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Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor during an execution of a "no-knock warrant" in her home. No one was charged for her death, but it changed the lives of the city's residents, spurring vast protests and calls to action. Despite some efforts, the city's Black residents are still awaiting systemic change. John Yang examines how segregation and historical redlining led to the current situation.
When George Floyd died last May, there had already been another high-profile police killing in Louisville, Kentucky, one that gave rise to protests as well.
The case highlighted that city's longstanding racial divisions, and became a national rallying cry in its own right.
John Yang reports.
It was about 12:40 on the morning of March 13, 2020, that Louisville police used a battering ram to burst into an apartment in this complex belonging to a 26-year-old emergency room technician named Breonna Taylor.
The officers were executing a no-knock warrant, but the warrant wasn't for Taylor or anyone else who was in the apartment. Taylor's boyfriend thought someone was breaking in. He grabbed his gun, fired a single shot.
The police fired back. When it was all over, Taylor lay dying on her hallway floor, shot several times.
In the year since, Louisville has grieved, protested and debated policing changes. One thing it hasn't done, many residents say, is heal.
After a long investigation by the state attorney general, no one was charged with Breonna Taylor's death. But now the federal Justice Department is investigating the Louisville police, looking to see if there's been a pattern and practice of discrimination and abuse. Many residents here say it's about time.
You two come up here.
Shameka Parrish-Wright may feel the weight of Louisville on her shoulders when she wakes up in the morning, but her days start with her duties as a mom.
All right, I got a few meetings, and then I will be back.
She's spent years working as an advocate for criminal justice reform. But the killing of Breonna Taylor changed everything for Parrish-Wright and for Louisville.
I have three daughters in their 20s. One of them went to school with Breonna. And so, for them, it hit home. And the first night of the protests, we were at my table. And we said — I said, "This could have been any of you."
As cities across the country rose up to protest police brutality and systemic racism last summer, she felt called to lead the movement in her city.
In May 2020, just days after George Floyd's death, Taylor family attorneys released 911 tapes from the night of Taylor's death, sparking protests over what many Black residents said was a long history of police misconduct and racial profiling.
They couldn't drag her down and say, oh, she had warrants, oh, she was this criminal, and they couldn't do that to her.
And so I think that that's what invigorated people to say, if we let this happen to her, and she's supposed to be safe at home, she's an essential worker, and she dies in her home, then none of us are safe.
And then George Floyd sent us overboard.
Parrish-Wright has been a guiding force in this downtown park, the protests' center of gravity.
We built this as a place for people to bring all that energy.
Officially named Jefferson Square Park, it sits directly across from Louisville's Metro Hall.
We called it Injustice Square because it was — it's surrounded by where justice is supposed to happen.
There is no justice, Parrish-Wright says, as long as the three officers who fired their weapons that night are free, though one of them was indicted for shooting into her neighbor's apartment.
They're showing the world how they treat us as citizens.
Some protesters say their experience with police over the last year only underscores the need for change.
I remember the police officers and the SWAT just coming at us.
Ari Tulay was 19 years old when she joined the early protests last May.
As soon as we reached the blockade, we stopped. And that's when the chemical agents started to be fired, the rubber bullets started to be fired.
And it was turned into a war zone. About 100 of us were arrested that night. And then I was one of the last five to be released about 30 hours later. So, it was an intense experience. I mean, jail is incredibly dehumanizing.
But Tulay found humanity among the crowd in jail that night, an experience, she says, that moved her to keep protesting.
There needed to be a disruption to the way things were to be able to have people see us.
But, I mean, I always think anger is painted as a negative in protest movements and just in the Black community, that we're not allowed to be angry, because that can be misconstrued. But it was — it was — it's anger because we know that there's a reality in which this doesn't have to happen.
Anger at leaders like Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville since 2010.
I think that history will show that we have done most everything we possibly could toward moving toward truth and transparency, toward justice, within the power that I have.
Louisville banned the kind of no-knock warrants that gave police license to break into Breonna Taylor's home as she lay sleeping, and the Metro Council also established a civilian review board to investigate police misconduct.
But the state legislature hasn't given it the power to compel testimony and evidence from anyone beyond Metro government employees, something both activists and Fischer say the board needs to effectively investigate cases.
I'm disappointed that didn't happen here this past session. The public wants to know more about what's taking place with police investigations. There's just not enough transparency. And when there's not transparency, there's not trust.
In January, many found that trust further tested when Fischer appointed Erika Shields the new police chief. She had quit as Atlanta's police chief after video of an officer fatally shooting a Black man, Rayshard Brooks, went viral.
