When Derby Day arrives Sept. 5, fans won’t be in the stands, but millions of TV viewers and the national and international press will be there.
And that’s why activists seeking justice for Breonna Taylor say they have chosen that day to stage protests in Louisville.
A few local and national racial justice groups actually want Churchill Downs to cancel the Derby because they believe the city should not be celebrating. But if nothing changes, they say they will be protesting near the track (they have declined to say whether they will go to Churchill Downs), likely along with others who are counter-protesting.
The Not Fucking Around Coalition, an Atlanta-based Black militia that brought hundreds of its armed members to Louisville last month, has announced it plans to return on Derby Day with even more marchers.
“If you want to send a message, sometimes you don’t burn down the city — you burn down their wallets,” said the group’s leader, John “Grandmaster Jay” Johnson, who also called the Derby “a strategic date” in a YouTube video.
Also planning to protest is the local Justice and Freedom Coalition, organized by the Rev. Timothy Findley Jr., who believes: “No justice, no Derby.” He will be joined by Until Freedom, a New York-based social justice group that was behind the occupation of the front lawn at Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s house, and No Justice No Peace Louisville, a local grassroots group. The three organizations are participating in a demonstration called #NoDerby146, which is meeting less than a mile from the track. Findley said he anticipates the protest going “mobile,” but he wouldn’t say whether the demonstrators will march to Churchill Downs.
For decades, protesters have used the horse race that Hunter S. Thompson called “decadent and depraved” as a platform for airing their grievances — notably, in 1967 when Martin Luther King Jr. planned to attend a demonstration on Derby Day to protest housing disparities in Louisville and other racial injustices.
“The reason why is because it’s a worldwide event. The eyes of the world are on Louisville, Kentucky, if anything, for once a year,” said Findley.
He told LEO that now is not the time to have a citywide celebration like the Derby, even though Churchill Downs has nixed spectators at the race because of COVID-19.
“This is not a festive time. This is not a celebratory time,” Findley said. “People are hurting, people are dying, an entire community is outraged because there has been no justice for Breonna Taylor. And there needs to be a real poignant sign, message, that is put out there and people can see that we’re taking all of these things seriously.”
In a letter posted to social media, Findley wrote that there will be protests “throughout the city during Derby until justice is served.” Justice, Findley told LEO, would be for the city to arrest all of the officers who fired their weapons in the Taylor shooting. It would be an investigation of the Place-Based Investigation Squad that targeted Taylor’s ex-boyfriend’s trap house, the judge who signed the warrant for officers to storm her apartment, and an investigation of what the mayor knew and when — and subsequent consequences for all.
It is unlikely Derby will be canceled.
Its running has the support of Mayor Greg Fischer, who believes it’s a “historically important event,” according to his spokesperson Jean Porter.
“He also 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,” Porter said in an email. “So he’s very supportive of discussions about how next year’s Derby 147 might be improved with an eye on that commitment.”
Churchill Downs did not comment for this story. But in an interview with CNBC, Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said that most Louisville community members support Derby continuing this year.
“The feedback has been overwhelming to us through the community that this should go on, that this is an important part of healing, that this is an important part of the traditions and culture in our community,” he said.
Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery has called the Derby a “progressive unifying force” as the country and Louisville struggle with racial injustice.
On Thursday, Churchill Downs issued a statement to address the “ongoing inequality that exists.”
Carstanjen’s and Flanery’s words about the importance of the Derby and its traditions do not resonate with Louisville’s Black community today.
Leaders and activists with whom LEO spoke to said that Black people have been excluded from the moneyed parts of the annual event.
“They’re talking about, ‘it brings the community together,’” said Aaron Jordan, a co-founder of No Justice No Peace Louisville, who is Black. “The things that bring the community together are the community celebrations that precede the Derby, like the parade. And those things have nothing to do with these millionaires that come to town, these ambassadors and these royals and celebrities who come. They’re not, you know, being asked to help develop urban communities. They come here, they spend a ton of money, they get drunk, they participate in sex trafficking and things alike and then they leave.”
Findley said that he draws inspiration from the civil rights leaders of the ‘60s and their actions, including their Derby protest.
“I think that many people around the city and around the country need to go back and check many of the people that we have deified — Muhammad Ali, John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King and others — and really look at what they stood for,” he said.
A history of protests
The Louisville that the Rev. Charles Elliott moved to in the ‘50s was deeply segregated.
“I had to get off the sidewalk to let white people by in Alabama,” said Elliott, who is now 86, “And when I came to Louisville, I thought that I had got out of that segregated state.”
He hadn’t — not really. One day soon after moving, Elliott went to a theater on Fourth Street to purchase tickets for himself and his wife.
A woman employee told them, “We don’t sell [N-word] tickets.”
That institutional racism is what Elliott, a pastor at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, wanted to protest during the Kentucky Derby in 1967. He and other local civil rights leaders had been pushing for a city law to eliminate discriminatory housing practices, and Derby seemed like the perfect opportunity to draw more attention to the cause. Big, national names such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali were going to help them disrupt it.
“The Derby would have people from all over the world, and we wanted people to know our struggle,” Elliott said. Several days before the race, a group of protesters staged a sit-in on Churchill Downs’ track, vowing to return on Derby day. The mayor summoned the National Guard, and the Ku Klux Klan threatened to meet protesters at the track.
King decided to relocate the planned demonstration to downtown out of fear of violence. It took until the end of the year for Louisville to pass a fair housing ordinance. Today, Elliott thinks the 1967 rally would have had more impact if it had occurred at Churchill Downs.
Other Derby protests include several organized by Louisville’s outspoken civil rights leader Rev. Louis Coleman. Last year, a Louisville advocate for the homeless, Chad Caine, marched around the perimeter of Churchill Downs on Derby, hoping to call attention to the city’s annual attempts to clear highly visible camps before the first Saturday in May.
