LOUISVILLE, KY — A couple of minutes before I arrived on Fourth Street in Louisville to see the damage caused by the weekend riots, Dave Christopher, the founder of a nonprofit called AMPED, returned my call. “DO NOT,” he said, his voice rising with passion, “focus on the riots.”
“We need to stay focused on the cause,” he said. “There are 1,200 police officers in Louisville and they have policed the city two different ways. It’s still happening right now.”
This is a moment of change, he said. He told me about economic inequality and systemic racism. His nonprofit serves1,700 young people and their parents with music education and workforce training. Despite that number, he said, “I don’t have economic power. Corporate leaders ask for my voice, but they do nothing with what I say.”
And then he shared his plans to seek an investment of $1 million from those corporate leaders to start a company to provide data services and employment in the city’s redlined west side.
A Reporting Trip Through The Mid-South
There is talk of insurrection on the streets of America. That’s not what I’ve seen and reported in three cities in the past six days — Staunton, Va., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky, — and twice as many towns in four states, including Indiana.
I saw severe economic strain – one innkeeper was selling scrap metal – as the country begins to reopen. I saw peaceful protests. I saw damage done by mobs in Louisville, reeling from one of the worst instances of police brutality, the death of Breonna Taylor. (The police chief was fired Monday).
I heard accounts of instigators and bad actors in the protests, and I reported on mistakes by citizen gun owners and law enforcement officers. I also spoke to leaders determined to respond to systemic racism and the pattern of police brutality in ways that move their communities forward, even as they doubt the likelihood of progress.
Visit To Corbin, Ky
In Corbin, The Wrigley Tap Room & Eatery, a restaurant run by a queer married couple, reopens today. Kristin Smith returned to Corbin after grad school in California to run her grandfather’s farm and then to open Wrigley’s, which has become a destination for Kentucky bourbon and food from the region.
Smith has been open about her sexuality and her efforts to hire people of color to work in her restaurant, even though she wasn’t sure those messages would play well in Corbin, though the town is changing. “It is hard to stand up, when you know it could mean your business,” she said.
She has been riding out the coronavirus with government help – an incredibly meaningful vote of confidence, she said — and carryout orders. Watching the first table at a pre-opening dinner, she said, “This feels really good.”
Last year, Corbin, which is led by a Republican woman mayor, officially recognized the events of 100 years ago, when 200 black railroad workers were forced out of town at gunpoint. White soldiers were returning home from World War I and wanted their jobs.
In Staunton/Waynesboro, a young entrepreneur, Jahleel Pettiford, runs a clothing line called Novel. He went to a courthouse protest Saturday. “The goal … is to give people a sense of hope and positivity, which is hard for people to feel in times like these, ya know?” he wrote me in an Instagram message.
In Chattanooga, police hovered around the edges of the protests I saw, but on a bright Sunday, most people were going about their business despite the protests and the virus, shopping and crowding two local restaurants that I saw. A local news story said more tension developed as the week went on.
In Louisville, I visited Fourth Street, where perhaps a dozen storefronts, including the storied Seelbach Hotel, were boarded up. I sat on the concrete steps of the hotel with Surekha Kulkarni, the founder of a social enterprise and craft shop for refugee women, Beaded Treasures. The window was broken Saturday night.
A small construction crew hammered another set of boards down the street, the blows sounding like gun shots to us. “They just broke, broke, broke,” said Kulkarni, raising her arm to evoke the image of someone fleeing and smashing. “I know in my heart it was not local people who did this. There is an outside element you can pay to create mischief.”
None of the jewelry from Beaded Treasures was taken, but a few blocks away, the Convention and Visitors Bureau center was looted of everything, including – this is the kind of detail that makes you feel like you’re living in a dystopian novel — a statue of Colonel Sanders.
Several people in Louisville reported seeing people they believed to be white nationalists, some wearing gas masks and hoods, the skin on their arms betraying them. I wondered, based on my reporting last year that connected international arms dealers to America’s gun lobby and white nationalists, who had done the hiring. America’s original sin is slavery. There are many people who exploit the injustice for their own ends.
A local tourism leader, Penny Peavler, showed me a map of one of the intersections where the protestors gathered, Second and Main. It was the site of one of the worst slave auctions in the United States: the Garrison Auction. “We have not been able to heal this wound for 200 years,” she said.
Christopher told me about a black small businessman shot by law enforcement early Monday morning, possibly after first firing at police who were called to control a crowd. David McAtee’s body lay on the street for 12 hours, a grievous insult to humanity.
Christopher – who has a police record for selling drugs in Gary, Indiana — founded AMPED after running several small businesses, including a cleaning company and an IT firm. He could never get a loan, he said, even at the bank where he parked his personal money.
Ideas For A More Just City
He has a four-part prescription for his city.
• Fire, and rehire, every police officer after vetting them for character
• Refocus on drawing a large business that could generate jobs and provide resources, like groceries, to the West Side. Negotiations to bring Wal Mart in failed, Peavler told me.
• Christopher his asking corporate leaders for a $750,000 – $1 million investment to help him start a company that employ people who have graduated from his programs to provide data services to big companies. Louisville’s large employers include UPS, Yum! Brands, and Brown and Forman.
• Address racism and double standards in the schools, with, for instance, implicit bias training.
The only way forward is to change. And the way change happens is first, when people engage with other people, and second, when the engagement turns to building better and fairer systems.
Kulkarni told me that: Sitting outside in the shadow of the boarded-up buildings, on a street that would normally be pulsing with activity, she told me how she’d changed, herself. She and her husband immigrated to Louisville to get better schooling for their son, who is severely dyslexic. “If I’d stayed in India, I’d be good at mahjong” and throwing parties, she said. Later, she added that moving to Louisville was an empowering and life-changing experience for her.
She stumbled into her work at Beaded Treasures, which is now affiliated with Volunteers of America, because she started making jewelry and selling it. Working as a volunteer – she still takes no pay – she started teaching refugee women how to make the jewelry, too.
Now, she has seen it happen over and over again: The women, as they learn to sell and engage in the community, adopt a greater sense of agency. And the people around them change, too. “You meet us, you talk to us, you like us,” she said.
And Christopher told me the second part. After you engage with people who are different than you are, you have a better chance of creating systems strong enough to serve everyone. “We need to focus on making sure 10 years from now this isn’t another case of amnesia by white people,” he said.