In 2020, unprecedented protests have swept through Louisville and the US. Why now?

Hayes Gardner   | Louisville Courier Journal Show Caption Hide Caption Breonna Taylor: The Courier

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Hayes Gardner   | Louisville Courier Journal
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jerry Bouggess and his twin brother were standing on the corner of Louisville's 24th and Cedar streets in the early 1960s. A fight had broken out in their neighborhood, and the two had run over to see about the commotion.

A police officer told them to get off of the sidewalk, as Bouggess remembers it today, and when his brother, Terry, didn’t hear and immediately respond, the officer knocked the boy’s lollipop to the ground, and then took him to jail.

The 12-year-old was told he was being arrested for blocking traffic.

“I’ll never forget it. I’m saying, ‘Hey, my brother didn’t do nothing.’ They said, ‘We’ll lock you up, too,’ so I backed up and ran on to tell my mom,” Bouggess said.

Bouggess and his mother walked to Louisville's courthouse — now the hub of ongoing Breonna Taylor protests — to fetch his brother out of jail. No one in their family had been arrested before, but Bouggess had heard stories from his friends, stories of police beating them up with belts simply for suspicion of misbehavior.

“We ran,” said Jerry Bouggess, now 70 years old and still living in Louisville.

“Anytime the police came on the scene: run. Because they’re gonna get you whether you’ve done something or not.”

In 2004, a 19-year-old Black Louisville man ran.

He and a Louisville police officer had struggled with the officer’s service weapon during an undercover drug buy attempt. The weapon discharged, the man ran, and the police officer then fatally shot him three times in the back. His name was Michael Newby, and he was Bouggess’ stepson.

The officer, McKenzie Mattingly, was fired from the police force, but acquitted of a murder charge. The Black community was upset, and protests took place; one swelled to more than 400 people.

But in 2004, the city of Louisville didn’t march for 100-plus days.

Millions didn’t take to the streets, and the NBA didn’t strike.

In 2012, Trayvon Martin’s killing grabbed national headlines, and in 2014, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, generated regional unrest.

So many other names have become known for all the wrong reasons, as well: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland.

But it wasn’t until 2020 that the racial justice movement entered the top of the nation’s mind; it wasn’t until 2020 that Louisville and the country protested this fervently, in what is likely the largest protest movement in the history of the United States.

So, why now?

Outrage has swirled for years as death after weighty death has accumulated at the hands of police. A levee held back that mounting anger and emotion, but experts and protesters say that incidents of 2020 — including a pandemic, the participation of white people and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric — caused the water to rise, destroying the dam and leading to a wave of protests and cries for change.

Unprecedented and, for many protesters, overdue

The social movement seen during 2020 has been unprecedented, but to many protesters, it's also been overdue. Both the unnamed victims of police violence — one Louisville protester often speaks of his uncle, who he says was killed by apathetic police in the 1970s — and those named have added to a series of seemingly-repeated events.

In 2004, Newby said, “I can’t breathe,” in his final moments, according to a police officer Bouggess spoke with at the time. A decade later, those words would become a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement following Garner’s death.

Bouggess described the officers’ behavior as “nonchalant,” as they told Newby that he would be all right. Sixteen years later, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin fatally placed his knee to George Floyd’s neck while nonchalantly placing his hand in his pocket.

And Bouggess said he sees similarities to Breonna Taylor’s case, as well, in that after Newby’s death, authorities sought to emphasize his drug connections.

“It’s the same scenario. First, they try to discredit the person that they shot to give them justification for it,” Bouggess said.

“It’s pretty much almost the same scenario with Breonna.”

To those sympathetic to the movement, it’s felt like an onslaught of the same, repeated pattern. Michael Newby became Trayvon Martin became Tamir Rice, with seemingly no end in sight.

“Modern-day killings of unarmed Black men, women and children have struck a conscious chord across the nation, as much of the public bears witness to the police operating with impunity,” Michigan State criminal justice professor Jennifer E. Cobbina wrote in her book "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot," published in 2019.

Previously: George Floyd video adds to trauma: 'When is the last time you saw a white person killed online?'

If in 2019, as Cobbina writes, a conscious chord had been struck, that chord was held down with unrelenting vigor in 2020, with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and then Taylor and then Floyd. Those examples of unwarranted deaths further emphasized the movement, holding the country's conscience to the fire.

Protesters often say the names of Black people who have died in police shootings. On multiple occasions, protesters have spent several minutes simply calling out the names of dozens and dozens of victims.

