Militias in Louisville amid ‘No justice, no Derby’ protest

In a normally genteel setting where firearms outnumbered thoroughbreds Saturday, Black Lives Matter protesters demanding justice for Breonna Taylor targeted the Kentucky Derby, marching peacefully outside the spires, stables and Millionaires Row at Churchill Downs before the start of the iconic race.

Some protesters carried guns; others had signs that said, “No justice, no Derby!” They chanted, “There’s no riot here — why are you in riot gear?” at scores of police and National Guard troops who lined the legendary sports structure, separating marchers from the VIPs, horses and jockeys as the race began.

“This is looking like a military state,” said Kaneshaeia Boyd, 34, a local cook, as she marched past the riot police, separated from protesters by a metal fence. “How can right-wing protest groups get away with stuff, and we get policed like this?”

Taylor, 26, a medical worker, died at the hands of Louisville police during a March 13 raid on her apartment. The three officers involved are still being investigated and have not been charged in connection with Taylor’s death, which sparked 100 days of protests centered around a downtown memorial.

Black Lives Matter protesters, some legally armed with handguns and semiautomatic rifles, faced off with law enforcement Saturday outside the Kentucky Derby in Louisville in what was ultimately a peaceful protest.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Many had feared Saturday’s protests would turn violent because of the large number of firearms in the area. In addition to scores of city police, sheriff’s deputies, Kentucky State Police and National Guard troops, there were Black militias, white militias and more than a dozen protesters openly carrying handguns and semiautomatic rifles. (It is legal to openly carry such firearms in Kentucky.)

Frank Wilson, 32, a Black Lives Matter protester who doesn’t belong to a militia, was carrying a 9-millimeter handgun in a hip holster and an AR-12 semiautomatic rifle with an extra magazine of bullets. He also had a bulletproof vest.

He said he was worried about violence by law enforcement officers, who he said had killed five members of his family over the years. His cousin David McAtee, 53, who ran a local barbecue stand, was fatally shot by National Guard troops during protests June 1.

“We’re just trying to balance it out,” said Wilson, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and whose family owns a shooting range. “It’s my right to carry.”

Wilson was at the Taylor memorial Saturday morning when members of the group American Patriots, armed white followers of a YouTuber known as the “Angry Viking,” arrived and argued with Black Lives Matter protesters. Police intervened, and no one was seriously injured or charged. Protesters also spotted members of another far-right militia, the Three Percenters.

Frank Wilson, holding a semiautomatic rifle, talks with fellow Black Lives Matter protester Tiffany Ray in Louisville.

Frank Wilson, an Army veteran, talks in downtown Louisville with fellow Black Lives Matter protester Tiffany Ray, who was carrying a concealed handgun because, she said, “you don’t know what to expect.”

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

“That’s another reason we carry,” Wilson said, noting that two Black Lives Matter protesters were killed last month in Kenosha, Wis. The white 17-year-old suspect, who claimed to be protecting local businesses, was not stopped by police even as he appeared to surrender. He was arrested the next day.

Wilson chatted with Tiffany Ray, 39, a waitress who said she was carrying a concealed handgun at protests because “you don’t know what to expect.”

Some said they wished militias — Black and white — would stay away from the protests.

“They’re not welcome down here,” said activist Rosie Henderson as she stood in front of the Taylor memorial wearing a “No justice, no Derby” mask and T-shirt, a machete holstered on her hip, and a baton slung over her back.

Henderson, 47, who is Black, said she spoke with the “Angry Viking,” Dylan Stevens, and his followers, supporters of President Trump who told her they came looking for a Georgia-based Black militia known as the NFAC that was expected to attend the protest.

“I don’t like any militias,” Henderson said. “Stay away with that. We protect ourselves.”

As Black Lives Matter protesters set off to march to Churchill Downs from a nearby park, organizers cautioned over megaphones that white militia members were still in the area.

“If you run into them, remember what we are here for,” Sadiqa Reynolds, chief executive of the Louisville Urban League, told the crowd of several hundred. “Stay focused.”

When several relatives of Taylor drove by, friends, including Felicia Garr, waved and blew kisses. Garr, 52, who works in construction, said some have been scared to join the protests due to either violence or COVID-19.

“Everybody can’t walk. But for those who can, we need to be here,” she said, considering the crowd as they set off. “It speaks volumes for these people to be here.”

She had posted on Facebook that it felt like “a modern day civil war today in Louisville.”

“Whose side are you on?” she wrote.

A young woman Garr knew approached and asked to march with her. Garr agreed but cautioned, “I have some rules: You’ve got to stay peaceful.” The younger woman agreed, and they set off with the crowd.

They marched past neighbors, Black and white, who stood on porches and lawns, some snapping photos with their phones and cheering, others stony-faced, warning protesters to stay off their property. They marched around Churchill Downs, stopping to chant outside the VIP entrance and the stables. Police in Humvees inside the fence surrounding the complex trailed the protesters as they marched.

Near the main entrance, members of the Black militia joined the protest briefly. They were dressed in black, carrying semiautomatic rifles and flags. Some protesters watched in awe, others took it in stride, and at least one shouted for them to leave, which they ultimately did.

Michael Pyles, 30, said he yelled at a member of NFAC because the group had confronted him at a past protest.

“They told me I didn’t have a right to protest. They called me white,” said Pyles, whose mother is white and father Black. “It was very disrespectful.”

Pyles said he didn’t have a problem with protesters being armed. He was wearing a bulletproof vest with a .40-caliber handgun in a chest holster.

“We had Three Percenters and a white militia here this morning and NFAC was nowhere to be seen,” he said.

Standing nearby, Trenita Maddox disagreed. She liked seeing the show of force from the Black militia, especially when, in her view, so many police lined up in riot gear to intimidate peaceful protesters.

“The NFAC is a show of strength, to let them know we are going to fight back,” she said of police.

Maddox, 50, didn’t bring a gun to the protest. But she is a gun owner, registered her three grandchildren in martial arts, and plans to teach them how to use guns for their own protection. She has also started the process of joining the Black militia.