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Louisville protesters remember Chris Wells, a leader in the racial justice movement

Breya Jones

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255. 

Chris Wells, a leading voice in Louisville’s movement for social and racial justice, has died. He was 33 years old.

A Louisville Metro Police Department statement said authorities found Wells’ body at his home on Sunday afternoon. The department’s investigation and subsequent interviews determined his death to be a suicide.

Wells helped sustain months of protests and continued demands for justice following the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor. Earlier this month, he took a moment to reflect on the federal charges four current and former officers face for their roles in the deadly raid of her home.

“Most of us are still struggling and going through different things since that day, you know what I’m saying? And, just to hear this news, it doesn’t matter if I lost everything. This is the reason why we came out here fighting to get justice and get those cops arrested,” Wells said.

More than a leader

Chris Will, a longtime friend of Wells’, said they were inseparable.

“Everybody called us twins…he was literally my best friend and I just feel for his family, his daughters and his son, you know, he just had a son not too long ago,” Will said. “We’re just trying to do what we can to ease their pain and be there for them and support them in what they need.”

Will said he aims to continue his friend’s advocacy for better conditions and opportunities for all city residents. Will added he’s trying to push Louisville Metro officials to do something symbolic in remembrance of Wells.

“Giving him a key to the city or something of that nature, because he definitely should be recognized. Maybe a Chris Wells Day,” Will said. “A lot of people didn’t agree with what we were doing or like what we did, but we made history and this is something they can never take away.”

Tara Bassett, an independent journalist with 502LIVEstreamers, was one of the hundreds who joined marches led by Wells. She said he fostered a culture of care and a sense of community that will endure.

“He had a gentle spirit that was belied by his megaphone and his big voice. He had a love for people, and an incredible ability to make the complex very simple,” Bassett said. “He was artistic. He was funny. He was incredibly smart. And never too proud to take suggestions or advice from someone who had his best interests at heart.”

She said Wells was also a distinguished mediator who did everything he could to ensure protesters’ safety.

“Even in encounters with police, Chris Wells was in direct contact with the chief of police’s office because he wanted to make sure that the police knew they were protesting, not rioting and looting,” Bassett said.

Wells’ childhood friend Bruce Sweeney said Wells loved his family, and made an effort to lift the spirits of those around him.

“My favorite memories of Chris is how he’s always been a fun guy that loves to dance and have a good time. He was the life of the party,” Sweeney said. “He just wanted to make his family proud.”

Still, Sweeney added there was one thing that always troubled Wells.

“Out of everything he’s done out here, he didn’t get his flowers and what I mean by that is not enough recognition. And that was messing him up every day,” Sweeney said. “He just wanted everybody to know what he did, what he was trying to do, what people already knew, it just, he wasn’t seeing it.”

“The man is bigger than his name. He’s bigger than his life…he is the movement,” said Antonio Brown, who knew Wells from marching alongside him in 2020.

“When folks stopped marching, he found reasons to march. He understood that the fight was everywhere,” Brown said. “He stayed active. He understood that it’s a fight out here and we’re going to have to fight. It’s up to us to make a change.”

Fighting a failed system

Bassett with 502LIVEstreamers said protesters share more than a cause.

“People cannot possibly imagine what we went through unless they were there. The trauma that has resulted from the protests has affected people’s minds, people’s hearts, people’s finances,” Bassett said. “People who’ve been protesting have lost their homes, their jobs, their families, their careers — they’ve had criminal records established that they may not have ever had before.”

Those close to Wells said the movement for social change and racial justice gave him purpose — as well as a heavy mental toll.

“We have the weight of the world on our shoulders, we have families come to us and talk to us about their lost loved ones. And we take that on. We take that burden of emotions that these families are feeling and we take that with us at home,” Brown said. “If we feel like we have no one to talk to, it’s hard to keep all that buried and keep it very deep inside.”

Brown stressed the importance of seeking help and talking to people about worries and problems.

“When we have these low moments, the worst thing we can do is shut ourselves away from everybody. And that’s the big thing with people in general, especially me, is we have a thing called pride and ego. And it’s dangerous when you give in,” Brown said. “Therapy is very important, especially with what we’re doing right now.”

Poet and spoken word artist Hannah Drake shared Brown’s sentiment and added it’s vital for people to step back and hit pause. She urged people to divide and conquer instead of taking on the mental load alone.

“It’s difficult to fight constantly. And when you’re fighting systems that have been systems for hundreds of years, you’re not going to have overnight results,” Drake said. “It’s a lot of work. And you don’t have to do it all. Everybody has a role to play when it comes to fighting injustice.”

Cascading consequences

Drake said she met Wells downtown two years ago, at the height of the demonstrations demanding justice for Breonna Taylor’s killing.

“He was just kind of fearless to me. He didn’t mind leading marches. People naturally followed him,” Drake said. “I think being down there protesting, it was really good to have Black men be in that space.”

She said while protests affected people physically and mentally, the city’s actions and negligence have continued consequences.

“It’s not the protests, it’s what caused the protests,” Drake said. “I see that picture of Chris when he was being thrown on the ground by the police and a gun — a rifle — is aimed at him. I don’t think the city understands what happened. That the city declared war on regular people,” Drake said.”

She blamed LMPD and former detective Joshua Jaynes for the many losses the city has suffered since 2020. He’s one of the officers facing federal charges for allegedly lying on the warrant application for Taylor’s home — and afterward to cover it up.

“His one lie impacted hundreds of people. And so, but for that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Breonna Taylor would be alive, Tyler Gerth would be alive, David McAtee would be alive. I daresay everybody would be alive,” Drake said.

David ‘Yaya’ McAtee was a beloved restaurateur who law enforcement killed in June 2020 as they patrolled the city for curfew violations in the early days of the protests. Weeks later, Tyler Gerth, who photographed the protests, was killed after a man opened fire at Jefferson Square Park, the epicenter of the protest movement.

Prominent protester Travis Nagdy was shot and killed in a carjacking in Nov. 2020. The FBI determined Nagdy’s death was unrelated to the demonstrations for racial justice.

“You have like a pillar in a community be it David McAtee, or Tyler or now Chris … you don’t just take that out of a community and the community is expected to just go on,” Drake said.

She said the systems are a reflection of the people who control and inhabit them.

Drake also said change will not come unless the people in power acknowledge and take responsibility for their decisions and actions. She said that includes “waging a war” against city residents during the 2020 protests to the police misconduct that led people to demonstrate in the first place.

“And then [city officials] just want you to go on like you forgot that. I’m never gonna forget that. I will never forget what this city did. And nobody ever takes accountability,” Drake said. “Police colluded together to lie and then said ‘OK, now we gotta fix it’…How do you fight a system where the people who are supposed to be serving and protecting and doing things the right way are colluding together? How do you fix that?”

Community organizers plan to hold a healing space at Jefferson Square Park, also known as Breeway or Injustice Square, throughout the week to commemorate Wells and support one another.

Upon learning of Wells’ passing, the Louisville Urban League’s President and CEO, Sadiqa Reynolds, announced the organization is hosting an open house on Friday in an effort to address protesters’ needs.

Local mental health resources:

  • Spalding University’s Collective Care Center – 502-792-7011 – Free therapy for those who have experienced race-based trauma
  • WAVE-3 “It’s Your Life” Youth Help Line – (866) 589-8727 – A link to specially trained peer counselors

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