ABOVE: Protesters outside Louisville Metro Hall on 6th Street on 6.12.20
︎ Sean Starowitz, Louisville
The Future of Public Memory: Reimagining Louisville’s Public Spaces Entrenched in the Legacy of Police Violence
In Louisville on March 13th, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT, was murdered in her home by Louisville Metro Police Department during a no-knock warrant. Although this was not the first incident of racial injustice in Louisville, the loss of Breonna Taylor’s life has forever changed the public landscape of the city. As thousands of protesters in Kentucky, and across the world, have made clear: we can no longer be complicit, remaining silent inside of white supremacist public spaces and policies.
A critical step towards seeking atonement is by the reclamation and reparation of public spaces. The aesthetics of memorials, monuments, and civic spaces are not passive and indifferent but are a tool to transform collective “silence into language and action”, to quote the poet Audre Lorde. The work of dismantling systemic racism in both policy and practice will be exhausting, challenging, and traumatic, and this work cannot solely fall on the shoulders of the leadership of Black artists and organizers. It needs to be an active reclamation of public space and, ultimately, policy. In the midst of one the largest civil rights movements in American history, it is essential that white artists and their beloved art institutions and agencies surrender these spaces and yield their legacies of power and aesthetics.
Many protesters and organizing groups have called for the renaming of Jefferson Square to Breonna Taylor Square. It is critically important for our public spaces to be recontextualized to foster the physical embodiment of grief, pain, and action. This inherently democratic space gives us voice and vision to recognize another world is possible. The politics of public space are immensely challenging but ultimately reflect the values of our communities, towns, and cities. Louisville needs a Breonna Taylor Square—a memorial to recognize and honor those who have lost their lives to police brutality. To be clear, for Louisville’s government to only rename Jefferson Square after Breonna Taylor without first meeting the public’s immediate demands (seeking punishment of the police officers who brutally murdered her in her home, the end of no-knock warrants in Louisville - achieved on June 11th/the 14th day of protest, and the end of qualified immunity, to name a few) would be doing a disservice to Breonna Taylor and countless others who have died under the vestige of state-sanctioned violence.
Renaming and reimaging spaces like Jefferson Square was already on the city’s mind as of recently as 2017. The City released a Request for Proposals for the redesign of Jefferson Square and in 2018 offered a new conceptual plan for the park known as Jefferson Resquared. The design firm MKSK, through a series of public engagements, recommended various changes and alterations to the park to include multi-use purposes, keeping the tree canopy, adding a more functional water feature, and a memorial wall to first responders which include EMS personal - it even acknowledged the importance of the space to be used for peaceful protest and memorial. Unfortunately, the plan was put on hold due to massive budget cuts on behalf of a previous conservative and lame-duck Governor Matt Bevin.
Jefferson Square Park is currently home to two monuments, both for those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. It makes one wonder about the other victims of trauma, loss, and death caused by the City. Could Jefferson Square offer a memorial to those who lost their lives in the line of duty while also acknowledging the victims of police brutality and state-sanctioned racial violence? This painful dichotomy is not lost on the citizens of Louisville seeking to find a space of memorial for Breonna Taylor, both a dedicated EMT and a victim of police violence.
Every time a firefighter or police officer loses a life in the line of duty, hundreds gather to mourn and celebrate in Jefferson Square. For the last 14 days, we have watched thousands gather in protest for a lack of justice for Breonna Taylor in the same space, hanging off of the arm of a firefighter statue and surrounding the Eternal Flame. The people of Louisville have already reimagined Jefferson Square as a site for truth and reconciliation. Is Louisville’s leadership ready to do the same? To truly democratize this space by honoring not only victims of those who have lost their lives in the line in duty, but those who have been (and will be) lost at the hands of officers acting outside of their ethical line of duty?
Fortuitously, on the morning of June 8th, The John B. Castleman Monument was finally removed from the Cherokee Triangle. This removal came two years after The Public Arts and Monuments Advisory Committee recommended its relocation. But neither Castleman’s history as a Confederate Officer nor the monument’s representation of systemic racism spurred its removal. Against the backdrops of global resistance and revolt against systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence, the statue was actually removed under the guise of an alleged public meeting technicality. It is no longer excusable to remove these monuments in the dead of night nor is it acceptable to ignore what needs to fill the vacancy of these public spaces. The reclamation and recontextualization of this public space should not be neglected. Shortly after the removal of the Castleman Monument, Louisville poet Hannah Drake spoke in front of this historically white supremacist site: “In this space I belong. In this space we are here and we belong here!”
We have seen new interpretations of public space and various acts of performative allyship staged as reclamation. The symbolic gesture of painting Black Lives Matter across a D.C. street is immensely powerful and also an inherent contradiction as the same city has proposed an increase in its police department’s budget. In Louisville, Jaylin Stewart’s portrait of Breonna Taylor was projected onto City Hall on what would have been her 27th birthday and Say Her Name painted on 12th street, but the officers who murdered her are still working. Jaylin Stewart and Hannah Drake’s work are just the beginning of the long-overdue recontextualization of our shared public spaces. To borrow from the field of Transportation, their work gives us a “desired path”—an alternative path caused by erosion from active use—to seek confrontation, shame, and ultimately, reparation.
In response to a lack of justice for Taylor, Mayor Greg Fischer told protesters, "This process takes way too much time compared to what people want to see.” We just saw the City of Louisville turn on a dime in response to a global pandemic, but show not a single sense of urgency in facing the preexisting conditions of racism and police brutality. How long will it take for Louisville to not only seek justice for Breonna Taylor but question the racist realities of our built environment and the exclusion and erasure of BIPOC people in our shared public spaces? It’s time for Louisville’s white leadership, stakeholders, and art community to turn their historic silence and privilege into action by surrendering spaces, conceding power, and changing policy.
- Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Sister Outsider. Berkely, California: Ten Speed Press, 1977.
Contributor to Ruckus
Breonna Taylor’s Portrait by Jaylin Stewart on the City Hall on June 5th, 2020. Photo courtesy of the author.
The statue of John Breckinridge Castleman in Louisville's Cherokee Triangle being removed. Photo courtesy of Jim Conti.
Protesters outside Louisville Metro Hall on Jefferson Street on 6.12.20
“This area is designed as a special part of the square, honoring those that have fallen in the line of duty. The Memorial Wall is intended as a place for names, photos, and possibly stories of the lives of fallen public safety officials, including EMS personnel.” from Jefferson Resquared.
Memorial marker for Breonna Taylor at Jefferson Square. Photo courtesy of the author.