One of the favorite chants of Louisville protest leader Chris Will is one that focuses upon the lengthy buildup that led to this year: “I don’t wanna say another motherf------ name.”

Pandemic has 'heightened the unease that we’re all living with,' expert says

Arbery, Taylor and Floyd's killings, the latest in a sorrowful litany, could be described as the impetus for this year's protests. But other factors, unique to 2020, significantly contributed to the perfect storm.

The coronavirus’s role in all of this is complex. The virus, of course, has increased concerns around any social gathering, and many, but not all, protesters take the virus seriously enough to wear a mask.

Still, despite the health risk it poses, it may have helped to fuel the movement.

“I think that the coronavirus actually has, in some respects, it has helped the movement in a strange kind of way,” said University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton, whose research often focuses upon race, “in the sense that it’s sort of heightened the unease that we’re all living with now.”

Mackenzie Brady, a Louisville native and protester, pointed out that societal inequities became more drastic and apparent during quarantine.

“That, on top of police shootings continuing to happen when we’re in a global pandemic, it’s like enough is enough, and it’s been enough for a long time,” she said.

University of Louisville communications professor Dana Seay, whose research includes diversity and race issues, considered George Floyd to be the catalyst, but not in a vacuum. To her, it was the combination of a nation stuck at home, watching television and seeing his death.

“It was like a confluence or a coalescence, where everyone was doing the same thing at the same time, of watching this person be killed right on television … and that coupled with what’s been seething for a long time underneath, it was that tipping point,” she said.

Wellesley political science professor Maneesh Arora surveyed more than 2,000 Americans on the relation between the pandemic and the protests, and he found, as he wrote in the Washington Post, those who had been financially hurt by the pandemic were “substantially more likely to report that they had attended a protest and posted positively about the protests.”

There’s also a degree of newfound free time. Among people who have attended protests, 81% said they had more free time during the pandemic.

“I think COVID is what was the game-changer,” Seay said.

Protester Kris Smith highlighted two months of lockdown, coinciding with Floyd’s death, in unleashing an outraged and restless movement. He and others have also pointed to another factor that wasn’t present following the death of Newby, or Trayvon, or Garner, for example.

“I really think Trump has a whole lot to do with it,” Smith said of the U.S. president.

“The stuff that Trump is spouting, and the people who have come out to support him and show the same ideology. I think that pushed Black people to speak out more and what I call the revolutionary white people to speak out more. I think Trump got a whole lot to do with it, his rhetoric.”

Those white people that Smith mentions play a part too. Many Black people have explained that they’ve been upset for awhile, but white people have taken more notice in 2020, from simple social media campaigns, to actually taking to the streets or attempting to influence policy.

“This moment is impacting the entire nation beyond just Black people fighting for Black liberation," said the Rev. Stephen Green, an activist pastor who has protested in Louisville. "There are white allies and Latino allies and Asian allies who are joining us because they also recognize this moment as a tipping point."

In the 1960s, racial justice protests were almost exclusively composed of Black people. Not so now.

"People could relate to Breonna Taylor," said Louisville activist Christopher 2X, executive director of Christopher 2X Game Changers. "White, Black, whoever."

'I just sit back and watch and pray and hope'

The Breonna Taylor memorial, the centerpiece of Jefferson Square Park in Louisville, is defined by its massive portrait of Taylor on a wooden board. It’s accented with posters crying for justice in her name. Placards on street lights dub the surrounding roads “Breeway,” in her honor.

But she’s not alone. Laid in a circle surrounding the Breonna Taylor memorial are 95 miniature wooden gravestones, no more than 6 inches long. Each is affixed with the name of a victim of a police shooting, who came before Breonna Taylor.

The 2020 racial justice movement didn’t begin when Ahmaud Arbery was killed or when Breonna Taylor was shot or when George Floyd was suffocated.

It dates back past Eric Garner, past Freddie Gray, past Trayvon Martin, past Michael Newby, past even that day in the early 1960s when Jerry Bouggess’s 12-year-old brother was arrested for blocking traffic on a sidewalk.

The roots of the modern protests began years and years ago, but it's welled up in this unique year, 2020, creating a perfect storm.

Bouggess has arthritis and walks with a cane, so he doesn't take to the streets as he did in 2004. But he still applauds of the racial justice movement, which is more fervent and supported than ever.

“I can’t hardly walk anymore, let alone try to run from the police officers,” he said.

“So I just sit back and watch and pray and hope.”

Follow reporter Hayes Gardner on Twitter: @HayesGardner

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