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Tension rises in Louisville, while violence breaks out in Rochester, Portland

Right- and left-wing groups clash at racial justice demonstrations near Kentucky Derby as protesters in Rochester, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., clash with police

Angry Viking, the leader of a right wing group, speaks to counterprotesters in front of the Louisville courthouse Saturday. (Jeff Dean/AFP/Getty Images)
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LOUISVILLE — Hundreds of demonstrators faced off in downtown Louisville ahead of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, with guns and camouflage replacing the traditional scene of colorful hats and bespoke suits. Meanwhile, protests on opposite sides of the country turned violent as police fired tear gas and activists threw incendiary devices.

The skirmishes were the latest in tense confrontations over racial justice in a summer that has been marked by violence and acrimony in many American cities.

In Louisville, some of the protesters sought to use the signature horse race to draw attention to the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in her apartment there in March.

But tensions escalated as an armed group carrying long guns and those protesting over Taylor’s death came into contact in front of Louisville’s Metro Hall, according to the Louisville Metro Police Department.

While no shots were fired and the feuding groups eventually separated, the scene mirrored many of the hostile showdowns across the country as peaceful protests over racial inequality have descended into riots and, in some cases, street battles between Black Lives Matter demonstrators and supporters of President Trump in recent weeks.

With demonstrations expected throughout the Labor Day weekend in cities including Portland, Ore., Rochester and Louisville, police across the country prepared to deal with a nation on edge over racial inequality and police misconduct.

Several protesters in Louisville complained that local police allowed the armed group to confront and intimidate peaceful protesters without stepping in. Police said they were mostly assembled near the racetrack at Churchill Downs and decided to monitor the situation from a distance.

“Due to the size of the crowd, we determined it was not safe to go in and we did not want to escalate the situation with police presence,” the department said in a “Midday Update” posted on Facebook. “The two groups continued to engage, working to separate themselves from each other.”

A White member of the armed group from Ashland, Ky., who only identified himself by his first name, Mike, said he and other members of the Sons of Liberty came to Louisville because they “love America and don’t want to hurt nobody or anything,” but they wanted to “protect” Louisville against a Black armed group called the NFAC. Wearing a vest covered in ammunition and a pistol on his hip, Mike held an AR-17 by his leg and worked “security” at a parking lot across from Louisville’s Waterfront Park while hundreds of other armed men marched from the lot to Jefferson Square.

While there were visible firearms being carried by members of both groups, the confrontations did not escalate beyond yelling, police said Saturday afternoon. The armed group of mostly White members later left the scene.

Police said they later were able to create a barrier separating protesters and counterdemonstrators. Later Saturday, a separate group of armed, mostly Black, self-described militia members also assembled in Louisville. They departed after having a heated exchange with local residents, who told them to leave.

A separate, larger group of several hundred Black Lives Matter protesters marched to Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby was set to take place without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sadiqa Reynolds, CEO of the Louisville Urban League, said she and others made the decision to march to the racetrack to remind others of Taylor’s death. “We don’t want anyone celebrating when we’re in pain,” said Reynolds beyond a rhinestone mask in South Central Park, where the rally started earlier in the day.

The march marked more than 100 days of demonstrations over Taylor’s death, which remains under investigation, according to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

“Today, while we honor a KY tradition with the running of the Derby, we remain cognizant of the community’s desire for answers in the investigation into the death of Ms. Breonna Taylor,” Cameron wrote Saturday on Twitter.

'Please, I’m telling you, change y’all lives out there,' Kenosha shooting victim pleads from hospital bed

In New York, Attorney General Letitia James announced Saturday that her office will impanel a grand jury as part of its investigation into the death of Daniel Prude. A recently released video shows Prude being handcuffed and hooded while in police custody in Rochester in March. Officials said Prude, who was naked at the time, was having a mental health emergency when he was placed in custody. He died a week later. Seven officers have been suspended.

“The Prude family and the Rochester community have been through great pain and anguish,” said James in news release, saying her office would “immediately move to impanel a grand jury as part of our exhaustive investigation into this matter.”

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said in a statement Saturday that “justice delayed is justice denied and the people of New York deserve the truth.”

As protests continued, Jacob Blake — the Black man who was shot late last month by a Kenosha, Wis., police officer — urged the public to remain calm from a hospital bed Saturday night in an emotional video released by his lawyer. Wearing a loosefitting hospital gown, he told members of the Black community to focus on constructive goals.

“Your life, and not only just your life, your legs — something that you need to move around and move forward in life — can be taken from you like this,” Blake said, snapping his fingers. “Every 24-hours it’s pain. … It hurts to breathe. It hurts to sleep. It hurts to move from side to side. It hurts to eat.”

“Please, I’m telling you, change y’all lives out there. We can stick together, make some money, make everything easier for our people, because there’s so much time that’s been wasted.”

But Blake’s plea appeared to go unheeded. In Rochester on Saturday evening, several hundred people gathered for a rally and march, as speakers called for the resignations of Mayor Lovely Warren, Police Chief LaRon Singletary and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. Boxes of gloves, elbow pads, knee pads and helmets lay out on the street for protesters to take, while marchers wielding homemade shields of garbage can tops went to the front of the line.

