Four days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a little more than an hour before a police cruiser would be set ablaze near the spot where she had been standing in downtown Atlanta, police chief Erika Shields stuck out in her crisp white uniform amid the sea of protesters.
Like other parts of the country, Atlanta was boiling on May 29, 2020. In the days since video went viral of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck on the street outside Cup Foods, passionate protests had become fiery riots in Minneapolis. Early that morning, gas mask-wearing state troopers had handcuffed a Black CNN reporter and his crew while they were live on air. The night before, in Louisville, an unknown assailant shot seven people during a protest downtown calling for justice in the killing of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman shot and killed by LMPD officers during a botched raid of her south Louisville apartment in March. President Donald Trump was threatening to use the federal government’s might to quell the spreading unrest. On that Friday night, the downtowns of many American cities — eerily empty for more than two months due to the pandemic — were suddenly full of protesters marching against police violence, the contagious energy of the movement radiating from the heartland to the coasts. The protesters in Atlanta and Louisville — sparked by the killings of Floyd and Taylor — were part of what would come to be regarded as potentially the largest such movement in U.S. history.
On the relatively quiet sidelines of the Atlanta protest on May 29, Shields, who became APD’s chief in late 2016, spoke to a reporter from the local CBS affiliate, calling Chauvin —who had knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes — “a really cold son of a bitch,” adding that the value of Black lives had been diminished in this country. Standing outside the CNN Center, she told the reporter that the Atlanta protest was “as orderly as something like this is going to be” and that she didn’t want it to turn into an “arrest fest,” as that would just make things worse. Soon, Shields’ presence on the ground attracted the attention of protesters, who jostled against one another to pepper her with questions and frustrations.
Why does it take so long for people to get arrested when they [kill] an unarmed Black man?
“I’m the first one to say it was bullshit. [Chauvin] shoulda gone to jail that day.”
Tonya Conn stands in the spitting snow atop Cow Mountain, scoffing at Sheena Maynard in her lace-up boots with decorative gold metal studs on the toes.
“Well, you said to wear boots!” Maynard says.
“I didn’t say to come dressed to go out and party,” Conn replies, cozy in her winter-weight camo overalls, but with eyes carefully outlined and lashes mascaraed. “I never told you to wear beautiful stuff.”
Maynard and Conn huddle with a half-dozen others in a thicket of slender gray trees. When they climbed the embankment, they found the stinking corpse at their feet. In silhouette, if you ignore certain lurid details, the white horse looks like it’s trotting away. But most of its abdomen is gone, along with much of its viscera. Its pink-tinted ribs lie exposed like giant piano keys. Just behind the horse’s front shoulder: a bullet hole.
“I guess here’s our opportunity to get a bullet,” says Megan Goble, who grew up at the foot of this mountain.
Maynard looks at Conn. “If I put some gloves on and dig a bullet out of that horse, is that what you need?”
“You wouldn’t,” Conn says.
Everybody knows Maynard is a germophobe. Everybody knows she always carries hand sanitizer and a change of clothes and shoes. Everyone knows she won’t use a public restroom. Everybody knows the then-34-year-old wouldn’t let a runny-nose toddler touch her.
Maynard persists. “If I can get a bullet out of this horse, is that what you need to find who killed these horses?”
“Yeah,” Conn replies. “That’s what we’re up here looking for.”
“A September to remember is what I would say about moving the Derby date. I think most people will come. It’s so close to the fabric of who we are in Louisville that I think the city will celebrate. It could well be the perfect release. I have high confidence Churchill will be able to re-create an event with high standards like they always do — and people will come. You’re not the oldest continuously run sporting event in America without being able to be resilient.”
— Karl Schmitt, president and CEO, Louisville Sports Commission, former communications executive at Churchill Downs
“As a jockey, we all are in pursuit of the Kentucky Derby because it’s the dream. Just the fact that you get there is quite the achievement, and you want to get back again. You want to do it right so you can go back again.
“It will be interesting to see what 2020 turns out to be in the racing industry. I’m on the bench right now, recovering from an injury. I’m a spectator watching like everybody else. I guess it’s not a bad time to be on the bench.”
— Jon Court, jockey
This piece, originally titled “The Fashion Forecast,” was scheduled to run in our 2020 Derby Issue, to prepare us for (increasingly expected) unexpected weather on the first Saturday in May. But we never published that issue as planned because, two weeks after the shoot, something else unexpected upended our lives.
On Feb. 28, 2020, a team and I entered the Highlands photo studio of Steve Squall, rolling racks laden with garment bags stuffed with spring fashions, hat boxes filled with feathery fascinators, and a beat-up stylist’s kit containing the usual clamps, pins and lint rollers — but, also, more notably, a big pump bottle of Purell.
