well as Daniel Prude in Rochester. Or, the announcement of the non-indictment or acquittal of the officers involved sparks protests which spill over into riots. Out of these circumstances, it is the latter the State is most able to predict, and thus prepare for.
The most intense rioting in Ferguson, with reverberations across the country, followed the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. Similarly, the 1992 LA Riots also took place following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. This specter has likely been haunting the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky for months. They thus did everything they could to prepare.
A state of emergency was declared, along with a 9pm curfew. The entire police force was mobilized, as well as the Kentucky National Guard and state police. The entire downtown area was boarded up, with barricades controlling traffic in and out of the zone where protests were expected. Every measure normally taken to suppress a riot already underway was already in place well before anyone had taken to the streets.
After a long summer on the defensive, the State was finally able to recapture the initiative, choosing the time, terrain, and content of the battle. The movement obliging agreed to meet it on its own terms.
Everything about the handling of the announcement itself was also carefully curated. Declaring a state of emergency gave everyone a sense of what to expect, but by pushing back the actual announcement, they gave the city a chance to let go of some of the tension and blow off steam. Simply by having the press conference early in the day, they gave the potential riot an entire afternoon of marching and repression to exhaust itself. By indicting one of the officers involved, and by having that indictment be announced by a young, black, District Attorney, all left just enough ambiguity for the public to hesitate.
1,000+ people in Louisville defied a 9pm curfew to protest for justice for #BreonnaTaylor. Police surrounded a church where dozens hid to avoid arrest.
The curfew continues this weekend, but a journalist said: "This is a movement and it's caught fire and it's not going to stop." pic.twitter.com/n5YcjKK6I2
— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 25, 2020
After a long summer on the defensive, the State was finally able to recapture the initiative, choosing the time, terrain, and content of the battle. The movement obliging agreed to meet it on its own terms.
The obvious explanation though is also somewhat unsatisfying. Why did the movement choose to meet the State on its own ground? Why did a critical mass of the city never come into the streets? Why didn’t the movement try to innovate tactically, taking advantage of the particular opportunities available in Louisville? Are there any lessons to this experience?
Jefferson Square Park, located in the heart of downtown and surrounded by City Hall, the Metro Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department, the Department of Corrections, the Hall of Justice, and a number of courthouses, has been the site of daily protests since late May. Over the course of June, the park swelled into a sprawling encampment, complete with a library, grill and makeshift kitchen, several tables and tents for serving food and donated supplies, and porta-potties. A statue of France’s King Louis, the city’s namesake, in the middle of the park was damaged and vandalized by protesters, and eventually removed by the city. At the heart of the park is a memorial for Breonna Taylor, as well as Tyler Charles Gerth and David Mcatee, the local movement’s martyrs. After a shooting in late June, the LMPD raided the park and cleared out all of the structures.
This follows a familiar pattern, as protesters in cities across the country this summer set up occupations or “autonomous zones” outside of symbolic government buildings as a way to keep momentum going, such as Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or New York’s City Hall Autonomous Zone. From Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, from Gezi Park in Istanbul to Occupy Central in Hong Kong, occupations of public parks have been a recurring feature of this last decade’s cycle of struggle. When compared to the 2014-2015’s Black Lives Matter protests, which couldn’t manage to sustain themselves due, in part, to participants not having a space to find each other and get organized, this year’s proliferation of autonomous zones feels like a significant step forward. Sharing a space gave the movement a shared rhythm and a spontaneous way to organize itself. It’s entirely possible that the movement in some cities would not have been able to develop the momentum it did without them. In another sense though the intuitions at play seem to lag behind the struggle in Hong Kong, where the movement abandoned any ambition of holding space, instead aiming to “be water.”
When compared to the 2014-2015’s Black Lives Matter protests, which couldn’t manage to sustain themselves due, in part, to participants not having a space to find each other and get organized, this year’s proliferation of autonomous zones feels like a significant step forward.
A sentimental attachment to a territory, in this case, left the movement increasingly incapable of taking the initiative or acting strategically. In anticipation of suppressing the riot before it happened, the State sought to turn the movement’s attachments against it. The State amassed its forces for a symmetrical conflict on favorable ground, and the movement obliged.