Speaking before the crowd, activist Danielle Ponder said the tax dollars they contributed to the Rochester Police Department were being used to help corporations rather than local residents. “So we’re paying to protect Wegmans, Top, Family Dollar and Walmart. Billion dollar corporations,” she said. “We are paying for our own oppression!”

Violence erupted during the march, as a group of around 1,500 protesters faced off against police officers outside City Hall.

Shortly before 10 p.m., police said they noticed fireworks in the crowd and saw protesters put on helmets and create a barricade with umbrellas. Within 20 minutes, the crowd was hurling rocks and commercial-grade fireworks at officers, according to a police statement. Police responded with tear gas and pepper balls, ordering the crowd to disperse. By midnight, the police said, “agitators were breaking windows” at City Hall, but by 1 a.m. nearly all the protesters had left downtown.

A man’s shoes caught on fire after flames broke out on a street in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 5 during a protest against racial injustice. (Video: AP)

In Portland, where protesters planned to use the weekend to mark the 100th day of demonstrations amid a national reckoning on race and policing after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, things began on a mellow note Saturday.

In the grassy Ventura Park, adjacent to an elementary school in east Portland, children played on swing sets and toddlers slid down a small hill on pieces of cardboard Saturday evening. As the sun set, protesters poured into the park, many wearing all black and carrying helmets and tactical gear. In chalk on the sidewalk, someone had scrawled, “100 more and 100 more and 100 more.”

At about 9 p.m., a group of more than 500 protesters began marching out of the pitch-black field in Ventura Park toward the East Precinct. Before they had even left the park, Portland police officers announced over a loudspeaker they would not permit the gathering to proceed.

“Immediately return to Ventura Park,” police announced.

The hundreds of protesters continued marching on the sidewalk, moving toward the line of police officers and vehicles. At 9:15 p.m., police declared a riot and gave several warnings that they would be releasing tear gas and impact weapons.

Police threw fire grenades onto the street, letting out several loud bangs as the line of officers moved protesters down the street, back in the direction of the park. A protester threw a molotov cocktail in plain view. Police released tear gas on the crowd as protesters shouted “walk, don’t run.”

Minutes later, as police continued moving down the street, they announced through a loudspeaker that protesters launched “multiple incendiaries, injuring at least one community member.”

A Portland police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, confirmed one protester threw a molotov cocktail that hit another demonstrator in the crowd, setting him on fire.

Police fired rubber bullets and made several arrests on Stark Street. State Trooper vehicles also assisted.

Around 11 p.m., police released more tear gas and threw smoke grenades near Ventura Park, telling the crowd to move north. Officers rushed groups of protesters and made several arrests. They also confiscated shields and large signs and rushed up to at least two cars and pounded batons on the car doors.

As police moved the crowds of protesters further north, residents in the nearby neighborhoods stood on their driveways, surveying the chaos.

“This is the first time that it’s been right here,” said a nearby resident, who only gave her first name, Ky. “It’s traumatizing.”

The 40-year old mother, a Black woman, said she is used to dealing with police harassment, and she has seen how they have used excessive force in areas across the city.

Demonstrations also continued across Los Angeles on Saturday following the police shooting of a Black man earlier this week, roiling the community and renewing calls for police reform and transparency. Activists swarmed the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to protest the death of 29-year old Dijon Kizzee, who was shot and killed by two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies in Westmont, a South Los Angeles neighborhood, on Monday afternoon.

President Trump, meanwhile. spent much of the day at his Virginia resort, playing golf and tweeting about a White House memo aimed at curtailing racial sensitivity training.

As he arrived at Trump National Golf Resort, he was greeted by protesters and supporters who gathered outside the club to make their views about his presidency known.

Some held signs that read “Trump Is A Loser Not Our Troops” and “Soldiers are Not Suckers,” references to recent allegations in the Atlantic magazine that the president had called dead American service members “suckers” and “losers.” Trump has denied making those comments.

The president’s supporters waved pro-Trump flags and signs calling for “Four More Years.” The demonstration remained peaceful.

The president has done little to address the rancor across the country, instead calling for “law and order” and dismissing calls for racial justice.

Late Friday, Trump moved to overhaul federal agencies’ racial sensitivity trainings, casting some of them as “divisive” and “un-American,” according to a memo by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

In the two-page memo, OMB Director Russell Vought said Trump has asked him to prevent federal agencies from spending millions in taxpayer dollars on training sessions addressing “white privilege” or “critical race theory.”

Trump tweeted more than a dozen times Saturday morning to celebrate the move. Late Saturday night, the president shared a tweet mocking a member of Black Lives Matter who got in an altercation in Dallas, calling the individual “one of BLM’s canonized martyrs.”

Schmidt reported from Portland. Jessica Wolfrom and Juliet Eilperin reported from Washington. Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report from Washington. Austyn Gaffney contributed from Louisville. Fenit Nirappil contributed from Portland. Wil Aiken contributed from Rochester.