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Reporter’s Notebook: Student journalists find a grieving city

When the Daily Egyptian decided to send staff to Louisville to cover the protests, we prepared to walk into a war zone. Instead, we found ourselves welcomed into a grieving community, where people were attempting to cope with the loss of Breonna Taylor.

Taylor was killed March 13. when three Louisville Metro
Police entered her apartment with a battering ram while executing a no-knock
raid in plain clothes. In the confusion of police entering the residence,
Taylor’s boyfriend shot at police and officers responded by firing 30 bullets,
killing Taylor. A grand jury decided the officers shouldn’t face criminal
charges in her death.

See more: Correcting misinformation about Breonna Taylor

A protester reacts after the Louisville Police Department fired flashbangs into the crowd of protesters on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2020. (Photo by Isabel Miller )

We were discouraged from going to Louisville
by three journalism professors at our school, Southern Illinois University at
Carbondale. The three, all longtime journalists, told us it would be an
unnecessary risk, that we would be walking into a dangerous situation, and we
would not find anything the wires hadn’t already published.

During our discussions on whether or not we should go and how we should cover it, we realized the wires were mostly focused on event and protest coverage. The four of us, Jared Treece, Isabel Miller and the two of us did not want to sit this out. The director of our School, documentarian Jan Thompson, agreed and gave us the go-ahead, telling one of the nervous professors that this story was like the Vietnam protests of his generation.

One of the stories we were hoping to tell was
of the religious community’s involvement during the protests. Before arriving,
we reached out to a Catholic nun, Sister Beth Murphy in central Illinois to connect
us to religious leaders or activists in Louisville.

Murphy immediately sent names, emails, phone
numbers and any information about who could be helpful. Within 24 hours,
multiple Catholic sisters had put us in contact with organizers and activists in
Louisville. We connected with three of our sources. Sister Murphy told us we
were in the prayers of dozens of Catholic sisters. Later, Brother Tim Duncan,
whom we met during the nightly protests, said he is 63-years-old and couldn’t
think of a more important time to be a journalist than right now and encouraged
us in our work.

One of the first people we called was Sister
Judy Morris, who directed us to Felicia Garr who declared herself our “Black
mom in Louisville.”

Garr, a 52-year-old Black woman and Louisville
native, gave us our first interview, let us know the lay of the land, directed
us to all the protests and passed along any information she could. 

Garr has been involved with organizing and
participating in protests since the details of the Breonna Taylor case first
came out. She has a daughter the same age as Taylor.

When we got to our hotel, she called us again,
gave us a safety speech with tips on how to conduct ourselves and directed us
to “not eat the food because Coronavirus is real.” Once we had ourselves
situated we hit the streets to walk towards Jefferson Square Park, ground zero
for the Black Lives Matter Breonna Taylor protests in downtown Louisville.

We crossed into cordoned off downtown via
Liberty Street and 2nd Avenue through the large concrete dividers placed to
prevent vehicle traffic from entering the area in preparation of protests. The
streets were devoid of the life and vibrance normally associated with a
bustling downtown as we passed boarded up buildings up until we reached
Jefferson Square Park or as the protesters dubbed it “Injustice Square.”

The small square – which is situated in the
heart of Louisville’s legal buildings, with the county grand jury building to
the south, the county court to the north, City Hall on the northwest corner,
and the county jail on the southwest corner – held all the life and energy of
the deserted downtown. There was a beautiful memorial in the center of the
square in honor of Breonna Taylor surrounded by a community garden, free therapists,
lawyers, medics offering medical care, and tents providing everyone with free
food, water and masks.

A few hundred protesters milled around in the
square, laughing, eating and dancing. There were young people, children, older
people, people in wheelchairs or with walkers and individuals of every
color.  

Our team – made up of three white journalists
and one Latino journalist – felt completely safe and comfortable with the
protesters. Most people were polite and happy to speak with us for interviews,
which was a nice change from the treatment we normally receive from our own
university’s administration.

