Last week, I spent 14 hours in police custody in Louisville, Kentucky.
I was arrested during the peaceful demonstration that concluded BreonnaCon, a remembrance and conference honoring Breonna Taylor.
BreonnaCon took place August 22-25, months after members of the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) broke into Breonna Taylor’s home on March 13 without a warrant and shot the 26-year-old emergency medical technician dead in her own bed.
Sponsored by New York-based grassroots organization Until Freedom, BreonnaCon held empowerment workshops and partnered with the local Urban League and food businesses to feed 4,000 people in a free farmer’s market and “Bre-B-Q.” And lastly, it led a Good Trouble Tuesday protest on August 25.
That day, hundreds of cops were waiting for us when we arrived at the Central Avenue bridge by Cardinal Stadium, in full riot gear and gleaming batons. Some covered their mouths with “Blue Lives Matter” scarves.
“I don’t see no riot here. Why are you in riot gear?” we chanted. We stood our ground like Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, told us the day before.
They would not let us continue marching from the police training center that was the march’s original destination and through the city to the park where the protest started. They surrounded us on a local bridge.
Sixty-five people were arrested (the “Good Trouble 65” in a nod to the late, great Rep. John Lewis of Georgia). First, they took the loudest voices and the leaders. Then, the protesters who would not stand up to be led away.
Ultimately, we were charged with “obstructing a highway,” though the police were already there. And not going anywhere.
At the county jail, we were handcuffed to what looked like small batting cages, side by side, each open to the front with a small metal stool in the center and our left arms attached to a fence. Those metal fences and bracelets gave us instruments to aid in our spirituals and chants. We sang Breonna Taylor’s name. Hollered “This Little Light of Mine.” I suggested, “Lift Every Voice.”
We sang, laughed and sang some more. Until Freedom co-founder Linda Sarsour asked everyone to quiet as we watched the LMPD bringing in a bleeding Black woman from a paddy wagon.
They escorted us individually to be placed on one of three shackles, made for 20 bodies, squeezed up close during a pandemic. We passed our bleeding sister, and I handed her the small water bottle I was saving. I knew they were treating us “humanely” due to the attention on us. I did not expect the same for her, alone.
As they walked the chain of 18 women and myself into a holding space, I asked, “Why aren’t we distancing for COVID?”
The unmasked officer replied, “There is no social distancing in jail.” There would have been enough room in that space for us to do so safely if we weren’t shackled together.
Later, a white woman with us complained about the soreness of her wrists. We moved together to rotate and make sure both sides of our chain gang could sit on the bench. We introduced ourselves. We told stories of arrests, love and racism.
Slowly, women were taken off of our chain to be processed. By 10 p.m., eight of us were left together. Some of the women reported the private bathroom outside the cell was the nastiest they’d ever seen; they threw away their shoes after they got out. We all moved together to help each other use the toilet in the adjacent holding area; it was cleaner, but totally exposed to the men in the room across the way and the gaze of the police.
Some of the women slipped their arms from the chain. We celebrated them and kept their deception a secret.
We’d been in custody for hours, without a temperature check. We mustered up our cash and collectively walked to the door to use the vending machine. We knew they wouldn’t let us, but they left us there with no justice. And we’d promised them no peace.
A small woman officer passed us. “What do you need?”
They told us we’d be fed when we arrived upstairs. But no word and no food yet.
“Okay. I’ll bring you water.”
“We don’t want water. We’re hungry.”
“Then you shouldn’t be in jail.”
“Do you know why I’m in jail? Because Breonna Taylor is dead, and we want justice.”
A male officer told us to leave the doorway. That it was his job to keep us safe. Funny because he wouldn’t wear a face mask.
A brawnier male officer arrived and screamed for us to get back. We stalled, laughed some more, then complied. He tried to close the large door that separates the outside men’s holding area from the toilet and our space. He failed to close it completely. One of us kicked it open, hard. He slammed it closed, in a rage, this time locking it. We cackled at his big, red face.
