The Armed Women at the Center of the Louisville Protests

The presence of the armed security teams are a reminder of how far the nationwide protests, now entering their fifth month, have come from the mostly spontaneous demonstrations that erupted in the days after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. Now, a state of tense permanence has taken hold in cities across the country where almost nightly marches proceed with clockwork regularity through shuttered downtowns. But the routine is spiked with an air of unpredictability. With weapons in the hands of people on all sides—the protesters, the police and the right-wing militias who periodically appear—any night is a cat-and-mouse test of constitutional limits in which the guardrails against deadly violence are fragile at best.

“This is a war zone, basically,” Mitchell said. “The very moment I decided to come here the first day to protest, I knew that I was prepared to die for this. I am prepared to sacrifice my life for the betterment of my people.”

Mitchell finished her dinner of shrimp fried rice and an egg roll, as one of her favorite livestreamers, Chea, walked by recording on her iPhone. Behind her, Miss Felicia, another regular, yelled through a pink megaphone, urging people to get registered to vote. A protester walked by wearing a shirt that read, “Get yo knee off my neck.” Another wore a facemask that said, “No Justice, No Derby,” a reference to the city’s famous moneymaking horse race which had been run earlier in the month. Mitchell saw a friend walk by and called out, “Hey, Jay Bird!”

“Hey!” he replied. “Ready for some shit to go down?”

“As always,” she said. “Stay prepared.”

Mitchell’s group was known around the square as the Louisville 87. Many of them met for the first time in July while protesting outside the home of Daniel Cameron, the state’s attorney general, who was at the time investigating the police raid that had killed Breonna Taylor after midnight in her apartment. They wanted to pressure him to charge the three officers involved in Taylor’s death. They sat cross-legged on the lawn with arms clasped and refused to leave. Eighty-seven were arrested that afternoon. After riding in police vans together, getting mug shots taken together, singing Lion King songs in cells and using the not-private jailhouse commodes together, they quickly became close. They organized Zoom calls and weekend barbecues and became regulars in the square.

On this night, her group would help organize the march. A couple hundred people already had arrived and more kept coming. There had been persistent rumors that the protests would get unusually large over the weekend in response to the attorney general’s decision. The bustling square stood in contrast to the rest of downtown, which had the eerie feel of an abandoned movie set. Most ground-floor windows were covered in plywood and 2x4s, including city hall and the courthouse. The owners of restaurants and shops had scrawled messages of support in spray paint over wooden boards—“We LOVE BLM”—perhaps hoping their buildings would be spared broken windows or worse.

Mitchell’s job that night was to be a marshal. She’d walk in front of the crowd, helping to direct a couple dozen bicyclists dispatched to close streets along the way. She’d also keep an eye on the lines of police officers along the route, calling back to warn of any trouble.

She took her place in the lead as protesters lined up behind her. About 6 p.m., they started walking, fists raised, voices chanting, “Say her name!” In the front of the line, walking quietly, was Taylor’s mom, Tamika Palmer, who’d said earlier in a statement that the attorney general’s announcement left her with no faith in the police, legal system and laws that “are not made to protect us Black and Brown people.”

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