Caine went alone, but he managed to collect 25 people to walk with him at various points during the day, and his effort was covered by WHAS.
Derby is ‘grand tradition’
No spectators at the Derby is “another blow” to Louisville’s large hospitality industry struggling during the pandemic, said Karen Williams, president and CEO of Louisville Tourism. But, the city could still benefit from the race running without fans.
“Louisville’s fortunate to have America’s longest continually held sports event,” she said. “You know the brand awareness associated with this grand tradition is something that every city vies for.”
The Louisville tourism bureau plans to do “lots” of digital marketing surrounding the Derby this year, which Williams hopes will translate to future visitors.
Williams said that she supports the local demonstrations. She also said she sympathizes with and understands the sentiment behind the call to cancel Derby, but she considers the race an important tradition.
“Where I understand what they’re saying, I also think this could be something that hopefully people could have some normality of having Derby that day and being virtual,” she said.
For its part in coming to terms with the country’s racial injustices, Louisville Tourism has partnered with the Louisville Urban League to provide sensitivity training to local businesses, and it has created a Black Tourism Council to evaluate the bureau’s operations moving forward.
Kevin Triplett, a Democratic councilman whose district includes Churchill Downs, said canceling the Derby would be “unfortunate,” and it might lead some people to withdraw their support for the protesters’ cause.
“I mean, you’ve got a lot of division, a lot of resentment. We’re so divided right now, not just Louisville, Kentucky but everywhere,” he said. “We’re divided with political differences and ideas, and there’s just so much unrest and upheaval right now. Canceling the Derby? I have to think about that — it’s just, I think there’d be a whole lot of resentment.”
Derby isn’t for us anyway, protesters say
Black people could attend the Derby even in its earliest days, but their seating was segregated before 1961, located near the race’s starting point, according to Chris Goodlett, director of curatorial and educational affairs at the Kentucky Derby Museum. That and the infield, which was relatively open to everyone, were the only places the Derby’s Black spectators could go.
For some, the Derby seems even more segregated today than it was in the 1800s. Findley, who is Black, said his community has parties, but does not celebrate the Derby by drinking mint juleps or watching the horses race — the way Churchill Downs markets it.
Jordan, with No Justice No Peace, said his Derby includes barbecuing, concerts and betting. But he’s never been to the track. That’s only for the rich, he said.
Cruising on Broadway used to be a popular Derby pastime for Louisville’s Black community, too, said Lamont Collins, the founder and CEO of Louisville’s Roots 101 African-American Museum. But, the city outlawed that in 2006 after a shooting death and concerns about criminal activities. Also, Louisville’s Black community doesn’t benefit economically from the race in the same way that white people do, either, activists said.
“Over the years, since 1967, the Black community has always tried to find ways to make money from the Derby economically like the white communities did,” said Collins, “and we had a few major galas on Derby Day. But those wasn’t for those that were underprivileged. That was for the Blacks that were privileged and the Blacks that were part of corporate America.”
Collins has been the president of one of those “privileged” organizations, the 100 Black Men of Louisville.
Collins also pointed out that Churchill Downs only appears to have one person of color in either senior management or on its board of directors. That board member is Ulysses Lee “Junior” Bridgeman, CEO of Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Co.
And, Findley observed, the riches that Derby brings to Louisville haven’t seemed to benefit The West End much.
But Triplett said that the economic benefit of Derby helps out everyone in Louisville by contributing to a “vibrant downtown” and a thriving hospitality industry.
“If you don’t live next to it, you think it doesn’t affect you, you don’t reap any benefits or rewards because of Derby,” he said.“ … Well, it does you some good.”
Williams, with Louisville Tourism, said that her organization uses money from tourism, including from Derby, to promote “the entire community.” In The West End, that means promoting Portland businesses to visitors and, in the future, attracting events to the Louisville Urban League’s Sports and Learning Complex being built in Russell.
Triplett believes, though there are detractors, the majority of Louisville likes the Derby, including many of those who live near Churchill Downs who host parties around Derby time and park cars for a yearly influx of extra cash.
This year’s protests
On July 25, Until Freedom staged a protest, making stops near Churchill Downs and the Louisville Metro Police Department Training Academy. They were prevented from going farther by a line of police when protesters tried to cross the Central Avenue bridge.
Those who stayed in the street were arrested — 64 in total including Findley, who says he was the first. Jordan was there, too.
The march was peaceful. Findley says he believes in peaceful protesting. The demonstration, called “Good Trouble Tuesday,” could portend what will happen on Derby day.
Protesters with the Justice and Freedom Coalition, Until Freedom and No Justice No Peace are meeting at 4:30 p.m. at South Central Park. It’s not clear yet where the Not Fucking Around Coalition is planning to meet and march.
The Not Fucking Around Coalition is returning to Louisville, its leader said, because Attorney General Cameron has yet to finish his investigation into Taylor’s case.
The more organizations, the better, Findley said, when asked about his thoughts on the NFAC coming.
But, just like in 1967, far-right counter-protesters are threatening to be on the scene, too.
The Angry Viking, a conservative social media influencer, has posted on Facebook saying that he and others will be in Louisville that day to “protect” the city. Last time the Not Fucking Around Coalition came, they were met by the armed Three Percenters milita.
Elliott, the pastor who participated in the 1967 Derby rally, said that the proliferation of weapons at today’s protests worry him.
Louisville Metro Police are “preparing for every eventuality,” said Porter, the mayor’s spokesperson.
So far, none of this has deterred the protesters of 2020.
“We’re going to be out and just enjoying a lot of great walks all over the city,” said Findley. “It’s going to be a beautiful day for that.”