It was after midnight when they finally took my group — six loud-ass femmes — through processing. A 35-year-old Black freedom fighter, veteran, loc’d woman from Knoxville, Tennessee. A 46-year-old Black Virgo from Cincinnati who rocked all Black-owned gear. A 27-year-old Black tech analyst and part-time teacher from Indianapolis. Her white co-worker, a 34-year-old mother of three who taught jujitsu. And a 25-year-old white woman from Columbus, Ohio, whose fibromyalgia made handcuffs painful.
Next: being searched and scanned. “This will be uncomfortable,” a female officer said in between uncovered coughs. They brought in someone they’d pepper-sprayed, and we all got the dregs. She took two fingers and dragged them down my vulva. She moved me to a machine to be internally scanned without permission.
“Could you tell me what this [machine] is?” I asked.
“It’s the same thing as the airport.”
“It’s just ridiculous that y’all don’t tell us the things that are happening.”
“Well, that’s jail.”
“I’m in jail because y’all murdered Breonna Taylor.”
“Nope, that’s the LMPD. We are an entirely different entity.” We had been booked in another law enforcement facility.
“Oh, yeah, so no one on your force has ever killed a Black person?”
“Nope. We don’t kill people.”
And then a snide remark: “Well, maybe because you’re from New York you don’t understand, but our forces are different.”
Why wouldn’t I understand? Because we know that police killings happen everywhere. But I am an “outside agitator,” though I live in both Louisville and New York.
I was not loud, but I was manic and couldn’t stop arguing. A big white man appeared, “Just throw her in holding room 4 until she calms down.”
I took a breath. “Do whatever you need. I just asked for some water.”
“No, you’re not cooperating, you’re disrupting our process.”
When my crew finished, we were taken to a new holding room. The first was filled with our comrades, Linda Sarsour, reality TV stars Yandy Smith-Harris and Porsha Williams, the song leaders I’d met before, and a sibling-friend I’d met over the weekend here from Los Angeles.
We were given “make your own sandwiches” in plastic wrap: two pieces of white bread, two faux-cheese slices, two more slices of bread, too-sweet and crumbling cornbread smashed into the bread and turkey-bologna wrapped up on top. Mustard packets in between. Anxiety inhibited me from finishing the meal.
The best and worst part of this was meeting Jasmine Shed, a Black Louisville native, who arrived in the middle of the night straight from the hospital. We’d met her white boyfriend downstairs, where he told us even though they were both armed (within their right in the state), that only she was thrown to the ground. He said they’d busted her face.
Turns out the police fractured her eye socket and she required two stitches on the black-and-blue knot protruding from her forehead.
In my mania, I stayed up with her while others slept. I wanted to keep Black women as safe as I could in that room. I offered my sheet and blanket. I rubbed out a charley horse from another woman’s leg. I dabbed blood from her wound with questionably clean hands and a wet paper towel.
I wished Breonna Taylor wasn’t dead.
The first person to be released was a white woman who wasn’t with our group but had witnessed the brutality against Jasmine. When she ran to step in for Jasmine, the police fractured her wrist and arrested her. Although grateful for her stepping up, I couldn’t help feeling bitter when she was released before the rest of us, spending the least amount of time there.
A Freedom Sweet and Enraging
When the rest of us were freed, Jasmine was alone. I was terrified for her; we demanded they give her medical attention.
Concerned about a tired woman being left alone with a traumatic head injury, we asked who would watch her and get her medical attention. Our policewoman escort commented sarcastically that the guy sitting behind a desk could obviously see her through the windows.
Through pain and tears, Jasmine urged that we go get our freedom. The woman cop threatened to keep me here since I did not want Jasmine to “be alone.” She told me once the elevator doors are closed that “you will be back because you don’t know how to listen.” She wasn’t wrong. I don’t know how to listen to people I don’t trust.
We were good troublemakers until the last moment. On the way out, we went straight to Jasmine’s partner to tell him what was going on: the lack of medical care, the nasty attitudes of the cops taking the morning shift. “Fuck you” and “Shut the fuck up” had left the mouths of a white woman cop who had never seen us and a male officer who’d threatened to isolate me, respectively.
When we got outside, Until Freedom co-Founder Tamika Mallory and other protesters greeted us. We danced! They held out their arms extending waters, granola bars and deep hugs. A new friend offered me a ride home. Jasmine was held for another four hours.
