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It's hard to believe only—and somehow, already—two years have passed since Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove forced themselves, in plainclothes with a no-knock warrant, into the apartment on Elliot Ave in Louisville where they shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.
News of her murder spread exponentially, eventually coming to a fever pitch following the murder of George Floyd two months later, some 700 miles away in Minneapolis. Suddenly, our city, once only known for horses, bourbon, and disco balls, became a hotbed of protests as activists and communities across the city gathered calling for justice for Breonna Taylor.
Right: African Liberation Day march, 1976. Originally published in the Louisville Defender. Courtesy of the University of Louisville Archives & Special Collections.
None of us bore witness to the negligent and violent events that took place in those early morning hours of March 13, 2020, but we don't have to: Photographs taken in Louisville during the protests of 2020 reveal to us the fascist nature of the police state we live in.
Filmmaker and activist Susan Sontag, in her 1977 collection of essays On Photography, claims that "to take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged."
In the case of the summer of 2020, I vehemently disagree. There is nothing more against the status quo than to shatter the lie of a free society. That is what the photographers on the ground in Louisville did to expose the extent of police violence that killed Breonna. Their images, displayed over the course of the last two two years, incite, document, and locate Louisville's place in the global struggle against militant policing.
Tensions in Louisville had been simmering since the murder of Breonna Taylor in March, but action was difficult in those early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. A somber coincidence, the day of her murder was the same day that many schools, offices, and businesses closed in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Though there was certainly outrage on social media, news media largely neglected the story.
But when Lousivillians saw the images of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd's neck on May 25, a spark was reignited. Seeing Chauvin with his hands in his pockets, so cavalier and carefree as he murdered George Floyd, made clear that what happened in Minneapolis had happened here. It was time to demand justice for Breonna, too.
When protests started in Louisville in late May, hostilities hadn't yet reached a breaking point. In a photograph by Michael Clevenger for the Courier Journal, protesters can be seen forming a human wall around an officer who had been separated from other police. In an effort to keep him safe, even in the tensest moments, protesters remained peaceful. This image is the proof.
Any lingering feelings of solidarity were quickly dissolved as police ramped up the violence.
No place did the police get more militant than they did at Jefferson Square Park, renamed Injustice Square before earning its new official title of Breewayy. Across from the front steps of Louisville Metro Hall, right next to LMPD Headquarters, Breewayy became the site of nightly protests in honor of Breonna—as well as nightly police attacks in an attempt to subjugate protesters. It's ironic, or maybe accurate, that the fascist police state made itself known just steps away from the Hall of Justice, the exterior of which can be seen in Sean McInnis' photograph of protesters running from tear gas.
I counted two children in the crowd.
More than a year after the height of civil action in Louisville, photographers from the city chose to focus on police militancy during two exhibitions at the Louisville Photo Biennial. The city-wide celebration of photography has occurred every two years since 1999. But in 2021, the exhibit revealed how powerful the photos of protesters had been, how much capturing the moment had spurred on and energized ordinary people against state violence.
One of the most moving shows during the Biennial, From the West End to the West Bank at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts, culls images from the University of Louisville Photographic Archives, the Activestills Collective, and photographs taken in Louisville during the summer of 2020. These images contextualize the racist and colonial displacement of people on a global scale. Through spatial storytelling, the gentrification of Louisville's neighborhoods was presented next to the forceful displacement of Palestinian people.
Right: Sawyer Roque, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Cressman Center for Visual Arts.
Sawyer Roque's image of LMPD officers marching two-by-two in front of the infamous Love Boutique solidified this connection. The concrete exterior and neon signs of the adult entertainment store are absolutely unmistakable on an otherwise unremarkable urban street. Shields reveal the police's intention to gas protesters, their batons to subdue them.
On her motivation to travel back to her hometown of Louisville, Roque expressed that "it felt strange and significant to see such familiar places as the backdrop of a national movement." Roque's photograph bears a striking compositional resemblance to Ryan Rodrick Beiler of Activestills' photograph of a lone runner during the 2013 Palestine Marathon. Behind her, the heavily-graffitied wall stands as a symbol of resistance. In both, a fascist regime flaunts.
