Kentucky Teacher of the Year Matt Kaufmann was still riled up on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. He’d been tear gassed on May 28, the first night of the Louisville protests over the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. Then, Mayor Greg Fischer came out in defense of police who’d destroyed supplies that protesters collected in Jefferson Square Park to treat tear gas exposure. Kaufmann himself had helped to prepare those supplies. “It was all BS,” he said.
After two nights off, Kaufmann and his fiancee Stephanie Kornexl were ready to join that evening’s protest. They drove downtown to meet up with their friend Ariana “Ari” Tulay, one of Kaufmann’s former students who’d told them, “This is history in the making and the revolution is not optional.”
The city was palpably tense. Fourth Street Live had been ransacked on Friday, Fischer imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on Saturday, and 350 National Guard troops were in town, courtesy of Gov. Andy Beshear. Later that night, David McAtee would be shot and killed in West Louisville.
The couple arrived around 8 p.m. and fell in with a crowd near Second Street and Broadway, where they met up with Tulay. The street overflowed with protesters chanting, “Say her name: Breonna Taylor” and “No Justice, No Peace,” while a motorcade of bicycles, motorcycles and vehicles sardined in with the marchers, their blaring horns creating a continuous dissonance.
By the time the group reached First Street — Kaufmann thinks it was around 8:30 — Louisville Metro police began deploying tear gas and shooting pepper balls — “little pellets that come at you like wasps,” he said.
A helicopter followed overhead as the crowd splintered into smaller groups looking for a way out. Kornexl, a former executive director of a justice-based ministry in the California neighborhood, said police had everyone boxed in. “Although they were asking people to leave before curfew,” she said, “they made it impossible to do so.”
After several failed attempts to find a route back to their cars, the trio ended up in an alley behind Walgreens near Brook Street and Broadway, where they were surrounded by riot police flowing in from all directions. They put up their hands and linked arms.
“We wanted police to see our humanity,” Kaufmann said. “At the time we knew we were being arrested — my main priority was keeping everyone as safe as possible. I kept telling them both how much I loved them.”
Kaufmann said he was pushed face down onto the concrete and handcuffed with zip ties. He saw other protesters getting cuffed, some with officers’ knees in their backs and on their necks. Off in the distance, some who ran were getting hit with batons. “It was a lot of physical force,” Kaufmann said. “When police blitzed, if you were fast and athletic, you could’ve sprinted away, but with Stephanie and Ari, I wasn’t going to do that.”
Lined up against a brick wall, the protesters got acquainted with each other while cops went about their paperwork. “Some people’s zip ties were too tight, and they were bleeding,” Kaufmann said. “We were some of the oldest ones there. There were nurses, teachers, pastry chefs. I met a preschool teacher in her early 20s. We started talking about education and reading. We are professionals — caring, loving people out here for a bigger reason.”
About two dozen protesters were arrested at Walgreens and transported to Louisville Metro Corrections, 12 blocks away, where they were booked on charges ranging from violating curfew and unlawful assembly, both misdemeanors, to rioting, a felony. On the night, police reported 93 arrests overall. Many more have occurred since.
As of July 25, the 59th day of the protests, LMPD had made 519 arrests, including some people arrested more than once. Some lawyers and activists believe the arrests are part of a strategy to prevent people from protesting for fear of re-arrest and being held on a bond, an allegation that LMPD denies.
Every arrest story is different, of course. Here are six of those stories, including what lawyers say these arrested protesters can expect, how they and a jailer described their time in custody and how the experience ended in friendships. “Going to jail was meant to divide us,” said one of the six, Tulay, “but arresting all of the protesters together is one of the worst things they could do because it strengthens the commitment to the cause.”
ARIANA ‘ARI’ TULAY
Tulay, 19, is a familiar face in Louisville social justice circles. Still in high school, she spoke at a rally calling for President Trump’s tax returns, and she’s a constant at Pride events. Her play “Misaligned Skies” was one of eight winners in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2019 New Voices Young Playwrights contest and was produced on the ATL stage.
Now, she’s a sophomore-to-be at Northern Kentucky University, majoring in philosophy and political science with law school or academia in her sights.
“She’s a poster child for JCPS,” Kaufmann said, “and she’s emerged as one of the strongest voices of these protests. She makes it so clear for everyone — there’s so much anger, hurt and pain involved in this. She has a voice that brings everyone to the table.”
