LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Violence interrupted a peaceful protest at a park Saturday when a man allegedly opened fire into a crowd of protesters, killing a 27-year-old photographer.
The suspected shooter is in police custody and has been identified as 23-year-old Steven Lopez, authorities said.
In an arrest citation, police said video showed Lopez shooting into a large crowd of people who had gathered Saturday night to protest police brutality and the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by officers. Several bystanders shot in Lopez’s direction, according to an arrest warrant, wounding his leg. Lopez is in custody at a hospital, authorities said, and no others were wounded.
The warrant said Lopez has been charged with murder and first-degree wanton endangerment. It is unclear whether Lopez has a lawyer. The Louisville Metro Public Defender’s office could not be reached for comment.
Robert Schroeder, Louisville’s interim police chief, said Lopez had been arrested several times in recent weeks and had been asked to leave the park by other protesters because of his “disruptive behavior.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, identified the victim as Tyler Gerth, whose family said in a statement that he was a photographer capturing images of the protests.
“We are devastated that his life was taken was from us far too soon. Tyler was incredibly kind, tender hearted and generous, holding deep convictions and faith,” the statement said. “It was this sense of justice that drove Tyler to be part of the peaceful demonstrations advocating for the destruction of the systemic racism within our society’s systems.”
Activists have assembled at Jefferson Square Park for more than a month. The park – a small plaza in the city’s downtown – has become an encampment in recent weeks, with protesters sleeping overnight in tents, stands offering food and supplies, and demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism taking place during the day.
Lopez was described by protest attendees as a man who had been driven from the demonstration site on previous days for his erratic behavior, including accosting activists. Jeff Gill, who runs the homeless outreach organization Hip Hop Cares, said he knew Lopez, who had been staying in the park’s encampment.
“Everybody around him was kind of fed up with the things he was doing, like him taking things that didn’t belong to him, saying things that set people off and cause fights. And they wanted him gone,” Gill said.
Fearing for Lopez’s safety, Gill said he helped remove the man from the park twice on Saturday after Lopez was slapped, punched and threatened by others in the square.
“I truly am hoping that the narrative from that shooting isn’t driven with conspiracy, isn’t driven with the narrative of it’s a racial-motivated thing,” Gill said. “Last night could have been prevented if we didn’t have so many systemic issues that failed.”
Surveillance footage shared by authorities at a news conference appeared to show a person confronting several protesters at the edge of the square before opening fire. Videos on social media show protesters fleeing the area and, in some cases, diving and crouching behind nearby parked cars, tents and trees as shots are fired.
“None of us wanted to see this area of peaceful protest become a crime scene,” Fischer said. He called for the city to unite in the aftermath of the shooting and said it cannot slow or halt efforts to institute the changes that protesters are demanding.
Jasmine Harris, a 27-year-old protester, said she and others were participating in a music video when she heard gunfire.
“All I could hear was: bang, bang. I thought they were fireworks,” she said. She heard four more shots, she said, and saw a man lying on the ground, bleeding.
“It was a very good time, we were all getting along” before the shooting, she said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Maxwell Mitchell, 32, said things were “very happy” in the park Saturday night.
“There was a children’s march. Things were joyous, things were happy, and you know, out of nowhere, this happens. And it turned things completely south,” he said.
Mitchell, who posted video of the shooting on social media, fears the shooting could make it more difficult for the demands of the protesters to be met.
“Everyone as a group has been trying to figure out the best move to get justice, meet those demands that we have not just to achieve justice for Breonna Taylor but for countless black people who have been killed by corrupt police,” he said. “Now this, in my opinion, is really derailing things.”
Early Sunday morning, police announced that while they would continue to allow peaceful protests during the day, they would not permit protesters to stay in the park overnight or erect “tents of any kind.”
Shannon Higgins, 37, was handing out slices of pizza to protesters. “I woke up this morning and I saw that homeless people had lost everything: their tents, their clothes, their food,” Higgins said. “Everything that was set up at the campsite was gone. I just wanted to get up and help serve.
“Now we have to come back together. You have people who were down here in unity, who were living here and found solace here and it all got swept away. Now that it’s all been swept away, we have to rebuild.”
Schroeder apologized to protesters for the way in which the park was cleared of tents and supplies, saying that it was not the department’s intention to damage belongings, but that many items were “treated in a manner that is less than our standards.”
Anti-violence activist Christopher 2X, who heads the organization Game Changers, said the shooting reflects an epidemic of gun violence that has continued to plague Louisville even throughout the pandemic and recent unrest.
“I would have thought when covid hit that we’d hit the pause button on reckless shootings around here,” he said. “I really thought it was going to peel the deal back. But I was wrong about that.”
Louisville has become a center of protests against police brutality, with demonstrations related to the death of Taylor intensifying and growing after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, was killed in her home in Louisville by police after they executed a no-knock warrant on March 13.
At least three officers were involved in the raid, firing into Taylor’s apartment just after midnight. In a lawsuit filed in April, Taylor’s family said Louisville police executed a search warrant at Taylor’s home, looking for a man who did not live there. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who reportedly was a licensed gun owner, shot at officers when they attempted to enter the apartment, and the officers returned fire.
Taylor was shot at least eight times and killed. Authorities have released little information about the killing. It is being investigated by state and local authorities and the FBI.
The Louisville police last week fired one officer involved in the shooting. The city council voted this month to ban no-knock warrants, which allow police to enter a home unannounced. The June 11 measure to ban the warrants is known as Breonna’s Law.
On Sunday night, a crowd gathered around a small memorial for Gerth. The patch of concrete, covered by candles, flowers and a photo, was roped off. Most protesters took a knee and raised their fists in honor of a fallen “soldier.” Gerth’s father, Chuck Gerth, said his son wanted to document the protests for posterity and planned to donate some of his photos to a local historical society.
“He was my hero. He was involved with a lot of injustices in the world and trying to change things,” Chuck Gerth said of his son. “I would give anything for him to be alive. Like everyone else who’s died for the wrong reasons, I really wish it wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I think he would want his legacy to be that he loved all people, no matter who they were.”
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The Washington Post’s Julie Tate in Washington and Adam Raymond in Louisville contributed to this report.