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Phone videos and livestreams have been at the forefront of Louisville protests for racial justice and equality in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death.

Louisville Courier Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It all started with a livestream.

Just before 7 p.m. May 28, Louisville entertainer Montez Jones was in a car on the way to an impromptu protest in the name of Breonna Taylor. He opened his Facebook page and hit “go live.”

Within hours, hundreds of people had joined him downtown – the crowd growing as word spread through texts, calls and shares of his livestream.

Fast-forward three months, and the protests have continued, with people young and old calling for justice for the unarmed Black woman killed in March at the hands of police.

Livestreams of events as they unfold in real time have remained a constant, capturing pivotal moments and transporting the city’s demonstrations anywhere someone has a phone. Virtual audiences range in size from a thousand to more than 100,000 viewers.

The people behind the most consistent streams are both media veterans and self-proclaimed activists who didn’t know each other before the protests began. But they’ve found commonality in their compassion for the Breonna Taylor movement and their desire to present an unedited view of it, often blurring the lines between reporter and protester as they elevate the voices of the city’s Black residents.

With a degree of public mistrust in law enforcement and mainstream media, including cable TV and print news, livestreaming has created a new outlet for viewers who want to stay informed while holding journalists and police accountable for what they report.

It’s also created an opportunity for law enforcement to show its response to protests in real time. In recent weeks, the Louisville Metro Police Department has begun livestreaming on its Facebook page as a way to provide “an appropriate diversity of views,” a spokeswoman said.

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As Taylor’s case carries on, local livestreamers say it’s more important than ever to keep a camera on the movement – broadcasting the good, the bad and everything in between. 

“It’s just the truth being told. There’s no way you can lie about it,” said Antonio “T-Made” Taylor, who owns WAVE FM, an independent media outlet. “… People can have an interpretation of: Did they think that act was right or wrong. It was the officer’s fault, it was the protester’s fault.

“(But) livestreams show the truth of what’s actually happening at the protest. And it cannot be disputed.”

Becoming a livestreamer

The livestreamers’ stories generally start the same.

In the early nights of the protests, each found themselves among the fray – either by choice or accident – and instinctively opened their Facebook apps to document what they were seeing.

For Jason Downey, a cyber security employee, it was May 29 during a bike ride downtown.

“I turned the corner, there’s a line of police in riot gear … and there’s a line of protesters that are sitting on their butts,” he said. “Then all of a sudden – boom. Tear gas. Pepper spray. Bullets. So I pull out my phone, I hit the live button, the first time I had ever done a live was right then.”

Jared Wright, a music promoter known as “Riotheart,” was out that night too. He was volunteering as a street medic, armed with bottles of milk to cool irritation from tear gas and a basic knowledge of how to treat small wounds.

“It was mind-boggling that it was happening in the downtown of the city that I call home,” Wright said. “I started taking video while the rest of the medics were getting people out and stuff.”

Mathew Ballard, a web development leader in health care, and Donovan Hobson, a political consultant who streams under the name “SmoothVue,” also initially attended the protests as participants.

But they became regular livestreamers when they each realized they could often present a closer, fuller view of the action than traditional media.

The livestreamers have since captured critical moments – including the fatal shooting of photographer Tyler Gerth at Jefferson Square Park and a sit-in at the home of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, whose office is investigating Taylor’s death.

Read more: Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron meets with FBI over Breonna Taylor case

Kris Smith, who runs a security company, was also live the night law enforcement agents shot and killed restaurant owner David McAtee as they attempted to disperse a crowd after curfew.

As the incident made international headlines, Smith said his footage was sought by media across the globe.

“New York Times, Washington Post, some company in Korea, I mean you name it,” he said.

Chea K. Woolfolk, who runs a magazine and radio show under Chea Chea Media, was at 26th and Broadway the morning after McAtee was killed.

She took out her phone and went live, weaving through the emotional crowd as everyone waited for McAtee’s body to be removed.

She found herself next to a news channel cameraman, with each describing the scene to their viewers.

“He’s saying there’s violence, and I’m saying there’s not,” Woolfolk said. “It ticked me off in such a way because … any time you report a false story or create sensationalism, you have the potential to cost someone their life.”

Woolfolk promised that day that she would continue to give her audience an unfiltered perspective. And like many of her counterparts, she’s regularly livestreamed since, even as Day 6 turned into Day 40, which turned into Day 74.

Read this: How Louisville’s Breonna Taylor protest livestreamers deal with hate speech and threats

Now, more than 90 days in, the livestreamers have perfected their tactics.

Most no longer hold their phones simply in their hands, choosing to steady them with a professional stabilizer. They’ve developed personalities that set them apart from each other. And eight have assembled an informal group, dubbed the #502livestreamers, that works as a team to cover demonstrations, conduct interviews with city officials and show both the joy and anger that takes place every day.

The livestreamers have been inundated by racist comments online since the protests began. And several have armed themselves with guns in response to death threats. But the response from viewers on both sides of the movement has only boosted their desires to keep streaming. 

“People want to see this. People need to see this, and they really do care,” said Maxwell Mitchell, a freelance graphic designer. “… I noticed that first night, looking down at the numbers and they were in the thousands. People really want to see what’s going on downtown.”

Amplifying the movement

Livestreaming at protests first took off in the early 2010s during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Occupy Wall Street in New York, with independent journalists and participants showing what was happening from inside the demonstrations.