Tulay got her introduction to the protests on the second night, when Fourth Street Live was hit. “That was the worst part of it,” she said. “We were marching, and we all felt connected and then you saw the crazies come out and take advantage of the movement. … I haven’t seen the vandals again.”
On the Sunday she was arrested, she parked near Fifth and Main streets, walking nine blocks to meet Kaufmann and Kornexl. A crowd she placed at 500 to 600 was packed into two blocks along Broadway. It felt like unity, she said, until they saw their first police barricade at First Street and the cops advanced, firing tear gas and flash bangs that scattered the crowd.
“The whole time we were trying to figure out how to stay in a group, because when you get separated is when the scary things happen,” Tulay said. “It felt like being pounced on, like they were trying to trap us.”
Kaufmann, Kornexl and Tulay walked with a group toward Thorntons. Some people said they should run. Drivers ran interference for the protesters, while National Guard rolled up in Humvees, Tulay said, boxing in automobiles and firing tear gas and pepper bullets. They found a brief respite, marched a few blocks, headed back the way they came, saw police at a Taco Bell and decided there was only one way left to try. But the Walgreens route closed off, too.
“All of a sudden, a line of cops in full riot gear are not just closing in, but shooting pepper bullets and tear gas,” Tulay said. “We were already cornered. It was freaking me out.”
She recalls being one of the last to get on the ground. “I was standing there looking around … like, ‘OK, this is really happening.’ You would expect this to be orderly, because cops are by the book, but it was so chaotic.”
She was placed in a police transport vehicle with four or five other young women. One was crying and said she’d just gotten out of basic training. Another got her hands free and phoned her family to tell them to call her parole officer.
“It was a funny moment,” Tulay recounted. “We all got arrested together, like a community.” That would change as Sunday rolled into Monday (and Tuesday).
April Carter, 27, works in retail but was off work May 31. Though she writes poetry, she’s never really been an activist, but after watching livestreams of the protests, she felt compelled to go. She caught an Uber and got dropped around 7 p.m., a couple blocks shy of Jefferson Square Park because of congestion.
“I had to be down there,” she said. “Why others and not me? It’s my responsibility to let my voice be heard. I wanted to put eyes on what was going on, because there’s so many discrepancies in what mainstream media says about the protests versus what I see on live feeds.”
She said she ran directly into a group marching near the courthouse, with police following at the tail end and shooting pepper balls. “I was surprised police were bothering people before curfew,” she said. “It was peaceful for the most part.” The group stayed near the courthouse for a while but eventually moved toward Broadway.
“As it got later, it got more serious. … The riot police pulled up and blocked off the entire street, a row of them. Then, some really smart person decided to start throwing fireworks and water bottles at the riot police. Two or three people did that … ”
The police responded with force. “Everyone started going different ways and that’s about when the hunt started. They just started cattling us in the street. … It was a divide-and-conquer technique. I remember I ran around downtown for about an hour trying to get away from that.”
She was eventually cornered with the others at Walgreens.
“My worst thought was that I would end up like Sandra Bland,” Carter said, referring to the 28-year-old Black activist who died after a 2015 traffic stop in southeast Texas, where she had just accepted a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. Bland, whose death generated the “say her name” hashtag, was found hanging in her cell three days later. Her death was ruled a suicide. “I knew anything could happen to me in jail,” Carter said, “and nobody would know the truth.”
She described her arresting officer as considerate and professional. He confiscated her knife and made sure she wasn’t injured. Meanwhile, she said, another cop was berating a minor next to her, while a violent encounter played out across the parking lot. “It gave me this really bad feeling that police were hurting somebody,” she said. Carter said she battles anxiety and claustrophobia, so she turned to a deep breathing technique that her newfound friend, Kornexl, recalled as impressive.
“Cops are so volatile and unpredictable,” Carter said, “so I had to stay calm. We sat there for maybe a half hour or so before they put is in the paddy wagon. It’s basically a van that is split in half with a huge wall between, super cramped. There were six or seven of us on both sides, all women. There was no regard to COVID; we were super close and up and under each other. Our masks had been taken when we were arrested, and they hadn’t given us a chance to put them back on.
“I remember it getting really hard to breathe when the door closed and the vehicle wasn’t moving. There’s no air circulating in there.” Carter knew she might be arrested for protesting and said the experience was eye-opening. “It started from the moment I got downtown and police were shooting at us while we were peacefully walking down the street,” she said. “I lost a significant amount of respect for police that night and specifically LMPD.”