This visual connection was particularly pertinent in 2021, as the violent government-sanctioned eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah sparked massive global outrage less than a year after widespread protests in the U.S. Conditions of apartheid in Palestine align with the history of gentrification and redlining that runs deep in Louisville.
Ever since The Ohio River Great Flood of 1937 decimated areas west of 9th Street, sparking wealthy white residents to move to higher ground on the eastern bluffs, migration within the city has set the backdrop for the violent tactics and no-knock warrants that give police full immunity to terrorize one area of a city under the guise of protecting another.
Black and white prints of mid-century Louisville reveal a long history of resistance to fascist policing, as peaceful protesters are dragged away by cops. In a 1976 photograph taken during a march for African Liberation Day, a chillingly familiar sign reads "STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST BLACK WOMEN."
Without color, these scenes normally hold a misleading temporal distance, tricking us into lengthening the amount of time passed since they were taken. But today, two years since Taylor's murder, the photographs feel closer in time than ever. The city of Louisville may have banned no-knock warrants, but few other attempts have been made to ensure that Taylor's death is not repeated.
Past and future appear to swirl together around a lone protester in Emmanuel Roque Perez' photograph. Like generations of protestors before them, they defiantly hold their ground before a sea of cops in riot gear. The late-summer twilight is just enough to illuminate their physical surroundings: The public defender's office. The green haze concealing most of their environment gives space for uncertainty—How much longer will we allow these systems to harm us?
Jon Cherry is a photographer who has faithfully documented the protests from the beginning. In addition to a solo exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art and Heritage during the Biennial, two of his photographs from the summer of protests were included in From the West End to the West Bank. These photos shatter the myth of exceptionalism, and the myth of progress. Without the context of place, they bear a resemblance to contemporary resistance in Palestine, Hong Kong—and more recently, Ukraine. Without the context of time, they mirror the oppressive tactics used during the Civil Rights Movement.
I connected with Cherry recently, both of us still grappling with the recent verdict deeming Hankison not guilty. He expressed his disappointment, saying: "Those photographs didn't have as much power as I thought they did… But I talked to a colleague of mine yesterday because I was feeling kind of low about that and she reassured me, telling me, 'You don't know that, you're watching this happen in real time. Give it 10 years, 15 years. It has an effect.'"
And she's exactly right.
It is courageous to come face to face with the reality of living in a fascist police state that prefers to stay hidden in plain sight.
See also: Justice for Breonna Taylor—Dispatch from Kentucky's March for Black Women's Lives
Visuals alone do not always galvanize change, but they often open our eyes to what has always been in front of us, in the way that only images can: As photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till in his casket swayed public opinion and stirred the Civil Rights Movement 65 years before; As the image of deceased 3-year-old Alan Kurdi mobilized worldwide awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015; As the documentary work of Lewis Hine helped reform American labor laws in the early 20th century.
Brianna Harlan is a multi-disciplinary artist and activist from Louisville who also had work in the exhibition. Her photographs from Taylor's would-be 27th birthday celebration on the steps of Louisville Metro Hall capture a brief, precious moment of Black joy in the midst of unmeasurable grief and mourning. On her motivation to preserve these moments, she told me how "the city was coming together in a way that it hadn't in quite some time… This is a time in the history of our city that needed to be documented. If we knew our past better, I imagine the city would already look a lot different in regards to reform… but we don't."
Today, Taylor's memorial at Jefferson Square Park no longer stands. Former Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Steve Conrad has been replaced by Erika Shields, who came to Louisville after resigning from the Atlanta Police Department following the murder of Rayshard Brooks. Only two of the officers involved, Hankison and Jaynes, were fired. Mattingly was offered a book deal.
On March 4, 2022, as this article was being written, Hankison was found not guilty of wanton endangerment related to the multiple rounds he shot that morning. The city's police budget continues to swell.
I drive down these streets almost daily on my way to and from work. They appear unrecognizable from that summer, with lanes of cars bumper-to-bumper, weaving around TARC buses and pedestrians. Certain images stand out in my mind: People pouring milk on their faces to neutralize the tear gas; A man with blood-red welts on his back after being hit by rubber bullets; 5,000 people on the steps of Metro Hall. These are stories that can't be, won't be forgotten, and when the storytellers are gone, the photographs will still speak.
Rest in peace, Breonna Taylor. We haven't stopped saying your name.