John Subleski was standing near a row of storefronts on Baxter Avenue and holding his assault rifle across his chest while he watched 300 or so mostly white protesters march by. No one seemed to take notice of him.
But it would be hard to miss Subleski, who is white, because he looked as if he were prepared for military battle. Along with the rifle, the 32-year-old corporate trainer wore a front-and-back vest with plates he said could stop armor-piercing bullets. It had been warm, so he’d left his usual ballistic helmet and night vision goggles at home, but his backpack and vest pockets were filled with items: a handgun, medical kits, zip ties, smoke grenades, a flare gun, flash bangs and a drone camera he keeps on hand for “hot” situations.
You could plausibly assume a white man at a racial justice protest was there to protest the protesters. But Subleski said he was there to protect the marchers as part of a militia called United Pharaoh’s Guard. “We’re not protesters, per se — we’re more or less doing security for the movement itself to make sure they feel safe and have the ability to exercise their First Amendment right,” he told me later. “We ensure that and back it with our Second Amendment rights.”
In the not-so-distant past, the presence of a man with an assault rifle and military gear on a busy city street may have seemed remarkable if not alarming. Not anymore.
The protests over police brutality in Louisville and across the nation — and the protests of government-enforced coronavirus rules — have revealed a seemingly new nonchalance about the public display of firearms. There are a lot of guns at the protests in Louisville.
I took particular notice of this in late June, when an armed militia called American Freedom Fighters came to Louisville with the goal of marching to Jefferson Square Park, the hub of protest here. Waiting for them at the park were protesters young and old, black and white, male and female, also armed: pistols, rifles, shotguns and who knows what else.
But like Subleski, a range of people drawn to the protests also are armed. There may be as many reasons for carrying guns as there are people carrying. These gun carriers are diverse in their races, backgrounds and political affiliations. What they have in common, perhaps, is that they believe they need to be at the protests — and they need to be armed. It is entirely legal, essentially. Kentucky is an open carry state, meaning just about anyone can openly carry a firearm without any special permits. In 2019, Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law a permitless concealed carry law, which allows eligible people to carry a concealed gun without a permit or background check and safety training.
So, public displays of weaponry are increasingly commonplace, including when white militia members carried long guns inside the Kentucky State Capitol last year. Guns have also been at recent Frankfort protests over Gov. Andy Beshear’s response to the coronavirus. And guns have been used since protests in Louisville began more than 150 days ago. Seven people were shot and wounded on the first night.
Jefferson Square is surrounded by rooftops and open on three sides, and threats of snipers or drive-by shooters are more than esoteric. Police discovered two camouflaged men with long rifles, one with a bipod, on top of a parking garage. Officers took their guns, and sent them on their way with no charges. The guns were later returned. Shortly thereafter, the worst came to pass when Tyler Gerth was shot and killed, allegedly by a man who’d been hanging around the protests for weeks. More recently, two officers were wounded by a shooter during a night of protest. And shots have been fired between President Trump supporters in a car and protesters, fortunately with no injuries.
I asked Louisville Metro police what it’s like for officers to operate in an environment that includes so many guns. Jessie Halladay, a police spokesperson, declined an interview request but provided this statement: “Guns are present throughout this community, so I would not say our approach to how we handle protests is shaped by the number of weapons we know are present, as that is a consideration we have for all our actions. Certainly, having guns so obviously present does raise tension, but that is a risk officers and the public face daily.”
So who is armed and why? In an effort to better understand, I recently spoke with eight people who routinely carry. Here are their stories.
As the head of a group called FIRM, which stands for Formation in Racial Matters, 33-year-old Chris Will is one of the most visible faces at Jefferson Square. He had grown close to Gerth. Both were videographers, and Gerth, who was white, had just helped Will, who is Black, find a location to shoot a video for hip hop artist Marc DiNero. They planned to collaborate on a film documentary about the protests.
“Then he died,” Will recounted. “I literally grabbed his camera out of a pool of blood. I wanted to take him to the hospital and not wait for the ambulance. … I had bad dreams about it for months. I didn’t know it was affecting me, thinking everybody is trying to shoot me.”
Will often carries a handgun now, and he’s overseen by a security team that’s always armed.
“There’s always been people armed down here. It’s like the wild, wild West for real. I don’t think it’s the number of guns as much as the number of people increased. You see it more frequently, people walking down the street with big guns on their hip. Crime is up in Louisville; shit can happen.”
