Why Breonna Taylor protests in Louisville made white individuals pay attention

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The protesters stood in a line across Jefferson Street, arms locked at the elbows.

It was the first night of demonstrations over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, and all 20 people in the row were white, their bodies forming a barrier between Black protesters and officers from the police force that had shot the 26-year-old Black woman two months before.

A year later, that moment still stands out to people fighting for reforms — a sign of the multiracial support to come.

Through marches and rallies spanning Louisville since last May, white people have been present, calling for justice for Taylor and other Black people killed at the hands of police.

A line of almost all white women formed between police officers and black protesters at a rally in downtown Louisville calling for justice in the death of Breonna Taylor.Tim Druck

Their participation has helped strengthen the movement against systemic racism, many protesters of color say. And as America’s attention inevitably shifts elsewhere, white people must keep pressure on those in power to make lasting change, they said.

“White folks have a really huge role to play in dismantling racism. You are the ones with the access,” said Darryl Young, who attended the protests and is executive director of the Coalition Supporting Young Adults. “There has to be some responsibility, I believe, from white America. If we are as disgusted as we say we are with what we see happening on a day-to-day basis, if (we) are as tired, as fed up as we say we are, then we actually have to have some real movement.”

In interviews with The Courier Journal, which like USA TODAY is a part of the USA TODAY Network, white residents across the north central portion of Kentucky said uprisings over the deaths of Taylor and George Floyd in Minneapolis awoke them to the deep inequities Black people face locally and nationally.

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Though some white residents have taken issue with vandalism that occurred during the protests and criticized city leaders for “caving” to activists’ demands, others said they’re now more likely to call out racism when they see it and to voice support for government reforms, including shifting money away from the police department toward other public safety services.

Protesters hold hands with the hashtag

Protesters hold hands with the hashtag “nojusticenopeace” on an arm during the fourth night of protests in response to the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of Louisville Metro Police on May 31, 2020.Alton Strupp/Courier Journal

“We have to put our money where our mouth is,” said Lisa Steiner, a white retiree who attended the protests. “We want people to be equal, but we don’t let people talk, listen and empower them to lead the way.”

That change in attitude is important, longtime activists said, because white people are more likely to listen to others who look like them. In a county that’s 71% white, more people speaking up could make a difference.

However, activists and experts caution that white people cannot take over movements led by people of color and must instead listen to those experiencing oppression.

“Support is the best thing that white Americans who are sympathetic to these causes and would like to help can offer,” said Steven Moore, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University. “Just be careful not to step on the agency of the people you’re trying to help.”

The role of white protesters

Throughout America’s history, white people have been involved in civil rights work — both to the benefit and detriment of the movements.

Moore, who has studied media coverage of protests, said white people’s involvement in demonstrations can improve the way they’re perceived.

“It shouldn’t be that way, but it does lend legitimacy to the movement,” he said. “It goes back to classic civil rights strategies, like getting sympathetic images and getting the broader public on your side. And by broader public, I mean white people. … There’s reason to believe white people are reaching other white people and convincing them this is an issue.”

However, white people can also detract from racial justice movements when they attempt to take control.

An 11-page paper, published in 1966, spelled out the fraught relationship between Black and white protesters and advocated for a “conscious change in the role of whites.” 

“Negroes in this country have never been allowed to organize themselves because of white interference,” stated the paper from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a prominent youth-led organization that formed in 1960. “As a result of this, the stereotype has been reinforced that Blacks cannot organize themselves. … Blacks, in fact, feel intimidated by the presence of whites, because of their knowledge of the power that whites have over their lives.”

The paper argued white people who desire change should take that fight to the places where racism most manifests: white communities.

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Fifty-five years later, that’s exactly what Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice does locally.

The grassroots organization formed nationally in 2009 and a Louisville chapter followed in 2012, said Carla Wallace, a co-founder of both.

The group focuses on organizing white people around racial justice issues, such as eliminating cash bail, by pointing out that systemic changes can benefit people of all races, she said.

“We prioritize communities of white folks that are also hurting under the system,” Wallace said. “…  And we get people to think about how what they worry about for their family is something that Black communities and brown communities, immigrant people, have to deal with every single day.”

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Wallace said the organization and its chapters work in concert with groups led by people of color, such as the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

Tia Kurtisnger-Edison, a co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance, said she has appreciated LSURJ’s partnership because when white people see themselves represented at protests, they’re more likely to pay attention.

“It makes them a little more empathetic when (white people) are out there,” she said. “Only white folks can change white folks’ minds.”

Alicia Hurle, a grassroots organizer who has collaborated with LSURJ, said so long as “lanes” of operation are clear, there’s a lot of room for “antiracist white leadership.”

That visibility, she said, is important. 

