LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Before the shops downtown closed due to the coronavirus, then remained shuttered amid protests decrying police brutality, Tawana Bain's restaurant exuded an air of bustling electricity. The sounds of Louisville college football and basketball games boomed from big screen TVs, and customers gathered in large groups to catch up over bowls of bourbon shrimp and grits.
Now, plywood covers the windows, shrouding the eatery, Encore on 4th, in shadows throughout the day. But prior to 9 p.m. EDT, when the city's recently introduced curfew kicks in, some of the old, familiar energy returns as Encore serves as a safe space for protesters who have marched through the streets of Louisville for more than 120 days demanding justice for Breonna Taylor.
Some protesters charge their phones here, and others grab a swig of water. Some nap on the floor, resting a bit before returning to the streets to chant for Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman shot to death by police inside her apartment here six months ago. For Bain, transforming her restaurant into a sanctuary felt like a small way to offer balm to the many people like herself suffering in the city.
"What's happened here in Louisville," she says, "is yet another slap in the face of Black Kentuckians, Black Americans, everyone who cares about justice.
"It's unfortunate, but, sadly, it has come to be expected, " she said, referring to a grand jury's recent decision not to indict officers for the death of Taylor, who was shot multiple times during a "no knock" search of her apartment.
Bain, and many other Black residents of this city nestled along the Ohio River, have a certain sad familiarity with feelings of marginalization and otherness - of watching in anguish as a system that vows to uphold justice so often falls short of its promise, harking back to images of a racist past that for some is still very present.
Prior to the Civil War, Louisville, at the dividing line between North and South, served as a stop for enslaved Black people who escaped the Deep South along what was referred to as the underground railroad.
Later, during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, many Black people continued to migrate through town on their way to larger cities, such as Cleveland and Chicago. Others stopped in Louisville and never left.
In the 1940s, boxing and human rights legend Muhammad Ali grew up in a tiny house on the west side of Louisville, a neighborhood that was, and remains, the predominantly Black part of town. Even now, the city's downtown stands as a de facto dividing line - most Black people live to the west, and most white people live to the east.
"There is a known divide in this city," said longtime resident Felicia Garr, who works in construction. "Go west and the economic development ends. It's all churches, Dollar Generals and liquor stores. Head east and it's all coffee shops and fancy, healthy grocery stores."