The medium gained momentum in 2014 during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old. And propelled by Facebook Live, it’s become an essential tool for covering civil unrest, from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

“Protest events, a lot of them are a lot of boredom with a few moments of action,” said Nancy Van House, a professor emerita at the University of California Berkeley, who studies visual media. “You get a better sense of what’s going on watching a whole livestream.”

Livestreamers are also often able to get closer to points of action or tension than traditional media, Van House said, enabling them to show the complexities of situations as they unfold.

“You get a much greater sense of what life is like for the police officers as well as the protesters and how confusing it can be,” she said.

While some livestreamers have turned their work into a career, many are people who hold full-time jobs while maintaining a presence online.

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In Louisville, livestreamers say they are not paid to cover the protests, save for some small donations by viewers. In fact, Downey said he asks people who offer him money to give it to “someone who needs it more.” 

But they take their roles seriously and have dedicated dozens of hours each week to ensuring the predominantly Black protesters’ voices are heard.

“I believe the role of media is to amplify the voices of those they are interviewing,” said Tara Bassett, an experienced TV and radio journalist. “In this particular case, all livestreamers have a responsibility to amplify the voices of Black folk who are looking to get a message across that has long been ignored.”

Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said the idea of livestreaming hearkens back to the civil rights movement, when Black media and white media would tell different versions of the same stories.

“Most now are doing it for the Black community,” Clayton said. “They want to get the full message out there, make sure people can see what is actually happening.”

That’s why Taylor, of WAVE FM, said his outlet has maintained a consistent presence at the protests.

As a livestreamer, he said, he speaks with his audience from the Black perspective “because we are part of the Black community.”

“We have a certain perspective on police brutality, we have a certain world view,” Taylor said. “We understand who we are, we understand the stereotypes we face every day. … So we make sure their voice is heard. Because when we talk, it’s their voice as well.”

That perspective and the opportunity to see what’s taking place live in Louisville is important to Skyye Rice, a Black woman who grew up here and now lives in Dallas. 

“Any time I see an alert, I’m logging in (to Facebook),” Rice said. “I want to know everything that’s going on. All of it.”

Holding police accountable

Throughout history, information on police encounters has most often been distributed through law enforcement agencies, limiting the version of events that’s shared with the masses.

That’s changed, however, with the advent of smartphones and video. And livestreamers say one of their responsibilities is to keep an eye on police.

One of the first uses of independent video to dispute police narratives came in 1991 when a civilian filmed Los Angeles Police officers beating Rodney King, an unarmed Black man, after a high-speed chase.

Louisville attorney and protester David Mour said the national uproar over the brutality King faced likely would not have occurred without video of the incident, similar to how a video showing the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked global protests this year.

As unrest continues, livestreamers say it’s their duty to keep their cameras rolling any time protesters go head-to-head with law enforcement.

After ending a stream, videos remain on a livestreamer’s Facebook page, and many also save their videos elsewhere in case they are removed from the platform.

“That’s the importance of a livestreamer,” Mour said, “that they are telling the story on the ground, as it happens, and LMPD and the mainstream media can’t fudge it.”

The abundance of footage has forced LMPD to backtrack claims made against protesters. In late June, after the department said a protester’s vehicle struck an armored SWAT truck, it reversed course, saying a review of the incident showed the SWAT vehicle had hit a car leaving the area.

Ballard, the web development leader, said he’s felt threatened by police for his livestreaming, even though he’s made it clear he is an independent media member.

“They don’t like cameras being pointed at them when things are going on,” Ballard said.

That’s a sentiment shared by others.

In July, four livestreamers were arrested and charged with varying felonies and misdemeanors in a move that they said was intended to shut them down.

“It was truly about making folks either be silent or making them change the narrative,” said Woolfolk, who was one of those arrested. “And I think what has happened is they didn’t realize the impact the livestreamers would have. It’s an element that can’t be controlled by them.”

LMPD spokeswoman Jessie Halladay has said that the department did not target livestreamers for arrest and that officers “recognize their right” to document the protests.

In recent weeks, the department has begun dispatching employees who livestream demonstrations from the LMPD Facebook page.

“We live in a time when livestreaming and video plays a large role in how events are seen and interpreted, as it affords the opportunity for many more people to see what is going on from one particular lens,” Halladay said by email.

Each streamer has particular motivations to continue filming. For some, it’s the opportunity to document a historic moment or provide commentary that could lead to change. For Woolfolk, it’s in part because she has a young son with autism who will grow to be a tall, Black man, and she fears that a miscommunication between him and police could lead to his death.

Livestreaming has changed the people behind the cameras. The events they’ve witnessed over the last three months have created an emotional weight unlike anything they’ve carried before, several say.

But they remain committed to the cause. And as the protests approach Day 100, the livestreams roll on, just as they did Day 1.

“Livestreaming, I really believe, is what’s going to take us to the next level,” said Summer Dickerson, founder of Women of the Well Ministry, a nonprofit that supports victims of human trafficking. “Livestreaming brings it in your face. You can’t edit it, you can’t make it go away.

“Sometimes the ugly truth needs to be in your face for change to happen.”

Reach reporter Bailey Loosemore on Twitter @bloosemore. Reach reporter Hayes Gardner on Twitter @HayesGardner

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