Even with November court dates, our spirits remained unbroken as true as Jacob Blake’s survival in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Nevertheless, my rage multiplied. Because I spent more time in jail than the cops who shot Breonna Taylor. Because she is still dead, they killed her, and they don’t have the basic human decency or empathy to express guilt or remorse.
Law enforcement agents, whom one might assume are “against” murder, should be up in arms about a 26-year-old first responder, murdered in her sleep due to their mistake.
Reality Stars and BreonnaCon
Although there has been some controversy about Until Freedom’s presence and BreonnaCon in general, I found out that the POC-led New York organization first arrived in Louisville in May at the request of Lonita Baker, an attorney for Taylor’s family.
Tamika Mallory points out that even though Taylor was killed in mid-March, traction around her murder did not pick up for several months. The group held a memorial for Taylor on Memorial Day outside of the apartment where she was killed. The following day, they joined her family and local organizers for a City Hall rally.
“That was our first time being here. We committed to the family that we would be back. We left to support colleagues in Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered. Then we went home to talk about Breonna Taylor,” said Mallory. “We started to get some national attention the first weekend, and then we started to organize celebrities and leaders and pulling people together to really get them to focus on this city and Breonna.”
Actress Jada Pinkett Smith, and rappers Common and MC Lyte showed up at a major rally held in Frankfort, Kentucky, “and it really took off from there.”
Yandy Smith-Harris, one of the “Good Trouble 65” and Love & Hip Hop star, told Colorlines what it means for her to show up publicly for Breonna Taylor. The former foster mother began fighting for human rights and against inhumane prison conditions when her husband Mendecees Harris was incarcerated for four years.
A post shared by Yandy Smith-Harris (@yandysmith) on Aug 25, 2020 at 1:30pm PDT
“I realized what I was meant to use my platform for. It was to amplify the voices of the most marginalized communities, so not just Black people, [but] people that are poor, Indigenous people, people who are in the LBGTQ+ community, all of those communities need support,” said Smith-Harris, who has 6.5 million Instagram fans. “So when I get the call to show up; when I get the call to action, I’m there. Not as Yandy. but as a vessel to get the information disseminated.” But justice for Breonna — and changing the systems that caused her death — also will take people other than the famous and seasoned activists.
“There’s a special group of people who are protesters,” said Mallory. “But as time goes on, people return to their normal lives. We need an infusion of everyday people back into the movement.”
Growing the movement will also take sustained action on the ground.
“After we came back a third time, 87 of us were arrested in civil disobedience,” she continued. “What we realized is every time there would be a major moment, it’s hard to organize from cellphones and from different states. So we said we would take temporary residency [in Louisville] at least through August.”
The Until Freedom effort and BreonnaCon has been accused of exploiting Taylor’s memory or not honoring her “appropriately.” Some complained that the “Bre-B-Q” didn’t respect her name or that celebrities were just there for attention.
Yet, as someone who was there, I urge folks to remember that the overpoliced and marginally resourced deserve love, especially when one of their daughters dies.
What I witnessed during BreonnaCon was an opportunity for people from a broken community to dress up, step out, feel good, and yes, see someone from TV. To see a concert, eat at a free food truck, scream out to God by the water, and experience some damn joy.
I worry that we are too quick to police how other Black people are choosing to grieve because it’s deemed “ghetto,” which says more about those making disparaging remarks than the folks on the ground and from that community. Taylor’s family was heavily involved in the planning of the weekend. Who are we to tell them how to honor their daughter? What I know is that Until Freedom showed up.
Mallory summed it up: “Until we get proper reparations for the harm that has been caused to our people, we will never be able to heal what we see happening … We are not born violent. There is something that’s happening in our communities, and it’s called starvation. Poverty is violence. So when we come, you damn right we come with everybody. Because we all could have been Breonna Taylor and we all could have been the 3-year old baby [Trinity Randolph] that was shot and killed in this town. We’re done dying. We are here because you summoned us here by killing our sister.”
Ayaana “Ya Ya” Sabb is a storyteller from Harlem; raised on Toni Morrison and turkey bacon; pro-black and anti-pig. Currently, they are committed to healing personal and generational trauma and hope the act of “truth-telling” will contribute tremendously. They are also the spawn of Colorlines’ Senior Editorial Director Angela Bronner Helm.