Protesters would have had better odds trying their luck nearly anywhere else except where they were accustomed to. Shifting the terrain, for instance, to the city’s West End, where a majority of black residents live, and where David McAtee was killed by police and National Guard in early June, may have provided, if not more numbers, at least a sympathetic environment with more room to maneuver. That part of town was also the site of Louisville’s May 1968 riots. Instead, the movement was stuck in a loop of regrouping exactly where the enemy’s forces were most concentrated, and then being either dispersed or corralled. All the State had to do was make this particular territory uninhabitable, and the movement had no way to regroup.
Throughout the year, in any number of cities, we’ve seen that if enough of the population takes to the streets, regardless of the strength of the police, they can make the city ungovernable. At no point following the announcement did a critical mass come into the streets of Louisville. There was never a large enough crowd to outnumber, let alone overpower, the police. It’s possible that, judging from the show of force by the police, much of the city decided that nothing was possible, and stayed home. It’s also possible that the size of the crowd would have swelled the night of the indictment had the initial demonstration not been scattered. But the composition of who did come out seems to tell a different story.
"One man was killed and another person was injured in a shooting Saturday evening in a park where protesters against police violence have gathered for weeks in #Louisville, the authorities said." https://t.co/k3MhQP4b7q
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) June 28, 2020
An out-of-towner at the demonstrations that week would be forgiven for assuming that the population of Louisville was largely black. Across the country, protests this summer, with the exception of perhaps the most intense moments of rioting, have fairly accurately reflected the racial composition of the cities they were held in. In Louisville, though, black people make up only 22% of the metro area, and only 35% of the city itself (statistics are a bit hard to track, because the city and country boundaries recently merged), but tended to make up at least 80% of the attendance at demonstrations. How do we explain this demographic inversion, and the low turnout over all?
Louisville has been ranked one of the safest large cities in America, but the demonstrations there this summer have been particularly marked by violence. Violence, it seems, raised the stakes of participation to the point where many who agree with the movements demands are intimidated away from actually participating.
Louisville has been ranked one of the safest large cities in America, but the demonstrations there this summer have been particularly marked by violence. On May 28, the first day the city poured into the streets, seven demonstrators were shot from within the crowd. A few days later, on June 2, David McAtee was killed when LMPD and the National Guard opened fire on a social gathering in violation of curfew taking place several miles away from the protests. There have been at least three shooting incidents at Jefferson Square Park during protests. At a rally held by the Not Fucking Around Coalition, a semi-informal black militia, a gun was accidentally fired after a demonstrator dropped it, wounding three other participants. Twice arguments among protests at the park escalated into shootings. Tyler Charles Gerth, a white photographer documenting the movement, was left dead after being hit by a stray bullet during one such incident. At this moment, all but the most committed began to ease away from the movement, and white Louisville, in particular, generally stopped going to Jefferson Square Park. Violence, it seems, raised the stakes of participation to the point where many who agree with the movements demands are intimidated away from actually participating.
#BREAKING: Last night, David "Yaya" McAtee, the owner of a local BBQ stand, was killed in #Lousiville #Kentucky as police officers and the national guard opened fire on a crowd just after midnight. #GeorgeFloyd https://t.co/b9Vnv0nAN0 pic.twitter.com/rAYYLTjAks
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) June 1, 2020
Violence aside, across the country, participation in the movement has waned over the summer. Cities that experienced a second flare up around a local instance of police violence rarely had the same critical mass in the streets again. Instead they were able to make their power felt through some innovation in tactics. Following the shooting of Latrell Allen in Chicago, a “looter caravan” marauded through the city for a night. After the death of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot, demonstrators in Atlanta burned the restaurant down and began an occupation of the now-empty lot. No such tactical leap occurred in Louisville. When an individual fired on the police, it was in a sense, a tactical novelty, but one that didn’t generalize beyond the actions of a lone individual. If the struggle was able to step away from it’s sentimental attachments and risk a tactical leap, it would probably want to take advantage of the particular opportunities available to them.