Markice Armstrong, 24, wasn’t sure he should join the Sunday night protest, because he’s on probation for a theft charge in Lexington and supposed to stay out of trouble, he said. He described that arrest as a foolish act of desperation after taking in two younger siblings who were abandoned by their mother. Armstrong has since moved back to Louisville, earned a welding certification and landed a job in manufacturing.
His little brother Christian Armstrong, 22, persuaded him to go downtown on May 31, and they arrived at 7:27 p.m., according to the time stamp on a Tik Tok video Christian made. “The biggest thing we stressed was we needed to stay away from anyone who causes trouble and separate ourselves from the drama,” Markice Armstrong said.
They marched along Broadway near Fourth Street, he said, and eventually walked across Broadway toward Smoketown. Smaller groups of marchers were converging from all directions, and Armstrong said he was “chanting and rooting everybody on.”
They ended up back on Broadway and marched a few blocks east. Armstrong saw a man in front of him ward off pepper balls with a shield. The group stopped near Walgreens. “We were all coughing and choking,” he said. “People were running and tripping, and I was trying to help pick them up. … The second time we had a run-in, the police shot a pepper canister in the air right above me, and it all fell on me. I could smell it in my hair. My eyes hurt the whole time.”
He and Christian got separated. Christian later told him he’d jumped into a car with friends and got pulled out and beaten with a baton after telling police he had a gun. “One cop told him to hold out his hands and another told him to put them behind his back,” Markice said. “He was doing both. It was like that for everybody, being told six or seven things to do. The police are fearful, waiting for someone to do the wrong move.”
Markice said he wanted to reach Liberty Green and call someone to come get him. “We were trying to get people to safety,” he said. “Nobody allowed that to be told.” About that time, he said, three or four large police vehicles pulled into the alley behind Walgreens and cops pointed guns at the two dozen or so protesters.
“They told us all to get on the ground, and we laid down,” Armstrong said. “They over-tied my zip ties twice. There were so many cops, they did not know what to do — more cops than protesters and they were calling for more. None of them really knew what charges to put. They just hit us with anything they could think of. I don’t think their body cameras were on. They told us we were dumb shits wrecking the city, and we said, ‘Show us.’”
Markice Armstrong was charged with violating curfew. Christian Armstrong received a first degree rioting charge, a felony that carries a significant prison sentence. “He didn’t do anything — nothing was destroyed,” Markice Armstrong said. “He hopped into a car with a guy giving first aid. My little brother and another Black guy got rioting, but the white guy driving got a misdemeanor. They were all three in the same vehicle.”
On July 14, a national organization called Until Freedom came to Louisville to lead a sit-in at The East End home of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, whose office is investigating Breonna Taylor’s death to determine whether charges will be brought.
The so-called direct action was kept secret to preserve the element of surprise. A large group of protesters, none who knew where they were going, ran through drills in the morning and were bused to Ballard High School that afternoon. They walked down Herr Lane into Cameron’s subdivision, chanting and stopping to talk with neighbors about why they were there. Police arrived, some in riot gear and arrested 87 people, including Jamel Lewis.
Lewis, who prefers to not reveal his age, works for Humana helping Medicare/Medicare eligible people receive medicine when they can’t pay. He knew his arrest was likely but said he’s willing to take the consequences.
“I have 17 niece and nephews,” he said. “All my life I’ve had to deal with some type of derogatory handling by police. My saying is that: They do have good cops, but we don’t know who they are. I am fully committed to putting my life on the line now so the young people don’t have to deal with this at a later time.”
Like other protesters, Lewis often livestreams on Facebook, with a knowing and humorous narration style. (Check out his Facebook Live from July 19, when he crashed a private “Back the Blue” rally at the River City FOP Lodge and heckled the members of Linkin’ Bridge.)
He was streaming that day at Cameron’s — posts he titled, “We at Daniel Cameron house,” and “We going to jail.” Police soon arrived, he said, and got aggressive. “That’s one reason I started reporting the truth,” he said. “When police show up in riot gear, and there’s no riot, they create a lot of agitation. It makes people nervous and heightens the situation.
“One young lady was gesturing with her hands, and a cop told her to stop. That’s your temperament? That makes you mad? You have a gun, and you’re supposed to have self-control.” Beyond various misdemeanors, the protesters were hit with intimidating a participant in a legal process, a Class D felony charge. Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell later dismissed the felony charges for all the protesters.