We expected to be looked down upon for being
student journalists, but whenever we introduced ourselves as “student
journalists with the Daily Egyptian” people brightened, supported us and were
put at ease. We even met some former Salukis and Southern Illinoisans.

Even the local journalists took us in and
offered advice, assistance and community. (Other student journalists also were
covering the protests).

One of the members of our group, Nick, the
co-author, was a prior professionally employed photojournalist who had made
connections through the various social media networks. He met one of the
Louisville Courier-Journal photographers at the square who helped provide
information. From sending texts to where the protesters were meeting, to giving
advice on what to do if law enforcement agencies cleared “Injustice Square”
after curfew, Max Gersh was an excellent connection to have in Louisville.

Another photographer, Michael M. Santiago, who works for Getty Images, gave our group Sudecon wipes, which are used to decontaminate the face and eyes after getting sprayed with irritants such as mace or tear gas. Fortunately we didn’t have to use them.

Santiago warned us and told us to be wary, but
said protesters and the press had an understanding and looked after one
another.

The protesters protected us, tried to feed us,
give us water and even offered us rides to the “safe place,” First Unitarian
Church. They felt protected by the media’s presence.

Whenever a tense moment arose between
protesters and the police, they would call for the press to be front and center
and ask us to record what was happening.

When the peaceful march through the East
Market Neighborhood was met by a police blockade at East Market and South
Hancock St. an organizer with a bullhorn shouted “all the press to the front!
Show the world what they do to a peaceful protest!”

While the protests and marches during the day
were peaceful on both sides, we were told that at night, all bets were off.

Curfew was terrifying. Police and law
enforcement officers on roof tops would loudly announce if you did not
disperse, you would be arrested.

The reporters and protesters around us wore
all kinds of protective gear, from shin guards, bullet proof vests, goggles and
helmets, to rifles and handguns. No one had any illusions of absolute safety
and everyone was tense, knowing that at any moment, things could get rough.
When people weren’t chanting, an eerie silence would fall over the square
broken only by the helicopters buzzing overhead.

On Friday night, we walked around downtown
after curfew and interviewed people at First Unitarian. Two young girls, one of
whom we learned was 15 and another who looked as though she couldn’t have been
older than 13, joined our group crying and screaming for help.

They got behind us and one grabbed onto our
shirts and hid. A police car with its lights on jerked across the road. As it
came speeding up behind the girls, they threw their hands up. The officer
shouted at the girls through the window causing them to cry more.

They had been separated from their cousin and
were lost trying to find the church to seek sanctuary and get off of the
streets during the curfew.

Once the police realized we were press and saw
that we had taken our phones out to record, they calmed down and let the girls
stay with us. One girl begged for a ride because she sprained her ankle, but
the officers refused and drove off. We sent two of our members ahead to the
church to get a medic and walked with the injured girl until an older woman
pulled over and offered to drive her.

During a peaceful afternoon Friday, officers
performed kettling maneuvers and boxed protesters in on all sides, resulting in
a tense standoff where the officers set off flashbangs.

A protester collapsed to the ground when this
happened and one of our photographers, Isabel Miller, took photos. Another
protester ran up, grabbed her and attempted to force her to delete her
photographs.

She was able to convince him to let go of her by deleting one of the several
photos she took of the moment. She later posted one of these takes to Instagram
to emphasize what occurred during the police-protester clash.

Max Gersh, the Courier-Journal photographer,
said this situation was the only time during his coverage of the protests he put
on the helmet he carries with him.

We are in no way saying this is the experience
of all journalists covering Louisville. Members of the press have been arrested
and injured in the city on multiple occasions. We were only there two nights
and there have been points during the 124 days of demonstrating where
Louisville has been dangerous. Two officers were shot just last week in the
wake of the grand jury’s decision.

But this was our experience; we are grateful
to the community that accepted us and allowed us to tell their stories.

Nicolas Galindo is a current M.S. student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and photojournalism mentor for The Daily Egyptian. He was formerly the chief photographer of The News-Star in Monroe, Louisiana, and can be found on Twitter @ngalindophoto.

Kallie Cox is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and can be reached at Kcox@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @KallieECox.