Above: Brianna Harlan, 2020, courtesy of the artist and Cressman Center for Visual Arts.
We Haven’t Stopped Saying Her Name
This story was originally published by Scalawag, a journalism and storytelling organization that illuminates dissent, unsettles dominant narratives, pursues justice and liberation, and stands in solidarity with marginalized people and communities in the South.
It’s hard to believe only—and somehow, already—two years have passed since Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove forced themselves, in plainclothes with a no-knock warrant, into the apartment on Elliot Ave in Louisville where they shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. In a flurry of outrage heightened by the pervasiveness of social media, news of her murder spread exponentially, eventually coming to a fever pitch following the murder of George Floyd two months later, 700 miles away in Minneapolis. Suddenly, our city, once only known for horses, bourbon, and disco balls, became a hotbed of protests as activists and communities across the city gathered calling for justice for Breonna Taylor.
None of us bore witness to the negligent and violent events that took place in those early morning hours of March 13, 2020, but we don’t have to: photographs taken in Louisville during the protests of 2020, reveal the true fascist nature of the police state we live in.
Since Taylor’s murder, the city’s police budget has continued to swell even after calls to reallocate 50 million dollars to food access, jobs, and mental health support. Nevertheless, Louisville’s photographers have labored alongside organizers to continue to place the extent of the police violence that killed Breonna on full display. Their images, taken over the course of two years, incite, document, and locate Louisville’s place in the global struggle against militant policing.
Tensions in Louisville had been simmering since the murder of Breonna Taylor in March, but action was difficult in those early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. A somber coincidence, the day of her murder was the same day that many schools, offices, and businesses closed in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Though there was certainly outrage on social media, news media largely neglected the story.
But when Lousivillians saw the images of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck on May 25th, a spark was reignited. Seeing Chauvin with his hands in his pockets, so cavalier and carefree even as he was killing George Floyd made clear that what happened in Minneapolis had happened here—it was time to demand justice for Breonna, too.
When protests started in Louisville in late May, hostilities hadn’t yet reached a breaking point. In a photograph by Michael Clevenger for the Courier Journal, protesters can be seen forming a human wall around an officer who had been separated in an effort to keep him safe. Even in the tensest moments, protesters remained peaceful, and this image is the proof. Any lingering feelings of solidarity were quickly dissolved as police ramped up the violence.
No place did the police get more militant than they did at Jefferson Square Park, renamed Injustice Square before earning its official name, Breewayy. In front of Louisville Metro Hall and next to LMPD Headquarters, Breewayy became the site of nightly attempts to subjugate protesters. It’s ironic, or maybe accurate, that the fascist police state made itself known just steps away from the Hall of Justice, the exterior of which can be seen in Sean McInnis’ photograph of protesters running from tear gas. I counted two children in the crowd.
More than a year after the height of civil action in Louisville, photographers from the city chose to return attention to police militancy during two exhibitions at the Louisville Photo Biennial. The city-wide celebration of photography, occurring every two years since 1999, has never established a theme, but the 2021 iteration revealed the impact that visual storytelling can make on preserving and contextualizing the mobilizations of ordinary citizens against state-sanctioned violence in multiple shows across Louisville.
One of the most moving shows during the Biennial, From the West End to the West Bank, at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts culls images from the University of Louisville Photographic Archives, the Activestills Collective, and photographs taken in Louisville during the summer of 2020, to contextualize the racist and colonial displacement of people on a global scale. Through spatial storytelling, the gentrification of Louisville’s neighborhoods was presented next to the forceful displacement of Palestinian people.
Sawyer Roque’s image of LMPD officers, marching two-by-two, in front of the infamous Love Boutique, solidified this connection. The concrete exterior and neon signs of the Love Boutique are absolutely unmistakable among an otherwise unremarkable urban street. Shields reveal the police’s intention to gas protesters, their batons to subdue them. On her motivation to travel back to her hometown of Louisville, Roque expressed that “it felt strange and significant to see such familiar places as the backdrop of a national movement.”1 Roque’s photograph bears a striking compositional resemblance to Ryan Rodrick Beiler of Activestills’ photograph of a lone runner during the 2013 Palestine Marathon. Behind her, the heavily-graffitied wall stands as a symbol of resistance. In both, a fascist regime flaunts.
This visual connection was particularly pertinent in 2021, as violent government-sanctioned eviction of Palestinians from homes in Sheikh Jarrah had sparked massive global outrage less than a year after widespread protests in the U.S. Conditions of apartheid in Palestine align with the history of gentrification and redlining that runs deep in Louisville, where the Great Flood of 1937 decimated areas west of 9th Street, encouraging wealthy white residents to move onto higher ground on the eastern bluffs of the Ohio River. It’s this history that sets the backdrop for cop’s violent tactics and no-knock warrants that give police full immunity to terrorize one area of a city under the guise of protecting another.