“I’m a fairly big guy,” Lewis said, “and when they put us in the back of a paddy wagon, I said I couldn’t breathe in here, there’s no air. You may have to put me in a squad car. They eventually made the wagon I was in all-women, and they put me in a solitary confinement part of a van. It was worse — I couldn’t fit in there. … When we got locked up is the first time I heard about the felony. They never mentioned it at the point of arrest.”
After the first weekend of arrests, Louisville defense attorney Ted Shouse saw an obvious problem. With courts closed over the weekend because of the unrest, the Monday morning docket stood at 78 cases.
He contacted his friend and fellow defense attorney Courtney Preston Kellner, who agreed to help. Four or five other attorneys showed up unannounced. “We arraigned all these folks in one morning,” Shouse said.
The pro bono parade grew from there and the spreadsheet created to match lawyers with arrestees now includes the names of more than 100 attorneys. They work under the ad hoc name Louisville Area Protest Arrest Support, and the group provides a hotline for protesters to call if they’re arrested. The Louisville Bar Association and the public defender’s office are also maintaining lists of attorneys who’ve volunteered.
Shameka Parrish-Wright manages operations for the Louisville chapter of The Bail Project, a national nonprofit that provides free bail assistance and pretrial support to thousands of low-income people every year. Because her work crosses over into the movement, she’s essentially moved her workspace to the protests. Known as the Mother of Injustice Square, she’s a clearinghouse for myriad needs, including legal representation. She gives protesters the hotline number and tells them to write it on their arm in Sharpie. Parrish-Wright is also helping form a legal defense fund so attorneys can be compensated for their work.
She said overcharging is a major problem for young Black protesters, because it can squelch future opportunities. “I don’t want to lose them to this fight through prison and police brutality,” she said. “All they have is their bodies, and they’re putting them on the line. It’s our job to use every resource we have to help them. I want to see them make change and then go on and lead productive lives. But the way they’re overcharged, they’re being crippled, and we can’t allow that.”
Shouse, lead attorney for The Bail Project, said the officers who made the May 31 arrests were in a tough spot. “They’d never seen anything like that, and they had no idea what to charge.”
Disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly are Class B misdemeanors, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $250 fine. Curfew violations carry a fine only, while riot in the first degree is a Class D felony and could result in a one- to five-year prison sentence.
Shouse said bonds were set too high for early protest arrests, at $500 to $1,000. Now, however, most protesters are released on their own recognizance without bail, though there are outliers who had $10,000 bonds. Many court dates have been deferred into September and October.
Protesters who call the arrest hotline aren’t compelled to work with the attorney they’re assigned, and some have opted to get their own. When Until Freedom conducted the direct action at Cameron’s house, the group had arranged a fund for bond money.
“We didn’t want to stress local resources,” said attorney Tracy E. Davis, who partnered with Lonita Baker to get all 87 Cameron protesters arraigned. (Baker is part of the legal team representing Breonna Taylor’s family.) The two attorneys, joined by Parrish-Wright, waited outside the jail till the last protester was released at 3:30 a.m.
Davis said the issue of who represents protesters can be touchy for Black attorneys. “We know from practicing, we see systemic racism, whether because we’re Black faces in the courtroom or because we represent minority clients,” Davis said.
Historically, she said, Black attorneys weren’t allowed to join the American Bar Association, so they created their own called the National Bar Association. The local affiliate, formerly called the Louisville Black Lawyers Association, has been renamed the Charles W. Anderson, Jr. Bar Association. The group wants to make sure Black attorneys get their due.
Lee Merritt, a national civil rights attorney who works with Until Freedom, touched on the issue after the Cameron arrests. “I want to be clear about something,” he posted on social media. “Local Black lawyers led by [Baker] have worked with @untilfreedom and @grassrootslaw [Grassroots Law Project] to secure the release of all 87 protestors. … Well meaning groups have offered their legal services. We appreciate your generosity but we have coordinated every step of this action from the onset. We will see each of these cases through to a complete dismissal or verdict.”
It’s not that Davis has any problems working with white lawyers. Quite the contrary — she said Kellner and Shouse are “awesome,” and also that she’s noticed her white friends and colleagues growing in their understanding of Black perspectives. She finds that encouraging.
People who know will tell you that anyone who’s arrested but has never been to jail could be in for a shock. It’s not your living room.
It’s loud. It’s stuffy. It’s chilly. You might catch a cold (or some attitude). You have no idea what’s going on with your paperwork, and no one will be straight with you. The toilets and food are gross. It’s crowded, and you need your medicine, but they don’t come through. You have no idea when you’ll get out.