At the time — about two weeks before the pandemic shut down our city and much of the world — we were teetering on the brink of an altered reality. We just didn’t exactly know it yet. Most of us still believed we would be going to the Derby, not realizing the pandemic would postpone the race to the first Saturday in September, with no fans in the ghostly stands.
Close your eyes.
It’s the 1890s and Louisville is on top of the world. And here you are: a baron in a baron’s mansion that stands in a sea of barons’ mansions. Yours is a world of stained-glass windows, grand staircases and parlors large enough to host ensembles of the finest musicians. These are the kinds of homes you’d stick a pineapple statue in front of.
Now open your eyes. There’s a bottle of piss on the balcony. There’s a syringe in front of the fireplace. This is no American dream.
The Bravo network just released the trailer for season 18 of Top Chef, which premieres April 1 and will feature Louisville chef Edward Lee, a former contestant, on a rotating panel of judges. In this piece, published in December, Chris Kenning talked to Lee about Top Chef, frozen pizza, belting out songs while shirtless in a karaoke bar and so much more, including the struggle to survive as a restauranteur during the pandemic. Lee said, “It’s hard for me to look at any kind of expansion when I’m literally in the middle of closing restaurants and I’m in the middle of trying to help other people not to close their restaurants. And I’m seeing some having their careers basically ruined. That’s been a psychological roller coaster.”
The pandemic has affected every aspect of life in Louisville: every industry, every neighborhood, every family. So, from March through June, we interviewed folks from all walks of life about their experience of the “new normal” — respiratory therapists, hair stylists, epidemiologists, factory workers, teachers, recovering addicts, small business owners, politicians, survivors and the bereaved. The result is a four-month time capsule of life during COVID containing a wide range of perspectives, from the hospital chaplain enduring the unthinkable to the high school cafeteria manager keeping kids fed.
As his parents pulled into the driveway, Jack Harlow had a question from the backseat. He was 12. “Mom,” he said, “how do I become the best rapper in the world?” His mother had just read the book Outliers, which popularized the theory that the secret to greatness is 10,000 hours of practice. With Jack’s 18th birthday as a deadline, she did the math. For the next six years, her son would need to work on rapping for four or five hours every day.
“OK,” Jack said.
You think it’s Pinkerton up there onstage, with his new Japanese bride, the lover he’ll soon forsake. But it’s not. That’s Robert Curran, the dancer, performing Madame Butterfly in November 2011, the last season of his career. You think he’s gazing at Cio-Cio San, the character, but he’s not; he’s gazing at his dance partner, Rachel Rawlins, a woman he has danced with many times in his 16 years with the Australian Ballet, 10 as a principal artist. Yes, of course, he knows the story, the betrayal coming up, poor Cio-Cio San’s fate. He will bring all of that to life — has trained, monastically, to do so. But right now, with this pas de deux, when the two characters are about to sleep together for the first time, he has the chance to push himself into that indeterminate thing that makes true art happen: risk. For that he’ll need emotion. Real emotion. Not just Pinkerton’s, but his own. So he’s thinking about Rawlins: What can he do to surprise Rawlins? How can he make Rawlins — not Cio-Cio San, the character, but Rawlins — feel something?
A black rolling cart hauls a stack of bubble-gum-pink folders to the third floor of the Hall of Justice downtown, landing in the lap of eviction court. Below, on the first floor, the 8:45 a.m. push of people files in through metal detectors, a march of mostly reluctant faces. Deputies’ wands drift over limbs extended like starfish, beeping at pocket change, ankle monitors, belt buckles and hip replacements.
Those here for eviction court arrive on the third floor and squint at the docket taped outside the doors, checking for their name, then typically retreating to gray metal benches with holes the size of pencils. There’s a seriousness of place here: stocky granite pillars, police officers, briefcases and, beyond a corridor of courtrooms, glimpses of daylight through a set of windows.
The only abortion clinic in Louisville opens at 7:30 in the morning, and that’s when each woman, 20 or more on a busy day, is scheduled to arrive for her appointment. Five days a week for the past 17 years, Donna Durning has shown up about an hour before that. “Maybe one of the girls will come early, and I’ll have a chance to talk to her before everybody else gets here,” she says. “It’s the last chance.”
On this February Saturday, she parks her white Mercedes Benz on the street in front of E.M.W. Women’s Surgical Center, a one-story brownish-brick building on the south side of Market, between Second and First, across from a Subway and a business called Action Loan. She’d like to get a bumper sticker made for her car that asks, “Have you hugged your choice today?”