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Finding the voices of young Black activists in Louisville

Sean Ali-Waddell and Issa Fixit inspire their peers amid protests and anger around the killing of Breonna Taylor

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Something happened to me after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s investigation and grand jury process failed to indict any of the three officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor on charges related to her death.

My mind played a trick on me and I was forever changed. Because of the grand jury’s decision, I decided to seek the voices of young people in my city of Louisville who have been on the streets fighting for justice for more than five months. I wanted to hear their responses to the lack of charges in the killing of Taylor and the turmoil leading up to and surrounding it.

In my search, I found two young Black men who on the surface seem completely different. One is a third-generation college student attending Howard University and the other is a laid-off restaurant worker and video game livestreamer who is a member of a street gang.

When I got a chance to spend time with each of them, to try to understand them within the context of how they are dealing with the plight of our city, I quickly found they were much more alike than different.

Not because of the color of their skin and the discrimination they inevitably face, but because of their response to that unfairness.

That was a life lesson for me.

A love for my hometown

I was born and raised in the Smoketown section of Louisville, the city’s first Black neighborhood. Former enslaved people settled there shortly after emancipation. My family roots go back more than 100 years in that neighborhood.

My city is reeling now. Not only have we become a hot spot for protest and unrest because of Taylor’s tragedy, but we are dealing with an all-time record of homicides, all while in the middle of a pandemic.

As I stood in front of my television waiting for the grand jury decision on Sept. 23, the words that 19-year-old Howard University sophomore and Louisville native Sean Ali-Waddell said at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort on June 25 rushed into my memory.

Ali-Waddell’s artistry and his words were inspiring. It gave me hope. It made me want to hear more from his generation.

“Daniel Cameron. Let me tell you something. Brother! Don’t you be on the wrong side of history. Don’t you stay on the wrong side of history. When your Black mama and grandmama and family sent you to school to do something, that was for your community. So don’t let a few little cheap friendships and concessions from your 400-year-old slave master make you bow down.

“When you’re taught by a man like Ali, you can stand like a man!

“No justice! No peace!”

I asked myself on what side of history would Cameron, a Black man, stand.

After just a few minutes, Cameron made it crystal clear which side he had chosen.

The collective countenance of the city collapsed. Even though we weren’t surprised by Cameron’s stance, we still held out hope for justice.

I hadn’t written anything about the Taylor tragedy and my hometown because I couldn’t come to grips with how I felt about it enough to articulate it. Since I had no words, I decided to seek out the words of young people in Louisville in Taylor’s age group who were actively involved in the protests. Taylor was 26 when she was killed.

In that moment, I thought about Ali-Waddell and how he was dealing with the news. I grew up with Ali Waddell’s father and asked him for his son’s number.

“Lots of anger, lots of frustration, lots of hurt, lots of tears,” he said in our one-hour conversation about his emotions. But, despite all of that, this year has taught him an invaluable lesson on how he is to move forward in this moment.

“I’ve grown in these past few months in finding my voice,” he said. “Finding my lane and understanding what people’s roles are and how people can be effective in different ways. What I see my role as now is to shine a light through the thing that is most important to me, which is my creation.”

Ali-Waddell’s grandfather, Jan Waddell, is Muhammad Ali’s first cousin. Ali-Waddell is also a rapper and aspiring actor. A week before the grand jury decision, he dropped a video that details everything that was going on in the city over the last few months.

Ali-Waddell pulls from the legacy of his cousin and from the inspiration he got from being on the stage in Frankfort in June with artists such as Common, Rapsody, MC Lyte and Trae tha Truth to guide him on his path to fight injustice.

“When I looked around and saw [all of these artists] standing on the stage, it showed me as a young artist, that there is a duty in creating,” he said. “An artist has a duty to not just reflect the times, that’s what Nina Simone said. But they also have a duty to speak and promote healing.

“While we were all in that moment standing with the family, I was also soaking up the wisdom from these [artists] who have been out here a long time, on how to blend the platforms as an influencer and creative with being someone who cares about justice for your community.”

Ali-Waddell promised the greatest of all time, Ali, that he would carry on the family legacy when he saw him for the last time in 2015, one year before he died.

“ ‘Champ, I promise I won’t let you down,’ I said,” Ali-Waddell said, recalling his final conversation with Ali. “ ‘You taught me everything that I ever wanted to be as a man and you put justice first, and I’m going to stand up for justice.’ ”

Ali-Waddell’s artistry and his words were inspiring. It gave me hope. It made me want to hear more from his generation, so I called my cousin, Kendrick Walters. He is a regular at the protests, always wearing his “HIT’M – History in the Making” T-shirt. I knew he would know some of the younger people who were on the front lines.

“I got just the cat that you need to talk to,” he said.

We headed to the First Unitarian Church in downtown Louisville. After the city instituted a 9 p.m. curfew on the night of the grand jury decision, the church offered its facilities as a safe place for protesters to stay for the night to avoid arrest for breaking curfew.

When we got there, there was a meeting of front-line protesters who were going over the rules, roles and responsibilities for that evening’s march. The protesters were assembled in a semicircle in the church’s courtyard.

A young brother was leading the meeting. He was pacing back and forth wearing a gray Bob Marley “One Love” T-shirt and gray sweatpants with his tan pistol peeking out from just above the waistband.

“That’s him,” Kendrick said.