Will said he’s had threats on his life. “It’s really wide open, and I’m concerned the police won’t help,” he said.
He describes a frightening incident that happened on a recent Friday night. “We were having a spooky movie for kids. Big crowd — one of my guys came and got me and said, ‘Hey man, two white guys — they gotta be carrying guns, because they’re wrapped up in towels, they just walked behind the bush over there [in front of Metro Hall near the corner of Sixth and Jefferson].
“I grabbed four or five security people, and we started walking that way. By the time we get across the street, we see a head pop up and a dude threw a towel and took off running with a gun on his leg. He pulls it out of his holster and turns around and fires it. The police apprehended them, then let them go because they didn’t find guns on them. Then, hours later they came out looking for shell casings. That makes no sense. I asked a lieutenant, how could you let them go? If one of us shot at a car driving by here, you all would come out here 100 deep to apprehend us.”
As a vocal advocate for racial justice, you might assume that Louisville poet and activist Hannah Drake would be anti-gun. Think again.
“I believe heavily in gun-ownership. The way the world is, you simply have to protect yourself,” she said. “In this day and age, I feel it’s important for people to know I do have a gun. I have several, so don’t bother me. Leave me alone. Being a black woman, it’s the smart thing to do. … You have to be safe. This is long before Breonna Taylor.
“I think of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, who were killed at Kroger doing everyday things,” she added, referencing the 2018 incident in which a white man was charged with murdering two Black people at the Jeffersontown grocery. “That could easily have been me.”
In a recent NBC News story about the Louisville protests, she told a reporter that she carries a Ruger 9mm and that she helped her daughter Brianna Wright purchase one, too. Drake, 44, is a stickler for responsible gun-ownership. Her partner also bought a gun recently, and they’ve taken training courses and regularly practice at a gun range. “We don’t just say let’s go buy a gun and wave it around,” she said.
Does the prevalence of guns at the square make her feel safer?
“I generally don’t feel unsafe at the square,” she said. “The only time is when police are there, which is ironic because they’re the ones with huge guns and should be protecting and serving people. Being at the square — it’s an open space, and people know we gather there. You wonder about people who may be racist and inclined to come shoot up a square or an event. You have to consider that when you’re in certain spaces.”
She feels less safe in other situations. Recently, as she walked back to her car after a protest, she heard one police officer tell another, “’Oh, that’s Hannah Drake.’ …
“Why do you know me, and why are you telling him that? Clearly, there’s some focus on who I am, probably because I’m vocal, but that’s a scary thought. The more visible certain people are, you draw attention. I get hate mail all the time. It’s not a secret who I am.
“People act as if it’s so far-fetched … Martin Luther King was one of the most peaceful protesters in the world, and you shot him anyway. And so this world, this nation, has a habit of taking out who they consider to be the leaders. And the more vocal you are and out front, people identify you. That’s a concern, and I don’t think it’s a concern that’s far-fetched, because that’s the history of America.”
Historically, she said, white society is afraid of a Black man with a gun.
“People act as if Black people shouldn’t carry guns,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Why do you have a gun? Why are you this or why are you that?’ Because it’s our right to. We have a right to bear arms.”
Drake said people were alarmed when the Black militia Not Fucking Around Coalition, or NFAC, came to Louisville. But when white militias come to the Capitol, she said, people excuse them as merely citizens just exercising their rights. “Why isn’t that the case when a Black person has a gun?”
I ask what might prompt her to use her gun.
“If I sincerely feel a threat to my life,” she said. “If someone’s threatening you on the street, you have the right to defend yourself. Yet somehow it becomes a problem when Black people do that. It’s ‘why did you do that? Why didn’t you just walk away?’
“If someone is threatening me, I have no problem — it’s gonna be them or it’s gonna be me. And it’s not gonna be me. Hopefully, that doesn’t have to happen.”
JibryIll Izsrael, a 45-year-old, Black military veteran, is often seen on livestreams counseling restraint at Jefferson Square — “to be in between the police and the people. Whenever I do that, it always works. Nobody gets arrested, and there is no police brutality.”
He’s at the square to protest the death of Breonna Taylor but to also speak about larger issues.
“First and foremost, give us liberty or give us death,” he said. “Freedom is essential for every human being on the planet. African Americans, and indigenous people who didn’t voluntarily migrate to the Americas, they haven’t known freedom in this country. It’s one of the things that gets missed as we focus on Breonna Taylor, but we try to make sure we don’t miss it.”
