By Carlos Barria and Bryan Woolston
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) – A second night of anti-racism protests got off to a tense but mostly peaceful start in Louisville, Kentucky, on Thursday, a day after a grand jury decided not to bring homicide charges against police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.
As a curfew went into effect after dark and police declared an unlawful assembly, a group of 200 to 300 protesters who had marched through the city for hours retreated to the grounds of the First Unitarian Church, set aside by organizers as a sanctuary near the Ohio River waterfront.
Some of the marchers had smashed windows of several local businesses, and even a hospital, along the way, according to a Reuters journalist. But the scene outside the church contrasted sharply with violence that flared the previous night in Kentucky’s largest city.
“At least 24 people were arrested throughout the evening for charges including unlawful assembly, failure to disperse and riot in the first degree,” the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) said in a statement.
Angry demonstrations and sporadic clashes between police and protesters in the hours following the grand jury announcement turned bloody late on Wednesday when two police officers on crowd-control duty were shot and wounded.
A suspect was arrested a short time later, and Louisville police chief Robert Schroeder said on Thursday that the two wounded officers were expected to recover.
Schroeder, his department reinforced by state police and Kentucky National Guard troops, said he expected protests to continue for days, and a nighttime curfew was extended through the weekend.
“For all of us it is a very tense and emotional time,” Schroeder told a news conference on Thursday. Police said 127 arrests were made in the first night of protests, most for curfew violations or disobeying orders to disperse.
The protests began on Wednesday after the grand jury decided that none of the three white officers who collectively fired 32 gunshots as they stormed Breonna Taylor’s apartment would be charged with causing her death.
One of the officers was indicted on charges of endangering Taylor’s neighbors with several stray bullets he fired into an adjacent apartment during the March 13 raid, carried out as part of a narcotics investigation. The other two officers were not charged at all.
Taylor, 26, a Black emergency medical technician and aspiring nurse, was struck by six bullets moments after she and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were roused from bed in the commotion of the raid. Walker exchanged gunfire with the police.
GRAND JURY RULING DECRIED
The grand jury decision, announced by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, was immediately denounced by civil rights advocates as the latest miscarriage of justice in a U.S. law enforcement system corrupted by racial inequity.
Cameron said there was “no conclusive” evidence that any of the 10 shots fired by former Detective Brett Hankison, the officer indicted on wanton endangerment charges, ever struck Taylor.
His two colleagues, Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly and Detective Myles Cosgrove, used justified force under Kentucky law because they were returning fire – a combined total of 22 rounds – after Walker shot at them first, wounding Mattingly in the thigh, according to Cameron.
Walker has said he fired a warning shot because he feared a criminal intrusion and did not hear police identify themselves.
Wednesday’s protests turned violent around nightfall as police in riot gear ordered demonstrators to clear the streets after several fires were set in trash cans near a downtown park and outside the city’s Hall of Justice.
A Reuters journalist heard several gunshots ring out, and members of the crowd scurried for cover. An arrest report said the accused gunman, Larynzo Johnson, 26, was seen on video opening fire on police with a handgun.
Johnson was charged with two counts of assault in the first degree and 14 counts of wanton endangerment. His first court hearing was set for Friday.
Police said several businesses were vandalized or looted during the night, but the demonstrations were otherwise mostly peaceful.
Protests also flared on Wednesday in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, Oakland, Philadelphia, Denver and Portland, Oregon, Seattle and Buffalo, New York.
Taylor’s slaying initially drew little national attention. But it was thrust into prominence after George Floyd, a Black man arrested for a non-violent offense in Minneapolis, died under the knee of a white police officer on May 25, igniting a summer of protests against racial injustice and excessive police force.
Hankison was fired in June, while Mattingly and Cosgrove were reassigned to administrative duties.
Louisville has agreed to pay $12 million to Taylor’s family to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.
In addition to largely orderly activists, the demonstrations have drawn a volatile mix of armed, right-wing militias and anarchists.
On Thursday evening in Louisville, a throng of protesters was seen by a Reuters journalist confronting a group of about 15 armed individuals dressed in military-style gear who identified themselves as members of the Oath Keepers, an organization associated with the militia movement.
The standoff was diffused when protest organizer persuaded demonstrators in their group to leave peacefully. Two of the Oath Keepers, one of them a Black man, told WAVE-TV they were in town as volunteers to protect local property.
(Reporting by Carlos Barria and Bryan Woolston in Louisville; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely, Nathan Layne, Maria Caspani and Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Steve Gorman; ;Editing by Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis)