Protesters
Protesters held signs in front of the federal courthouse at Sixth Street and Broadway on Tuesday. The group called on Sen. Mitch McConnell to stop separating families at the border and close the camps. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

Despite the scorching July heat, about 200 protesters showed up at the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House on Broadway for a Protest Play Date against the detention centers at the border and the U.S. government’s family separation policy. 

The #FreeOurFamilies Protest Play Dates are part of a national movement that organized the protests around the country. A group of four moms in Louisville decided to work together to organize the protest here, said Carly Gutierrez, one of those moms. 

“A group of moms and I banded together,” Gutierrez said. “Somebody floated the idea of organizing this, and several of us wanted to get behind it but felt overwhelmed about taking the lead. So I just said, ‘Why don’t we do it together?’ So everybody sort of worked to their strong points. We had people who were writing letters. I went to Costco and bought snacks and bubbles. None of us have ever done anything like this before.”

Because the event was designed to be kid-friendly, there were bubbles, sidewalk chalk, children’s books and snacks. While many were parents and brought their young children, there were just as many who wanted to make their voices heard. 

A letter to McConnell
Organizer Carly Gutierrez
Organizer Carly Gutierrez | Photo by Lisa Hornung

The group wrote an official letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell and delivered it to his office inside the building. About 15 protesters were outside his office just “taking up space,” Gutierrez said. 

The letter to McConnell is a plea to end the detention camps and reunite families: 

“Dear Senator McConnell: We are parents, children and caregivers who live, work and attend school in your district. We are coming to you today to demand that you do everything in your power to #CloseTheCamps on our Southern border now. …

“It’s going to take all of us to close the camps, and that’s why we are demanding that you, as our representative, do MORE to ensure these atrocities end. We demand that you:

  • Speak up, demand accountability and do everything you can to close the camps.
  • Do not provide one dollar for family detention and deportation.
  • Bear witness and reunite families. Before the end of this recess, we ask you to visit a camp to see for yourself what is happening in our name, with our tax dollars.
  • Repeal 8 USC 1325 and 8 USC 1326, the statutes responsible for the criminalization of migrants seeking entry and re-entry to the U.S.

“Current immigration policy is unconscionable, horrific and against everything we know to be right. We know from history that if we allow such practices to be normalized, it will be the beginning of a steady decline into much, much worse. We are demanding that you do everything you can to free the children.”

One of the protesters who went to McConnell’s office, Anice Chenault, brought her 5-year-old son Justice with her to the event. She is part of the core group of moms who helped organize the event.

“There were atrocities on the border before they started separating families, and we stood against those,” Chenault said.” And now the separation of families and the fact that those are increasing, and — the number 2,000 is thrown around — but we believe there’s many, many more than that. And so, we just need to stand up. We need to say no. We need to show our kids.”

Concentration camps?
Eva Schiller with a sign
Eva Schiller wore a yarmulke and tallis to the protest. She spoke of the need for Jews to speak out against internment. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

Eva Schiller came to the protest wearing a yarmulke and tallis, representing her religion. She said a group of Jewish friends decided they needed to be a part of the protest against the camps.

“We thought our voices should be heard in this matter,” she said. “You know we were brought into the conversation, but honestly we should have been in there in the first place. It’s not like I’m representing one Jewish voice but as many voices as we can, because it’s really important to bring back the human aspect of this.”

Other Jewish protesters have been active at ICE detention centers with the slogan, “Never again means never again.” Schiller said she understood the argument about the camps and whether they should be called concentration camps. 

“If you don’t call them camps, then what are they, right?” she said. “In a way when it was the GOP that kind of brought us up and said it’s an insult to Holocaust survivors and other Jewish people. But honestly, you know the Nazis weren’t the only ones who interned their own citizens.

“Concentration camps are not just specifically a Jewish thing or a Holocaust thing,” she continued. “They are a thing that bad people do to just people they don’t like. And honestly, as a Jew whose extended family is gone, I don’t have anyone else in Europe now. I fully support people calling them what they are, which are concentration camps, internment camps.”

Schiller’s friend Michael, who didn’t want to give his last name, said seeing the camps on the news has been especially painful. His family came to Kentucky from Mexico in the 1970s.

“Every day I live with survivor’s guilt,” he said through tears. “Every day I hear these kids scream out for their parents and hear parents cry for their children because they don’t know where they are. Every day I hear that and I think the only reason that I’m lucky is 40 years of time and paperwork.

“This has nothing to do with national security, because no one has a problem with my Mexican ass being here because I look white. This has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with racism. And I want people to know that’s what it’s like to be Latino in this country in 2019. Every day I think that could have been my family or maybe that should have been me instead of these little 3- and 4- and 5-year-old children screaming for their parents.”

Will it work?
Shirley Parker at the protest
Shirley Parker at the protest | Photo by Lisa Hornung

All the protesters had a dim view of their chances of getting through to McConnell.  

“Unfortunately, I think his interests are too far deep into capitalism and xenophobia,” Chenault said. “He’s not really thinking about justice in any sense of the word.”

Elijah Lossner agreed.

“He’s shown no willingness to do the right thing in so many instances,” he said. “I think he probably looks out here at us and just laughs like it’s a joke to him.”

While protesters shouted chants of “Free kids; cage Trump,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Mitch McConnell has got to go,” passersby lay on their horns in support of the protest. Some slowed down and honked and waved, cheering along with the crowd. 

Lossner said the honking was a boost to the event.

“It gives you a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “Every time they do it, it makes you feel like there’s a lot of people out there that feel the same way we do. And I think a majority of Americans feel the way we do.”

Gutierrez said that despite the potential futility of the protest, she felt it was most important to set an example for children.

“I don’t want my sons to grow up and read about this or learn about it in history and be like, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of this before. Why? Why did it happen? Why did anybody let this happen?’ I’ve been talking with my 6-year-old about it, and I want them to know that it’s not OK. And I don’t know if this is going to do anything, but we have to do everything we can.”

Lisa Hornung a native of Louisville and has worked in local media for more than 15 years as a writer and editor. Before that she worked as a writer, editor and photographer for community newspapers in Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, and after a 20-year career in journalism, she obtained a master’s degree in history from Eastern Kentucky University in 2016.