Thousands of demonstrators wearing masks and bearing signs are expected to gather near the running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, replacing the traditional crowds of dapper dandies and women in fanciful hats who will be absent from the stands in Louisville because of the pandemic.
The protesters intend to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old woman who was shot and killed by Louisville police when they entered her home without warning in March.
In a city where tension remains high over the investigation of Taylor’s death, many residents say holding the Kentucky Derby is insensitive and a distraction from the ongoing demand for justice.
The decision to move forward with one of the most-watched sporting events in the U.S., which draws an average of 15 million television viewers a year, came after the race was postponed in March because of the coronavirus outbreak. (NBC televises the derby each year.) Now the event, often characterized as pandering to an elitist white crowd, comes during a time of national turmoil over race, prompting local and national organizers to shift the spotlight to racial justice and police brutality, instead.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said Monday that his office met with the FBI’s Louisville field office and reviewed the ballistics report on Taylor’s death, which both his office and the FBI are continuing to investigate. Louisville police Detective Brett Hankison was fired in June for his role in Taylor’s death, while Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and Detective Myles Cosgrove remain on administrative leave.
One of the protest organizers, Pastor Timothy Findley Jr., founder of the Justice and Freedom Coalition, a social justice organization, said two worlds will collide over the Kentucky Derby weekend.
“In our country, we have people who are seemingly disconnected and uninterested in the plights of Black and brown people,” Findley said. “As we demonstrate, it allows us to push forward and show the country and the world that if you value horses more than Black people, that is not OK.”
Churchill Downs Inc. didn’t immediately respond to request for comment. In an interview with CNBC last week, CEO William Carstanjen said the race is an important part of Kentucky’s tradition and culture.
“The community in general overwhelmingly supports having the Derby,” Carstanjen said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not sensitive and a part of the dialogue on the social and racial equality issues in our community and in our society.”
Community organizer Reece Chenault, a Black Lives Matter Louisville member, said he isn’t surprised that the race will go on as planned this year.
“They’re willing to use their power and authority to make sure that their way of life is not disrupted, and the Kentucky Derby is part of that,” Chenault said. “They’re asking us to trade money for our lives.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer isn’t backing down from his support of the Kentucky Derby, but he “believes that the calls for racial justice here and across our nation should prompt deep examination of all our institutions, with a commitment to ensuring equity as we move forward,” Jean Porter, the mayor’s director of communications, said.
Referring to the Louisville Metro Police Department, Porter added, “As for the protests, LMPD is preparing for every eventuality, with the expectation that any protests are peaceful and lawful.”
Meanwhile, Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, said many are unsatisfied and frustrated with Fischer’s response to the Taylor case.
“The betrayal is like a cloud over the city — when you have a mayor who won on the backs of the Black vote, we had expectations of him, and he let us down,” Reynolds said. “We believe he had enough information to terminate the officers, but instead he made a call that wasn’t in our interest and wasn’t in the interest of the city.”
Hannah Drake, a poet and writer who is one of the creators of Breonna’s Law, which bans “no knock” warrants like the one under which the officers were operating, said Fischer doesn’t have enough time left during his term to rebuild trust in the community.
“People want answers, and it shouldn’t have taken this long to get an answer,” she said.
Aaron Jordan, a co-founder of the grassroots group No Justice, No Peace Louisville, said he won’t be content until the three officers involved in the case are fired and charged.
“Residents are standing in solidarity in getting justice for Breonna Taylor, and we also want to maintain a sense of integrity throughout the government,” he said.
Reynolds added: “Should we be running horses and celebrating in the one city where no justice has been served? That is a question for all of us.”