The five people arrested together at Walgreens — Armstrong, Carter, Kaufmann, Kornexl and Tulay — attest to all of the above. Steve Durham, assistant director of Louisville Metro Department Of Corrections, explained how things are designed to work when police bring in people who’ve been arrested and how protesters specifically are handled.
After transport by LMPD, LMC or the sheriff, arrestees are dropped off in a garage-like area called a “sally port.” Police hand off paperwork to LMC and the booking process begins. People are searched, property is removed and placed in a bag, an ID bracelet is assigned and fingerprints and photos are taken. A nurse assesses injury or medical needs.
This all happens in an area of the port with cubicles of chain-link fencing that have shown up in any number of Facebook livestreams. Because the sally port has doors everywhere, the staff take steps to make sure people who are in processing don’t leave. The Walgreens 5 noted that seeing people handcuffed together in a daisy chain was disturbing.
Durham said protesters go through a shorter booking process and aren’t mixed with the general population. Instead, they’re kept together in an area on the fifth floor that’s normally used to hold inmates on their way to court. They wear the clothes they came in with.
This booking area, called J5, includes five rooms and it’s where the group was held on May 31 — women in three rooms and men in two. “It does get a little crowded in there,” Durham said. “Thirty or 40 people in a room feels crowded. There’s one toilet; you won’t feel you have any privacy.”
The women LEO spoke with agreed and said the group stood and held blankets around one another to provide privacy.
Carter said the mood was light for a while. “It didn’t feel like jail, it felt like an all-girl classroom talking, cutting up, cliques,” she said. “That changed around 6 a.m. when pre-trial calls began and we could see the true unprofessionalism of the whole process.” When Kornexl went to court, for example, her paperwork was missing.
The group said they saw people who needed prescription medication but didn’t get it. That also happened to Lewis, who was arrested at Cameron’s house. Lewis said he told the nurse he needed diabetes medication but never received it.
Durham said the medication issue isn’t as simple as it seems. Corrections staff need to verify the prescription, he said, and also make sure any medications a person brings in are what they say they are. That’s time-consuming on a normal day, Durham added, and compounded on a night when nearly 100 people are arrested.
COVID-19 presents a challenge, of course. Social distancing in jail is difficult or impossible. Arrestees said they were without masks for a while but eventually received them, though not all of the jail staff wore masks. Durham said the jail follows strict protocols, including deep cleaning and masking, though he acknowledged compliance might not reach 100%.
For the group, it was difficult to get information about their situation. Carter said she stopped asking because she didn’t want to give guards the satisfaction of messing with her head. Armstrong’s release papers said he got out at 11 a.m. on Monday, but he said it was about 6 p.m. Kaufmann said friends who called to check his status heard he’d been released, but he hadn’t. When he did get out, he said, he was told his fiancée was already out.
That also was untrue. Kaufmann tried calling but assumed her phone was dead. He went to join the protest and only learned Kornexl was still being held from two girls who’d just gotten out. Kornexl was released around 9:30 p.m., one of the last six, and Tulay even later, at 3:30 Tuesday morning. Both were worried about being on the street after curfew but were able to get home without incident.
J5 TO THE END
Inspired by their elders — Kaufmann is 40 and Kornexl is 33 — the Walgreens group bonded over their shared experience. Armstrong dubbed them the J5, after the area where they were held. Kaufmann, who’d just met Armstrong, was impressed by his intellect and sees a history professor in the making. Kornexl couldn’t believe how calm Carter stayed under duress. Armstrong, who addressed Kaufmann as Mr. K and “Teach,” said the jailers pretty much left the group alone after realizing they were intelligent and defied the thug stereotype.
Tulay said the women talked about school, old jobs and past relationships, why they hate the judicial system and, eventually, astrology. “I’m not sure how that came up,” she said. “We discussed what was happening at the time — retrograde blaming.”
Being locked up together was a uniting factor, Tulay said — to a person they used the word “dehumanizing.” The group has stayed in touch and collaborated since their release, including an elaborate Juneteenth presentation.
Kaufmann wrote an op-ed about his experience for The Courier Journal, lamenting the feeling of being hunted in his own city. Like most of the group, he hasn’t stopped protesting and he said he won’t. He believes the intersectionality of the protest group gives it staying power.
“We have an unjust criminal justice system designed to work against poor people and people of color and we need to break up the status quo,” he said. “It’s not living up to the values of liberty and justice for all. So, it’s ‘no justice, no peace’ until we get justice.”