She’s been hit in the chest by a rubber bullet that left a painful welt. Her face has burned from tear gas. She’s gotten blinding pepper spray in her eyes.
And yet nothing has deterred JaVonna Layfield from joining the nightly marches in her hometown of Louisville. Ky. to protest systemic racism and violent policing tactics that overwhelmingly affect people of color.
The popular University of Dayton women’s basketball player from two years ago is showing the same commitment and resiliency on the street as she once did on the court.
Although knee and leg injuries derailed parts of two seasons at Ballard High School in Louisville and caused some colleges to back away from her, she found a home at UD, pushed through the lingering effects of past and new medical problems and played 121 games, amassing 831 rebounds and 827 points.
Although she was an undersized rebounder at 5-foot-11, she was ranked third in the nation as a senior and was the only player in the top 15 under 6-feet.
After her final game at UD Arena, she stood on the court with tears in her eyes and told me: “I always wanted to leave here someday knowing that I had contributed to the program. It wasn’t necessarily to be known, but just for me to know that I contributed.”
That same mantra is what has brought her to the streets of downtown Louisville once she finishes her job as a mental health technician helping children in need at the University of Louisville’s Peace Hospital.
The city has experienced 16 straight days with massive protests by crowds that are black and white, young and old.
They unrest began when video surfaced of George Floyd’s May 25 killing by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on this neck – while he was lying on his stomach, handcuffed and pleading for his life – for nearly nine minutes.
But the Louisville outcry quickly became more personal when new details were released on the police killing of 26-year-old Louisville emergency room worker Breonna Taylor as she slept in her home in mid-March and then the killing of popular barbecue cook David McAtee by a Kentucky National Guardsman on May 31.
Taylor was shot eight times by plain clothes police who burst into her home after midnight with a no-knock warrant and a battering ram, looking for a man who did not live there and already was in police custody.
Her boyfriend thought it was a home invasion and fired his registered weapon once. Police, none wearing body cameras, fired back at least 20 times.
Those three cops are still on active duty and have not been charged. A few days ago police finally released a four-page incident report that was mostly blank, except it claimed Taylor, who had died in a pool of blood on the floor of her apartment, had no injuries.
The report also claimed there had been no forced entry.
Louisville mayor Greg Fischer called the report “unacceptable.”
The 53-year-old McAtee – known to everyone as Ya Ya — was a popular figure in West Louisville. From his barbecue shack at Broadway and 26th Street, he fed many of the city’s needy for free and made regular meals for the police and his neighbors.
The night he was killed, the usual weekend crowd had gathered at his shack to socialize. Although a mile from the protests, the group was out past curfew. Louisville police and Kentucky National Guardsmen pulled up and quickly began to disperse the crowd with rubber bullets.
Several people were shot, including McAtee’s niece, who was hit several times.
According to a video now produced by police, McAtee took out a gun and fired back. A Guardsman then fired a live round, killing him.
The killing of the well-liked figure further angered the neighborhood when his body was left lying in the street for 12 hours afterward.
“Ya Ya was family,” the 24-year-old Layfield said. “He’s known me since I was in the womb.”
She said she also knew Taylor: “We weren’t like ‘Hey, I’m coming up to your house, Girl!’ But if we saw each other, we talked and might hang out a while.”
While those personal connections were enough to draw her to the protest, Layfield said there’s more to it than that:
“People have had enough. They’re angry because the people who are supposed to protect us are using their authority to overpower us and do whatever they want, a lot of times simply because of the color of our skin.
“And the problem is the system isn’t built for us, it’s built for them.”
Layfield wouldn’t have to put herself in harm’s way night after night. She had a glorious career at UD, got her degree, played professionally in Portugal and Greece, is working on her master’s and now has a meaningful job.
“This is bigger than me,” she said. “I feel if I stay silent when I have the ability to speak and make a difference, then I’m failing my people.
“This isn’t just about my future, it’s about my kids’ future, my brother’s future, my family members and any other African American that is alive today.”
‘Try to turn a negative into a positive’
Layfield was known for her personal relationships at UD.
She and teammate Jenna Burdette became best of friends and three-year roommates even though their backgrounds and personalities were quite different.
Burdette, who is white and was quiet and shy, came from Coolville, population 496. Layfield, who’s black, was outgoing, vocal and used to the city. The two meshed and became pillars of a program that made the NCAA Tournament three times in their four years, including advancing to the Elite Eight when they were freshmen.
Layfield also became best friends with Steve McElvene, the beloved 6-foot-11 center of the Flyers men’s team, who died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition in 2016.
After his death, Layfield added a tattooed remembrance to her left arm that read:
“You and I will always be.”
Just as McElvene made an impact on the court, so did Layfield. She opened her senior year with 22 rebounds and 20 points against Harvard and finished the season with 387 rebounds, a program record.
Yet for all the fanfare there was another side to her life, one that many black people face.
“You go into a store to shop and people will come up to you repeatedly asking, ‘Can I help you?’ when they’re really just keeping an eye on you,” she said. “When you leave a place like Walmart, you can be sure they stop the black person to look in their bags.”
She said even the most supportive white people don’t know “what it’s like to walk in our shoes and be singled out just because of your skin color.”
While that would skewer anyone’s outlook, Layfield said, “You can’t just lash out at everybody. What does being mad at the word do for you? So I try to turn a negative into a positive.”
Hoping for change
Still, she bristles when she hears some people today tell athletes to forget the social commentary and stick to sports.
“We are sports,” she said with a bit of an edge in her voice. “If you look at a lot of college teams, the majority of athletes are African American. Look at the NBA and the NFL, where so many of the players are black.
“Some folks want us to entertain them, but when it’s something that concerns our well-being and that of our families, they just want us to be quiet.
“But folks won’t be silent now. We have a platform and we’re going to speak out and I think a lot of things are going to change.”
Since the protests began that has already begun to happen across the nation
In Louisville, the police chief was fired after McAtee’s killing because, once again, the cops had turned off their body cameras.
And on Thursday the Louisville Metro Commission voted unanimously to pass Breonna’s Law which bans police from using no-knock warrants.
With so many more changes needed, Layfield said she will continue to join the nightly protests.
And that brought to mind another of her tattoos she once explained to me.
Inside her left middle finger she has inked the simple motto:
It meant she could overcome challenges and make her mark.
She did it on the court at UD.
Now she’s doing it again on the streets of Louisville.
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