For the past three nights, thousands across the US have faced down far-Right militias, the National Guard, heavily armed riot police, and deadly vigilantes to take the streets in solidarity with #BreonnaTaylor. Check out our roundup and analysis here. https://t.co/hSzagDS0do
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) September 26, 2020
“Breewayy or the Freeway” can be seen spray painted on the few remaining structures at Jefferson Square Park and can be heard shouted enthusiastically at nearly every march. It functions as something of a watchword for the movement: if Breonna doesn’t get justice, we shut down the freeways. (It also functions as a way to give literal direction to the marches. Breewayy, a family nickname for Breonna, has become the semi-official name for the corridor around Jefferson Square Park.) Blocking the freeways may seem, to some, like a relic of the past: the most advanced tactic to generalize from the 2014 wave of struggle now feels quaint in comparison to lootings and arson of this summer. But the slogan points to a particularly sensible reading of the possibilities available in that city. Louisville is, at heart, a logistics city.
Located near the Ohio Falls, and nestled close to the center of the country, Louisville has a long history of being a significant center of the country’s shipping and cargo industries. Today the city is home to one of the country’s largest inland ports and sits at the intersection of three major freeways. Most significantly, the Louisville International Airport is home to the UPS’ Worldport, the largest automated package sorting facility in the world, processing roughly two million packages a day. A strategy of disruption in Louisville could do much to bring the country’s economy to a halt. Anyone who thinks protesters shutting down an airport is just a little too ambitious need only remember the country-wide airport blockades in January, 2017, in response to Trump’s Muslim ban.
The Task to Find Each Other
Autonomous anti-capitalists and abolitionists certainly played a significant role behind-the-scenes, helping the movement develop infrastructure. But, besides from the stray anarchist-slogan on a shield or the lone black blocker, there was no legible pro-revolutionary pole in the streets. The political ecology of the movement in Louisville is split between different factions of reformist organizations. Despite the armed demonstrations, even political leadership at the camp is largely in the hands of career activists from well-fund national organizations.
A very sizable march on day 136 of protests for Breonna Taylor in Louisville pic.twitter.com/TK32Rxsd1C
— Bailey BOOsemore (@bloosemore) October 10, 2020
One could argue, with some credulity, that the movement’s avant-garde, the black proletarians who tried over and over again that week to kick things off, is so deeply anti-political that they simply don’t feel an obligation to express themselves in terms legible to the Left. It was certainly a pattern that those who acted the most spoke the least, and had literally no interest in engaging in debate with those that weren’t going to act with them. But it is in precisely these moments, when movements stumble against their impasses, that militants have the most to offer, by drawing on their own experience of struggle and their understanding of what is happening elsewhere to experiment with ways to move forward. As the barriers we collide with become trickier to traverse, the role of a revolutionary minority, those who help build the capacity and collective confidence of revolt, may become more important. In this sense, the absence of a revolutionary pole was felt.
The movement’s avant-garde, the black proletarians who tried over and over again that week to kick things off, is so deeply anti-political that they simply don’t feel an obligation to express themselves in terms legible to the Left.
At times, during those nights of frantic cat and mouse games with the police, it felt as if everyone we met in the streets was from out of town. They all fit a similar profile: they were black, working class, probably in their 20s; they were invariably wearing some assortment of frontliner tactical gear, and often dressed in full black bloc attire. Everyone had a similar story: in late May, they had dove headfirst into the riots in whatever small city they lived in. They then tried to keep the momentum going there for as long as they could. Since then, they’ve been traveling the country to whichever city it kicks off in: Portland, Kenosha, Rochester, Louisville. Some had made a lifestyle out of it, installing a bed in the back of their pickup truck. Others had kids at home they had to get back to.
The march is approaching Sixth and Jefferson in downtown #Louisville, the center of the protests for more than four months. #BreonnaTaylor pic.twitter.com/JprmGsCco1
— Hayes Gardner (@HayesGardner) October 10, 2020
Perhaps lacking theoretically-consistent perspectives, they are driven by an intuition that whatever hope there is in the world, in this strange plague year, can be found in pushing this struggle towards its limits. Whether this cycle of struggles is able to overcome the impasses it currently faces, depends, to a certain degree, on whether these new militants are able to find each other and what sort of shared perspectives they develop. There is nothing guaranteeing that, like the generation of 2014, many of them do not end up mired in one of the numerous Left or non-profit swamps, becoming yet another barrier that future struggles will have to overcome. But if a collective material force is to emerge out of this sequence, we can get a glimpse of its possible contours in the lines traced by these circulating militants.
Future victories will spring from this defeat. Today order prevails in Louisville, but that order is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again, clashing its weapons, and proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!