Izsrael began bringing his Smith & Wesson 9mm after learning about the Atlanta-based NFAC. “Twelve hundred men and women we’ve never seen before, they’re all legally armed and they’re not yelling, they’re not rowdy, they’re not riotous, they’re not chaotic. They’re disciplined, they’re structured. Immediately, I fell right in love with them. From that point in time, I started to bring a firearm with me every time.”
He said he later helped arrange NFAC’s visits to Louisville and to establish lines of communication with Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office and LMPD. “Me and my colleagues were concerned with, how do we get these folks out of town without anybody getting shot?”
Izsrael has been present at the square during close calls, including the Friday evening event referenced by Chris Will when two shots were fired.
I ask whether he feels unsafe downtown.
“I don’t, not at all. I’m in a place in my life where it’s OK if I die fighting for my people’s freedom. For my children to live their lives with honor.”
If you’ve watched the protests via livestreams or TV reports, you may have noticed a red-haired woman with a long rifle and military attire. Her name is Tara Brandau, though she’s more likely to respond to Hog Girl, the nickname she acquired upon killing her first pig at age 5. Now she hunts wild pigs for a living, she said.
Brandau, a white mother and grandmother who’s in her early 40s, commands the National Patriotic Defense Team, a militia she formed to focus on public safety and First and Second amendment rights. She said the group has more than 80 members in Kentucky and is apolitical.
“We’re constitutionalists,” she said. “You have a right for your First Amendment, and you have a right for your Second Amendment. We don’t have an issue as long as nobody’s trying to shoot somebody or burn the place down or beat each other up. But when the threats [reach] a higher level, that’s when we come out.”
Brandau emphasized they’re not white supremacists.
“My second in lead is Puerto Rican. My intelligence officer is Puerto Rican. I have Cubans, Mexicans, Blacks. There’s some white but not that many, so for them to confuse us with being white nationalists really bothers me because we’re not a racist group whatsoever.”
She isn’t concerned about guns at the protests.
“As long as somebody is experienced, and there’s gun safety, they have every right to carry. It doesn’t matter what group it is or what color they are, they have the right to carry it. … I don’t feel threatened with it.”
I ask Brandau what her group would do if shooting starts.
“We are trained to disarm them,” she said. “We’re not trained to go start shooting people. That’s not what we do.”
Chris Fox recalled standing near a man who suddenly began firing a gun in the air at Jefferson Square. Fox pulled his wife, Shaila, out of their parked car and pushed her to the ground, then drew his pistol and cocked it. He pleaded with the man to stop, but the man started shooting at him before firing into the crowd, allegedly killing Tyler Gerth. Fox said he had deliberated over whether to fire, but then someone else shot and wounded the man.
“I get ridicule from people every day for not shooting him,” Fox said. “In my head, in the split second of not pulling the trigger, I was thinking: ‘Am I gonna see both of my kids again? Will I see my wife? What’s gonna happen to our home if I go to jail? She won’t be able to pay the bills.’ They’ll put me in prison is what I thought.”
Fox, 44, is biracial — his mother is Irish, and his father is Black. He was born in Louisville but moved to Las Vegas in his teens, joining a gang. He didn’t grow up with guns, but said when he’d go looking for hidden Christmas presents, “I was always finding a gun in the house.”
He’s been coming to the Louisville protests since Day One. He carries a pistol to protect his wife, but he said he concerned about gun safety at the square. “Honestly, I don’t feel safe. There’s a lack of gun safety by others in the park. They’ll carry it like this … You’re like, ‘Seriously, who carries a gun on their shoulder?’ This is not 1865. It’s not the Civil War.
“They have people with no safety on, one in the chamber, no lock on their holster. Mine, I’m always in the holster, three steps before I can fire. A lock on holster. Cock it. Safety off — that’s three steps. I can pull on it all day long … unless you touch me physically, you’re not gonna get to my gun at all.”
Internal feuds are another problem: “This person said something about this person on their live feed, and they didn’t like it, and their friends didn’t like it, and they’re gonna argue with them down here.”
He doesn’t count on police to protect the protesters. “Honestly, I don’t believe the police are here to help me at all,” he said.
