Chea Woolfolk searched the crowd until she found the face of the woman she’d come to regard as a second mother. And then she watched the tears roll down Rose Henderson’s cheeks.
Looking into Mama Rose’s eyes, Woolfolk could see that her heart was breaking.
This formidable woman looked off-balance, like she might topple. Mama Rose has been the matriarch of “Injustice Square,” a block downtown that protesters, many of them Black women, have occupied for 120 days.
They have been tear gassed by police together, arrested, threatened online, shot with pepper bullets. They lost jobs and friends and homes to show up every day because they had hope: that there would be justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old emergency medical technician shot and killed by police when they burst into her house in the middle of the night in a botched raid. And that in that justice America would signal that their lives and the lives of other Black women have value.
Now they were standing in the square, listening together as the Commonwealth of Kentucky announced no charges would be filed against officers for Taylor’s death.
“That broke me,” Mama Rose cried, and that agony rippled across the country, as protesters took to the streets for days to say Taylor’s name, and to display rage, despair, powerlessness, exhaustion.
“It was like sitting at a funeral, it was a collective feeling like someone died, and everyone was grieving,” said Woolfolk, a 45-year-old radio personality who documented the movement from its early days.
She didn’t expect then that she would be back every day for four months, and that she would come to refer to the protesters as “us.” That she’d be enveloped in what would become a family.
“It was probably one of the heaviest moments I’ve ever felt in my life,” Woolfolk said.
Beyond Louisville, the decision reverberated widely across Black America. For months, Taylor’s name has been a rallying cry for activists who hoped Black women and their deaths at the hands of police would finally receive the same attention given to cases concerning the extrajudicial killing of Black men.
And to some degree, that has happened. Famed musicians, actors, athletes and politicians said her name and called for the arrests of the officers involved in the raid that killed Taylor.
Then, on Wednesday, the grand jury decision came down to charge one officer with three counts of wanton endangerment for firing wildly into the apartment building. But the charges were for endangering Taylor’s neighbors. No one was charged in connection with Taylor’s death.
There followed the kind of coast-to-coast protests not seen since the start of summer, along with a rising sense of doom and despair. On social media, some noted that the decision came 65 years to the day after an all-white jury acquitted white men of murdering Emmett Till, a Black teen from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after he was said to have whistled at a white woman.
“I am completely mortified that our criminal justice system has failed Breonna Taylor, her family and friends, and frankly, it has failed our country,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-creator of Black Lives Matter and executive director of its network of BLM chapters.
The grand jury’s decision was “just another reminder of how the system doesn’t value Black life,” said Zellie Thomas, a BLM organizer in Paterson, New Jersey, who led a vigil Thursday night, in the aftermath of the announcement.
“Breonna got featured on covers of magazines, she got TV specials, she got streets named after her,” he said. “But she didn’t get justice. All these things seem nice, but it’s nothing compared to justice.”
For the Rev. Starsky Wilson, the grand jury’s failure to indict in Taylor’s death was all too familiar. He was a co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, which recommended wide-ranging policy reforms after the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The announcement that the officer who killed Brown would not be indicted sparked an uprising by residents in the majority Black city.
Wilson, incoming president of the Children’s Defense Fund, said the system “was never designed to give people the kind of care or sense of accountability that people are looking for.”
The Taylor case “is a watershed moment for the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Alvin Tillery Jr., an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. “The activists are going to have to supplement their disruptive protests with political organizing and voting if they are going to change the environment in Kentucky.”
Some Louisville activists say their goals remain unchanged. They want the immediate firing and revocation of the pensions of the officers involved in the raid that killed Taylor (one of whom has been fired already), defunding or divesting from the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department and creating independent civilian oversight of police.
But to the stalwarts in the Louisville square, Taylor is much more than a rallying point. Even if they never never met her, they feel that they’ve know her deeply, that she could have been any one of them.
“It’s reiterating to me that my life does not matter, that I’m unsafe,” said Millicent Cahoon, a therapist who started a counseling network for the movement.
For months, protesters came to her describing panic attacks and nightmares; they couldn’t eat or sleep. Some don’t know how to process their experience and what it means about their city and their world. “How do I tell my kids?” they wonder.
Now, she worries fatigue and hopelessness could settle in. Her group is offering free therapy to any protester who is struggling.
“You get tired of fighting after a while,” she said. “We want to make sure hope stays alive, so we can keep going.”
The night the decision was announced, Rose Henderson was tending to the memorial to Taylor: a portrait that stands nearly 8 feet tall, circled by signs, painting and flowers that others have left in tribute. This is her space. She orders her fellow protesters to be peaceful and to take care of themselves so they can keep up the fight: Pull up your mask, she tells them, drink more water.
But around her, people were angry. Some set small fires, and threw plastic bottles at police. About a mile away, two police officers were shot and wounded, and that, too, broke Henderson’s heart. She felt like she’d lost control.
Lines of officers in riot gear descended on the square, and a loudspeaker ordered everyone to disperse, threatening to use chemical agents if they stayed.
So she left.
She and Woolfolk both cried themselves to sleep, and cried again when they awakened the next morning.
Though Henderson had barely missed a day at the square, Woolfolk worried she might not come back right away; it had been a hard day.
But then Mama Rose walked in, arranged the memorial just right, scolded people to pull up their masks and drink more water.
Woolfolk asked her if she was OK.
“No, I’m not,” Henderson said, “but I’m going to keep going.”
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