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Here's what it looks like when Black Lives Matter protests literally hit home

Commentary: Protests on my doorstep showed me social media coverage isn't enough. It's time for Black leadership and justice in the media.

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Protesters march through downtown Louisville on June 5.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It's May 30. From a perch several stories above downtown Louisville, Kentucky, a cacophony of sirens and chants engulf my apartment in the night. Protesters take over the main drag of the city, Broadway, crying out for justice for a woman killed in her bed by police officers in a no-knock raid in March. The sound of her name, Breonna Taylor, rises above the occasional gunshots and flash-bangs, which can be heard in intermittent, alternating blasts. 

By 10:30 p.m. the cops have surrounded my building with more than a dozen cruisers. I peer over the edge of the railing and see a handful of officers walking into the complex.

I pick up the phone and call Shelby Brown, a colleague whose quick-draw news reflexes are matched only by the steadiness of her hand on the wheel -- and her work in social justice outside of the newsroom. No editor assigned this job to us. We're just two journalists doing what we know how to do, rushing toward the news as it crashes into the scene around us. 

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The view of a protest from my apartment building.

Rae Hodge/CNET

"Get a pen and take this down," I say, tying my boots with the phone pressed between my shoulder and chin. 

I give her my Social Security number and date of birth, and we set a call-back time and follow-up protocols. I grab a Sharpie and scribble an emergency phone number on my arm. Shelby whips out her laptop. Within moments, she's pulled together multiple screens that feed her live information about police and protest activity -- from Twitter, video livestreams, police scanners and news sites. She recites what's happening to me with clinical calm, directing my next steps as I cram cash, ID and a camera into a shoulder bag.

My day job is to write about technology, stress testing and critically evaluating the latest software, apps and services. But today, my years spent covering protests and politics for news publications snap into focus again and instinct takes over. Just like before, I have all the tech tools I need to record a piece of civil rights history. This time it's different, though. This time it's happening right outside my front door.

It's 2014 all over again, with the rise of social media once more offering everyone the chance to be a citizen journalist, just as it did amid the protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Social media has changed the way people protest, as well as how we document instances of racial injustice at the hands of institutions of power. Even so, four years later a Pew survey would find US newsrooms were still less racially diverse than most other industries, with 77% of reporters, editors, photographers and videographers identifying as non-Hispanic whites. 

Shelby and I decided to cover the protests on social media not as part of a mainstream news organization, but for our own record -- to bear witness and become a part of the powerful corrective force composed of thousands of voices around the world, clamoring for racial justice and police reform as the fight literally hits our backyard. 

Waves of protesters -- about half of whom appear to be young people of color, recording with their phones -- flood into the streets around my apartment building. I answer their calls as quickly as Shelby answers mine, each of us knowing a moment has arrived from which none of us are exempt. 

Ground control to Major Tom

Over the next week, Shelby and I work in tandem over the phone, paying close attention to the rhythm of each evening's political actions in Louisville. The ground control to my Major Tom, the Ned to my Peter Parker, Shelby stays in my ear navigating as I take to the streets to document police actions and protesting voices. From her home outside the city, she monitors police scanner activity and helicopter flight patterns. She shares updates from Gov. Andy Beshear and Mayor Greg Fischer. She tells me she's checking three screens' worth of local news and live streams. 

On May 31, nearly an hour before the sunset curfew, a line of officers in riot gear advance on the peaceful assembly and begin firing round after round of pepper balls and flash bangs directly at the crowd, who scatter into alleys. Still rolling tape, a local NPR reporter and I are among the last shoes on the street, some 15 paces from the police. We're surrounded by noxious fumes. A flash bang whizzes past both of our heads as we dart to avoid it. 

Shelby is sending me location updates when the police start firing pepper balls. By this time, the police had previously shot two Louisville journalists intentionally with pepper balls in a separate incident. I jump a couple of feet into the air to avoid being hit as one sails past my legs. 

The Louisville Police Department would later claim their charging of the crowd was a necessary measure because they saw a protester with a leaf-blower, a device activists regularly bring to peaceful protests to disperse tear gas. They claimed the assembly was unlawful because the man holding the leaf-blower had somehow loaded bleach into the appliance. 

When reporters asked about the leaf blower at a press conference later that day, law enforcement officials backpedaled on the bleach accusation and said police know that sometimes the blowers are used to disperse chemical gases used against protesters.

"They weren't going to blow leaves," Assistant Chief of Police LaVita Chavous told reporters. 

Once again, social media and the ability for anyone to turn on their phone camera keeps those in power honest: Videos taken by people in the crowd surface online of the man who carried the leaf blower being brutally tackled into submission by at least 10 cops. 

This happened two blocks away from my doorstep. None of us are exempt from this moment. 

Progress, but more work ahead

The work of racial justice is still ongoing, and chanting still sounds in the streets in downtown Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, with a population of about 767,000 people. 

As of June 12, Louisville activists have won a handful of victories. Louisville's metro council passed an ordinance called "Breonna's Law," banning no-knock search warrants, and Fischer has called for a full independent review of the police department

Breonna's name is still being shouted from Tokyo to Paris. Even Beyoncé has weighed in on social media, and in a letter calling on Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to charge the officers responsible for Breonna's death. 

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People gathered with balloons for a vigil in memory of Breonna Taylor on June 6 in Louisville. 

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Despite these initial victories, the determination of Louisville's grieving residents and the global momentum toward securing justice, the three officers who shot Breonna Taylor at least eight times in her bed haven't yet been fired or put on trial. Unlike the death of George Floyd, killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck during an arrest, there is no video filmed by an onlooker to capture the nation's attention. Breonna was sleeping in her bed, in her home. And the police officers' body cameras were not turned on.

Military vehicles are no longer being staged at the foot of my building. Shelby and I no longer spend our evenings tracking flash bangs and road blockades. But the police helicopters still come and go at all hours, intermittent now, as police continue to use pepper bullets against protesters, who continue to lock up downtown streets with caravans of honking vehicles. 

A call to action

A journalist's job is to keep the public informed and hold people in power accountable, bringing first-hand experiences to the masses so they can understand the who, what, when, where, why and so what that affects the world around us. 

For journalists in my city, a wave of reporting has permanently transmuted how we, and our editors, approach stories about the systemic racism baked into nearly every American institution. Many media outlets have begun to realize that there are no "both sides" to racism. There are only the many sides of how we stop it. It's too soon to declare this a victorious moment for American journalism, though. 

I worry that the longer march toward justice, the necessary conversations about reform, may fall silent as the dramatic moments of the city's activism fade. I worry that in this moment our industry will fail to see the opportunity and obligation it has in moving toward media justice, and that it will fall to the wayside in the coming weeks as the news cycle pulls us back in. I worry most that the historical employment gap between white and Black editors, producers and journalists in my field will remain unaddressed in favor of a passing wave of incrementally improved coverage of race relations. I worry that the executive power imbalance in my field will remain the same, despite the greater access to technological news tools we've had since the early aughts. 

I have been covering protests for nearly a decade now. My hopes are not buoyed by the sight of another generation of young protesters, disproportionately those of color, who shoulder the traumatic burden of repeatedly documenting Black deaths at the hands of institutionalized racism. I am not satisfied with a narrative that the widespread adoption of social media and new communications technology is sufficient to enact industry-wide reform of mainstream news media.

Citizen journalists and activists documenting police brutality on Twitter have so far not been enough to sufficiently change the racial composition of the boardrooms of US news media enterprises. 

None of us should be satisfied. None of us are exempt.