Louisville attorney David Mour, who is white and Jewish, is an outspoken figure of the Louisville movement as a legal services provider and protest participant. He’s accustomed to guns — he served in the U.S. Air Force and was a police officer — but he began bringing one to the square only after Gerth was killed.
“In my opinion, the number of guns has picked up along the way because of Tyler, and the fact that it became clear LMPD will not do anything to protect protesters,” said Mour, 60.
For example, he said, more than six minutes elapsed before police responded to Gerth’s shooting. By contrast, he said, when a protester was clowning around and doused the eternal flame of a police memorial in the park, 30 police in riot gear quickly showed up.
Mour also doubts official accounts that the man police arrested actually shot Gerth — a somewhat frequent topic of conversation at the square — because the last shots he heard sounded like a long rifle. “Then, they came in and trashed everything in the square to hide evidence,” he said.
Mour was present when the Angry Viking and his group marched to the square, which was lightly occupied because many regulars were at Churchill Downs to take part in protests there.
He normally carries a .380 pistol or a 9mm gun, but that day, he brought an AR-15 rifle. The scene was extremely tense as 30 or 40 protesters surged forward to keep the approaching group from reaching the square. There was shouting, arguments and shoving but no shots fired. The police did not insert themselves to keep the groups apart for fear of escalating tensions, they told reporters, and they showed up only as the marchers dispersed on their own.
“Had shooting started,” Mour said, “we’d have been wiped out. I’m stunned no one got shot. There were a lot of people walking around with older weapons. A trigger and hammer weapon, like a shotgun — if you drop a cocked gun, it’ll discharge. That’s all it would’ve taken. I am, to this day, amazed there wasn’t a massacre.”
He attributed the outcome to “a little bit of luck. I think the livestreamers and some of the women who formed a buffer between the protesters and the militia caused clearer heads to prevail.”
Mour represents Robin Ash, who faces a felony charge after pointing a gun at a motorist during a protest on Hurstbourne Lane. Livestream video shows that driver brandishing a gun, then stepping outside his car and pointing his gun toward the marchers. Mour said Ash was acting in self-defense, which he’ll assert when the case goes to a grand jury in December.
Mour and his daughter Lillie, who’s 14, were at the square on the recent Friday night when shots were fired. He pushed her to the ground and drew his weapon but couldn’t see where the shots came from.
“I’m trained to not point a gun where you can’t see and if you don’t have a target,” he said. “But that’s another example of why we carry weapons. I’m going to defend myself and my family. If I perceive someone is going to use deadly force, I would repel that attack.”
Jacoby Glenn was also guarding the Saturday march on Baxter Avenue where I noticed Subleski. Unlike his cohort in United Pharaoh’s Guard, he wore civilian clothes but also carried an assault rifle.
“We all watch out for different things,” he later told me. “I look for random acts in the crowd, people on rooftops, counterprotesters and people trying to take over the protests.”
Glenn, who’s 21 and Black, started coming to Jefferson Square on Day Two of the protests. He said his brother is a Louisville police officer who accompanied marchers to 26th Street and Broadway and took a knee with them in the early days of the local protests.
“I can pretty much play both sides of the party, because I have family in law enforcement and family who support Black Lives Matter,” Glenn said. “I knew I could come down and mediate, or I thought I could.”
He’s been with UPG for more than four months.
“We’re in support of this movement, but we all have different views,” he said. “We all don’t think the same. We all believe everyone has their freedom of speech, and everyone can practice the Second Amendment.”
Do guns make him feel more or less safe?
“In a way it does both,” he said. “It’s more risky for people carrying rifles — it could give police a reason to shoot us. Everyone knows police don’t like us. They’ve told us multiple times they don’t like UPG. But it makes things safer for protesters than if we weren’t here to protect them.”
John Subleski grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and moved here seven years ago. He describes himself a “hardcore constitutionalist, about as far right as you can get without being a racist homophobe.” He was politically inspired by former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Libertarian and father of Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
Subleski recalled taking up arms in high school for a counterprotest of neo-Nazis demonstrating in Toledo. He feels a family legacy to stand up for victims, describing how his great-grandfather escaped from a Nazi concentration camp in Poland where he’d been imprisoned for helping to hide Jews, then emigrated to the United States and joined the military so he could return to Europe and fight Hitler’s army.