“If you do it professionally, if you do it on your own time … even if you do it in your family, you can’t sit on the sidelines of it,” Hurle said.

“That doesn’t mean getting all the glory or showing up with the full strategy, but it does mean being a player in a larger game to get social change.”

‘It couldn’t be ignored’

People who spoke with The Courier Journal said the confluence of several events led to one of the largest protest movements in history.

The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown forced more people to stay home and pay attention to the news. And when video of Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis went viral, people couldn’t easily tune it out.

“One of the privileges of whiteness is that you usually, for the most part, don’t have to think about these things,” said Young of the Coalition Supporting Young Adults. “… Whereas for Black folks, you have to be cognizant, aware of, constantly be mindful of it every second of your life. I really think COVID stripped a layer of white privilege away to where white folks did not have that usual ability to distance themselves from the conversation.”

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Moore, from Wesleyan, said that forced focus led people to take to the streets in “places you would never think of.”

Between May 26 and Aug. 22, more than 7,700 demonstrations linked to the Black Lives Matter movement took place in 2,440 locations countrywide, according to a report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Mourners raise their fists in the air during a vigil for Tyler Gerth on June 28, 2020, a photographer who was shot and killed in Jefferson Square Park in Louisville, Ky.

Mourners raise their fists in the air during a vigil for Tyler Gerth on June 28, 2020, a photographer who was shot and killed in Jefferson Square Park in Louisville, Ky.Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal

Support for the movement has waned in recent months, with a national Civiqs survey showing a drop in net support by all registered voters from 24% on June 4, 2020, to 6% on May 18.

But dozens of white people told The Courier Journal in a recent online form that the protests have continued to heighten their awareness of racism, a year after they started.

Britta Stokes grew up in Eastern Kentucky watched livestreams of the demonstrations on social media daily and said she makes a more concerted effort to “listen to what the Black people in the city are saying.”

“There’s been stuff that’s been going on for 30 years that I’m not aware of because I’m white,” she said. “They’re my neighbors. That’s a shame.”

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Steiner, the retiree, said she was involved in implementing diversity and inclusion strategies at Brown-Forman, and the protests reignited her passion for justice.

“The more I went, the more I realized something very powerful was happening, and it couldn’t be ignored,” she said. As white people, “we have benefited on the backs of Black people for many years. If we can’t see that Black lives matter, then who are we as a country and as a people?”

Mariah Corso, a co-founder of Beargrass Thunder, a nursery focused on environmental justice, said her views on racism have changed rapidly since she moved to Smoketown, a historically Black neighborhood in Louisville.

She and her partner, Jody Dahmer, have spoken with longtime residents there about policies and developments that have held the area back. They try to spread word about those issues through their online platform and in conversations with family and friends.

“I think it’s important that we, as white people, realize we used to come from those spaces, and we have to drag those people to see what is going on in our community,” Corso said.

Some push, some pull

The protests haven’t been without pushback.

Online and in private conversations, residents have decried vandalism of businesses downtown and have voiced frustrations with protesters blocking public streets.

Lynn Horrar said she’s now scared to visit the city’s central business district for fear of being attacked because she’s white.

“To me, the message was muddled,” she said of the demonstrations. “It became, to me, whatever we can destroy that the establishment values, that’s what we’re going to do.”

David Darst, a Louisville resident, said the protests appropriately drew attention to areas of town that need more investment, such as the majority Black neighborhoods in the West End.

But he was furious to see businesses broken into downtown, and he takes issue with protesters “painting the whole community” as racist.

People familiar with the history of protests say such backlash is to be expected.

“I think a stumbling block for a lot of white people is that they look at it on the individual level,” Young said. “As soon as you hear me talk about whiteness, then you start doing these mental gymnastics like I don’t do this thing, I don’t do that thing, I don’t know anybody who does, so clearly they have to be lying.”

People have to realize, he said, “I’m not trying to attack you. I’m trying to attack the system that unfairly advantages you over myself.”

Protestors filled the streets, sidewalks and City hall steps in downtown Louisville to remember Breonna Taylor's birthday as well as George Floyd and David McAtee.

Protestors filled the streets, sidewalks and City hall steps in downtown Louisville to remember Breonna Taylor’s birthday as well as George Floyd and David McAtee.Matt Stone/Courier Journal

With protests slowed and fading from the public eye, activists said those who remain devoted to the movement can’t rest on educating themselves, alone.

They must also take action to continue raising others’ awareness and to keep pressure on people in power.

Actions can be simple, from denouncing a racist joke to calling elected officials about proposed policy changes, Wallace of LSURJ and others said.

“We can’t just have a whole bunch of improved white people and have the system stay the way it is,” Wallace said.

Follow Bailey Loosemore and Darcy Costello on Twitter: @bloosemore and @dctello.

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