Stepping into the gap

Issa Fixit is a 23-year-old Louisville native. When I sat down with him for the first time, he had his younger brother B-Yola (the B is silent), 20, join us.

Sitting in front of me were two young Black men who were about the same age as my two youngest daughters. Flecks of gray hair were sprouting from Fixit’s closely-cropped Afro, matching the color of his eyes. From what I eventually learned about him, this could be the result of the wisdom he has garnered over the years that belie his age or the stress he has endured in his young life, or a combination.

The brothers were carrying pistols and clearly had a lot on their minds.

Fixit told me what he and his brother were up to at the beginning of the year before all hell broke loose with the coronavirus pandemic as well as the protests after Taylor’s killing.

“Me and bro are both artists,” said Fixit. “So we were both focused on our music tip at the beginning of the year, doing a lot of writing, working a whole lot. Before COVID-19, we were both working at a restaurant full time, just trying to stay focused and stay afloat.”

Once the disruption of COVID-19 hit and the reality of Taylor’s killing swept through the city and the nation, the two brothers started out on separate paths in response.

“I’m gonna keep it real,” said B-Yola. “At first, before I began actually protesting — I was … I’m not gonna say looting, but I was around the sources. So my focus wasn’t really protesting, it was getting what I could and getting away, until my brother actually brought me to the protest and said this is where you need to be.”

As two young Black men, they know that it doesn’t matter if you are a law-abiding citizen with a clean record. “Your fingerprints don’t have to be in the system in order for you to be in the criminal justice system,” said Fixit. “Your skin color makes you a target by the system.”

Even though he knew the odds were stacked against him, it quickly became clear to me that Fixit had figured something out. He figured out how to use his passion, intellect and raw energy to inspire others in a peaceful fight for justice and change.

He, his brother and 27-year-old Milly Martin are part of a group that is helping provide leadership and crowd control for protest marches. They provide a group of peacekeepers, men between the ages of 19 and 24, who walk the streets to make sure that people are safe. Fixit is the chief of the peacekeepers.

“We are not out there for revenge. I can’t speak for rioters and looters. We led a peaceful protest, a peaceful movement for five months and they didn’t give us justice. But you still got the same ones out there trying to keep the peace, because we don’t want nobody hurt.” — Issa Fixit

What Martin, Fixit and their group are doing, in taking up the mantle for securing and taking responsibility for the front line of protest marches, in many ways is a thankless job, the success of which is not quantifiable. We don’t know how many lives may have been saved because of their efforts or how many people were kept out of harm’s way or how much property damage and destruction the city was spared.

But regardless, Fixit isn’t interested in credit. He is committed to being part of the solution.

“Black people are not the problem,” said Fixit. “Injustice is the problem. Every time we go out there on that front line and we risk it all for everybody out there to fight for what we believe in, we show that. We show that [we are not the problem]. We are not out there for revenge. I can’t speak for rioters and looters. We led a peaceful protest, a peaceful movement for five months and they didn’t give us justice. But you still got the same ones out there trying to keep the peace, because we don’t want nobody hurt.”

The second time I sat down with him, I was shocked when Fixit said he was a member of the Crips and his brother B-Yola was a member of the rival gang, the Bloods. But for Fixit and others in their group, when they are at Jefferson Square Park, where the protesters gather, there is no affiliation. They work together for protesters’ safety.

Fixit wants to take that energy and apply it to the rest of the city.

“We’ve become a family out here,” said Fixit. “Even though we didn’t get justice for Breonna Taylor, we got some police reform, I guess, and got rid of no-knock warrants or whatever. But we showed unification. We showed a bind. We showed how people could come together. And now we can take that same energy and apply it into our communities.”

Clockwise from left: Snoop, Issa Fixit and B-Yola on the side steps of First Unitarian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Andre Kimo Stone Guess

After my last interview, I asked if I could get a picture of them. They obliged and posed for the photo.

When I got home and downloaded the photo to my computer, it revealed something about me I was uncomfortable with.

My reaction to seeing that picture on my computer screen of each of them holding a gun was the opposite from the real-life positive feelings I had for these young men, because the stereotypical imagery captured on that photo helps perpetuate the negative perception of Black men in our city and country.

Those stereotypes captured my imagination instantly, though I had an affinity for these young men and felt safe with them. They were carrying guns to protect themselves and others in the protests. I didn’t feel unsafe as I sat there beside them. Quite the contrary, I actually felt more safe, because I knew that if something crazy happened, they would protect me.

But when I first viewed the image, I actually felt a pang of fear.

On the flip side of that coin, Ali-Waddell forwarded me a picture of him and Common from the Frankfort rally in June. When I first saw that picture, I got a feeling of uplift and hope.

Is my mind playing tricks on me?

I don’t know.

One thing I do know: If we expect the police to give the benefit of the doubt to Black men before pulling the trigger, maybe we should, too.

Too often we see the life of Black men as a glass half-empty. I’m doing my best every day to see a glass half-full. All of us are good and bad at the same time. If we took more time to focus on the good, maybe there would be more good.

Ali-Waddell and Fixit come from different neighborhoods and different backgrounds, but their passion and purpose are the same — a better future for Black people in their city. Both are rappers. One sees his art form as the lane he will use to propel his passion toward his purpose, while the other has put his artistry on pause for the cause.

That’s what I choose to see when I look at those pictures.

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He is the president of GuessWorks, Inc. He also writes for his family website educated-guesses.com and CultureofChrist.org.