Later, Subleski said, he trained to join the Peshmerga rebels in Kurdistan but ultimately thought better of going. He said he spent six months receiving paramilitary training in Marengo, Indiana, but had never injected himself into protests until George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
He began offering his downtown Louisville apartment as a safe house for protesters based at Jefferson Square. Friends started bringing their rifles, and soon they went to the marches, looking to be a buffer between protesters and police, he said.
“Anyone who tries to silence these people or sever their ability to exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said, “we back them with the Second Amendment.”
Subleski dubbed the group United Pharaoh’s Guard, or Loujihadeen, and said their numbers have grown to about 30. After NFAC came to Louisville, UPG began occupying the square on a regular basis.
Subleski said he’s not anti-cop, but the authorities don’t like the group. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives have interrogated group members, he said.
During a march, he said an officer approached and said, “‘We’re glad you’re here, we support your Second Amendment rights.’ I cut him off and said, ‘What about their First?’ He realized we were not there to back the police or property, but we were there for the people.”
In fact, he said, where some militias turn out to protect property, UPG is solely concerned about physical safety.
“We have a stance on it as a group. How people choose to express themselves and their anger doesn’t have a damn thing to do with me till someone is being hurt,” he said. “Just like we told law enforcement and federal agents — if they want to break windows or burn a car, it has nothing to do with us. We won’t intervene.”
I asked him if he’s afraid of dying.
“Yes and no. I’ve never been a guy that cared too much about myself. I probably care more about others than my own well-being. I expect the unexpected. I’m fully aware of the dangers and the credible threats against my life. I probably view death differently than some others.”
Guns and Political Expression
University of California Los Angeles law professor Adam Winkler, whose specializations include gun policy, noted that guns have been part of protests throughout American history. He cited labor strikes in the late 1800s, KKK rallies in the early 1900s, and the Black Panthers carrying weapons to the California statehouse in the late 1960s as just a few examples. The latter created a stir that led to more gun restrictions in the state, he said.
Winkler has noticed a resurgence of public displays of weaponry in the last 10 to 15 years, a period that covers the emergence of the Tea Party movement that arose after Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
“We often think about guns as a tool for hunting or self-defense, but increasingly they’re used as symbols of political expression,” he said. “People with political views consistent with militia movements … think their political protest is more powerful when it’s done in military garb and with firearms.”
Guns at the protests might seem to reflect a conflict between the First and Second amendments, he said, adding, however, that the issue is nuanced. “It may not be much of a stretch to say the activity of having guns at a protest may not be protected by the Second Amendment, but protesters possibly have first a First Amendment right that involves having a gun at a protest.
“It’s another thing when the firearms’ existence intimidates and terrorizes other people. In that case, we could see that having a gun at a protest chills other people’s constitutional rights to express themselves and feel safe. It maybe discourages other people from even showing up at a protest because they fear violence and intimidation. That’s a First Amendment question that needs to be answered, too. It’s a whole mess, basically.”
The dilemma for Activist leaders
It is exactly the ambiguity Winkler explained and other issues that make it more difficult for Louisville’s community leaders to tell young people to leave their guns at homes.
“I don’t choose to carry a gun, because I’ve lost too many people to gun violence,”said Shameka Parrish-Wright, who directs the Bail Project and helps lead efforts at Jefferson Square.“But I can’t tell people, in a strong gun-toting state that just relaxed its laws over open carry, not to carry.
“If there’s an event where we know it’s all just children, we say, ‘Hey can you not have your long visible assault rifles out, because we want to make sure the kids don’t get scared.’”
Parrish-Wright receives nearly constant death threats. And recently, when a woman approached her with a gun to air out a grudge, the people of the park surrounded her to defuse the situation.
A few years ago as Parrish-Wright conducted surveys to gauge gun ownership across the city, she learned that many of her friends own three or four firearms. “I realized, ‘Oh, snap, a lot more people have guns than I thought.’ They don’t have them out, they have them in case of safety. What the militias and police didn’t know is that a lot of people in Louisville that are Black, brown and poor, have guns for their own protection.”
Eddie Woods, who heads the No More Red Dots gun intervention program, said it’s hard to preach restraint when young people don’t believe police will protect them from other groups.
“If the armed protesters had any idea that the militias would be dealt with if they did something of a confrontational nature, they might not carry,” he said. “In a Zoom meeting, one of the young guys we’re mentoring asked, if it came to a physical confrontation between militias and protesters, whose side would police be on? I thought that was a legitimate question that I don’t have an answer to.”
Photos by Kathryn Harrington.