On Breonna Taylor, Criminal Injustice, and Trauma

Last week was the first time in US history that thousands have taken to the streets to demand justice for the life of a Black woman. In cities across the nation, the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements converged to stand for twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor, murdered in cold blood by Louisville, Kentucky, police in her own apartment.

The terrorist attack on Taylor has elicited global outrage for and reckoning with the erasure of Black women from mainstream narratives of police violence. After months of legal silence, the September 23 grand jury decision exonerating three officers of Taylor’s murder was a collective gut punch to her family, Black women, Black people, and Black communities.

Only one officer, Brett Hankison, will stand trial for the charge of “wanton endangerment” for firing ten rounds of his gun that, according to the conclusions of the grand jury, struck the exterior of a nearby apartment. The charge is considered the lowest of four classes of felonies and carries a maximum sentence of five years and a minimum of one. This means that Hankison will more than likely serve less time than a dog killer.

Incidentally, it was announced yesterday that one of the grand jurors filed a request to speak to the public and for the grand jury recordings to be made public, contending that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron misrepresented their deliberations and that they weren’t given the option to indict the two officers who shot Taylor. After being granted an extension, those recordings are expected to be released on Friday, October 2.

Cameron’s sickening declaration that no one was to blame for Taylor’s execution would have been inconceivable if one of Donald Trump’s vaunted white “housewives” had died similarly in the white suburban homes he has sworn to protect. Indeed, Taylor’s killing underscores the danger that “being home” poses to Black women across the nation.

According to the African American Policy Forum, which spearheaded the #SayHerName campaign in 2015, Black women and girls are often victimized by police terrorism in their homes. This threat is magnified by the disproportionate rates of domestic and intimate partner violence Black women experience overall. In October 2019 Atatiana Jefferson was murdered at her home in Fort Worth, Texas, by police officers conducting a “welfare check.” In 2010 seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was murdered during a police raid of her Detroit home. In a brutal echo of the charge in Taylor’s case, the officer who murdered Aiyana was charged with the sole count of “reckless endangerment” and ultimately acquitted.

Decades before, the 1979 murder of Eula Love by LAPD officers in the front yard of her South Los Angeles home was one of the most prominent early examples of domestic police terrorism against Black women. Her murder was a watershed for local activism around police violence and excessive force. I vividly recall attending a community protest and call to action for Love when I was in elementary school. What her murder highlighted to me as a Black girl growing up in Inglewood and South L.A. was how Black homes could never be safe spaces insulated from state violence. Unlike white women, Black women could never expect to receive “domestic” protection, nor be shielded by presumptions about their feminine innocence.

Many Black women and girls have been in deep trauma over the grand jury’s decision in the Breonna Taylor case. It has reopened profound wounds that reflect the everyday dehumanization Black girls face. And it has underscored the way Black women are socially constructed as racial others and “fallen women” (to paraphrase bell hooks). The racist-sexist vilification of Taylor as the girlfriend of a drug dealer who “got herself killed” only reinforces this vicious narrative. It has been widely noted among Black folks that white male murder suspects, from Dylann Roof to Kyle Rittenhouse, who go on savage killing sprees are always treated with Emily Post-like care and civility when apprehended. In a COVID summer that has seen the savage police murder of Dijon Kizzee in Los Angeles three weeks ago for bicycling while Black, and countless others for breathing while Black, the police state has become an even more oppressive everyday presence in Black folks’ lives.

As a teen, I have vivid memories of guns being pulled on me and my friends by police officers in Inglewood, California, when we were on our way home one night. The police later claimed that our car backfired and they mistook it for gunshots. In a matter of minutes we were surrounded by squad cars as the police screamed at us to get out of the car. Panicked by being at gunpoint, I struggled to open the front passenger door. My friend’s brother, who was driving, was handcuffed and forced to lie on the ground. We managed to escape with our lives, but, like so many other Black teens in similar circumstances, a night of fun and frivolity had been transformed into one of terror and trauma. Unlike so many other Black teens, we lived to tell.

Prior to being hired by the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) in 2003, Hankison received a scathing evaluation from his former supervisor at the Lexington Police Department (in Lexington, Kentucky), where he’d worked from 1999 until 2002. He had also been accused of sexual assault. Neither of these issues discouraged the LMPD from hiring him. In any other profession these deficits would be disqualifying, but for far too long the thin blue line has shielded incompetent to murderous officers from due process and accountability.

Reform measures that were promised as part of Louisville’s $12-million settlement to Taylor’s family have been touted as a first step in addressing the police department’s complicity in her death. Yet, these reforms have to be negotiated with the police union, whose notoriously corrupt practices enable officers to operate as though they’re above the law. One of these reforms includes expanding records maintained in officer personnel files. As critics have noted, piecemeal reforms fall well short of addressing the core issue of how entrenched police-state terrorism led to Taylor’s execution. Until the American police state is defunded and ultimately abolished, being at home will continue to be a public health threat for Black women and girls.