Black and white prints of mid-century Louisville reveal a long history of resistance to fascist policing, as peaceful protesters are dragged away by cops. In a 1976 photograph taken during a march for African Liberation Day, a chillingly familiar sign reads “STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST BLACK WOMEN.” Without color, these scenes normally hold a misleading temporal distance, tricking us into lengthening the amount of time passed since they were taken. Now, two years since Taylor’s murder, those photographs feel closer in time than ever. The city of Louisville may have banned no-knock warrants, but few other attempts have been made to ensure that Taylor’s death is not repeated.
The past and the future appear to swirl together around a lone protester in Emmanuel Roque Perez’ photograph. Like those before them, they defiantly hold their ground. The late-summer twilight is just enough to illuminate their surroundings: the public defender’s office. The haze, concealing most of their environment, gives space for uncertainty - How much longer will we allow the systems built to protect us, fail us?
Jon Cherry faithfully documented the protests from the beginning. In addition to a solo exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art and Heritage during the Biennial, two of his photographs from that summer were included in From the West End to the West Bank. These photographs shatter the myth of exceptionalism, and the myth of progress. Without the context of place, they bear a resemblance to contemporary resistance in Palestine or Hong Kong. Without the context of time, they mirror the oppressive tactics used during the Civil Rights Movement.
I connected with Cherry recently. Both of us were still grappling with the recent verdict deeming Hankison not guilty. He expressed his disappointment, saying: “Those photographs didn’t have as much power as I thought they did… But I talked to a colleague of mine yesterday because I was feeling kind of low about that and she reassured me, telling me ‘you don’t know that, you’re watching this happen in real time. Give it 10 years, 15 years, it has an effect.’”2
And she’s exactly right.
It is courageous to come face to face with the reality of living in a fascist police state that prefers to stay hidden in plain sight. Images do not always galvanize change but they often open our eyes to what has always been in front of us in a way that only an image can: as photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till in his casket swayed public opinion and stirred the Civil Rights Movement 65 years before; as the image a photograph of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, deceased, mobilized worldwide awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015; as the documentary work of Lewis Hine helped reform American labor laws in the early 20th century.
Brianna Harlan is a multi-disciplinary artist and activist from Louisville who also had work in the exhibition. Her photographs from Taylor’s would-be 27th-birthday celebration on the steps of Louisville Metro Hall capture a brief, precious moment of Black joy in the midst of unmeasurable grief and mourning. On her motivation to preserve these moments, she said: “The city was coming together in a way that it hadn’t in quite some time… This is a time in the history of our city that needed to be documented. If we knew our past better, I imagine the city would already look a lot different in regards to reform… but we don’t.”3
Susan Sontag, in her 1977 collection of essays On Photography, claims that “to take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged.”4 But In the case of the summer of 2020, I vehemently disagree. There is nothing more against the status quo than to shatter the simulation of a free society, and that is what the photographers on the ground in Louisville did that summer.
Today, Taylor’s memorial at Jefferson Square Park no longer stands. Steve Conrad, former Louisville Metro Police Department Chief, has been replaced by Erika Shields, who came to Louisville after resigning from the Atlanta Police Department following the murder of Rayshard Brooks. Only two of the officers involved, Hankison and Jaynes, were fired. Mattingly was offered a book deal. On March 4, 2022, as this article was being written, Hankison was found not guilty of wanton endangerment related to the multiple rounds he shot that morning.
I drive down these streets almost daily on my way to and from work. They seem unrecognizable from that summer, with lanes of cars bumper-to-bumper, weaving around TARC buses and pedestrians. Certain images stand out in my mind: people pouring milk on their faces to neutralize the tear gas. A man with blood-red welts on his back after being hit by rubber bullets. 5,000 people on the steps of Metro Hall. These are stories that can’t be, won’t be forgotten, and when the storytellers are gone, the photographs will still speak.
Rest in peace, Breonna Taylor. We haven’t stopped saying your name.
- Personal email conversation with Roque
- Personal conversation with Cherry
- Personal email conversation with Harlan
- Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” in On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 12.
Anna Blake (she/her) is a curator and independent arts writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. She is a staff editor for Ruckus Journal and curatorial assistant at KMAC Museum. Her interests include independent media, zines, and alternative ways of making and sharing.
Sean McInnis, 2020, courtesy of the Cressman Center for Visual Arts.
Sawyer Roque, 2020, courtesy of the artist and Cressman Center for Visual Arts.
Emmanuel Roque Perez, 2020, courtesy of the Cressman Center for Visual Arts.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler, Palestine Marathon, Bethlehem, West Bank, 2013, courtesy of Activestills and the Cressman Center for Visual Arts.