I was like, wait a minute. She didn't — she left. She quit with what happened with Rayshard Brooks. And she's coming here to heal and fix us?
Well, I can understand why people would have that concern. And I knew it was going to be a controversial decision.
But Chief Shields was so far the — above everybody else in terms of her being a candidate for this job, that it was an easy decision to make. And I think she's won over most of her critics.
But a year since protests erupted in Louisville, critics remain of Fischer, of Shields, and of a police force that some residents say continues to abuse its power.
These tensions aren't just about police and the community. Protesters say those issues tie into centuries of racist policies that shaped the very development of the city. To see the results, drive west on Muhammad Ali Boulevard, a main thoroughfare.
There's something called the 9th Street Divide in Louisville, and on one side of 9th Street, your life expectancy can be seen to be 15 years higher, less likely to have asthma, less likely to have eczema.
And on the other side of 9th Street, that's known as the West End, and you're going to have a lower life expectancy, higher rate of heart disease. So, growing up around that, it's a visual difference. It's obvious. And it makes you then question the motive.
It was all by design. A 1914 ordinance barred Black Louisville residents from occupying houses on majority-white blocks, and the other way around.
Then, in the 1930s, so-called redlining maps color-coded city neighborhoods based on how desirable lenders considered them for investment. Desirable usually meant white. Black and immigrant areas were typically given the lowest grades.
Louisville's history of redlining has concentrated Black residents into West End neighborhoods like this one called Russell. In the early part of the 20th century, this was a thriving hub of Black business and culture. But decades of disinvestment have driven many residents into poverty.
Today, the Black homeownership rate in Louisville is half of what it is for white residents.
All of these vacant lots didn't exist.
Kevin Dunlap was born in Russell.
I used to ride my bicycle down this street. I mean, it was a thriving area growing up as a child. Over time, just seeing what the transition has been, it's very disheartening to see.
Dunlap is the executive director of REBOUND, the nonprofit housing arm of Louisville's Urban League.
He points to government urban renewal policies in the 1950s and '60s that resulted in the demolition of majority-Black areas.
You began to see people begin to move out or were displaced as a result of urban renewal.
But as you begin to start buying up property and acquiring property, there was no need for other people, didn't want to stay next to undeveloped property. And it kind of wiped out the business sector that was part of the heart of the African American community.
Dunlap's group is working with the Metro Louisville government to increase Black homeownership in the West End. City officials acknowledge Louisville needs more than 30,000 additional units of affordable housing.
In the city of Louisville, we have a housing crisis.
Like Dunlap, Jecorey Arthur was born and raised in the West End. Last year, at 28, he was elected Louisville's youngest member of the Metro Council.
When you can't afford to live here in the neighborhood with the highest rate of poverty, you can't afford to live anywhere. And to a certain extent, you could argue you're not supposed to afford to live at all.
You have really got three options. You could be houseless in a junkyard, you can be imprisoned in a prison yard, or you will be dead in a graveyard.
Nachand Trabue is a fourth-generation resident of Smoketown, a historically Black neighborhood just southeast of downtown.
You have 22 percent Black population .You have 2.4 percent that are business owners. We should have 10 times more business owners.
We don't have access to capital. We don't have access to resources. And that's the missing piece that we're not able to build is the generational wealth piece.
Trabue says housing disparities touch so many other aspects of life in the neighborhood. Lower-income areas like Smoketown and Russell have higher crimes rates, which means more policing.
Do you think it's a conversation and a worry that white mothers on the East Side of Louisville have?
No, no. No, no, no, no. They don't have this type of worry. Our worries are different. They're worried about what soccer game are they getting ready to go to.
And I'm worried about, can my son even go to the bus stop without getting mistakenly identified as somebody that he's not and getting shot and killed?
Jecorey Arthur doesn't want to wait for the slow work of police reform to better Louisville's Black neighborhoods.
As long as we stand in Russell that has the highest percentage of poverty, you are going to have the highest percentages of crime. Thus, you're going to call who whenever those crimes are committed? You are going to call the police.
And in some cases, they escalate those situations. So, I'm less worried about the police, and more worried about addressing poverty.
Shameka Parrish-Wright wants to tackle some of those root causes in a new role. She's running for mayor, seeking to channel the passion of the protest movement toward meaningful reform.
Meanwhile, the long search for justice in Louisville is just beginning.
We haven't seen the accountability that Breonna deserves, that our city deserves. But we are starting to see that people are waking up. And I don't think people are ever going to go back to sleep.
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