On March 13, Breonna Taylor was awakened around 1:00 a.m. by a banging noise, just minutes before her door was forced open by a battering ram. In the frantic seconds of the botched raid that followed, her boyfriend fired a single shot, while police, in return, fired 22 bullets. The result is that this young, Black woman with her life in front of her suddenly lay dead on the floor.
That’s how Breonna’s final moments on this Earth are described in a federal lawsuit, and yet, none of the officers involved in the death of the unarmed paramedic and aspiring nurse have been arrested. And with all of the rage brought to the surface by the recent demonstrations and marches across the nation, Breonna’s case has somehow been overshadowed by the videotaped death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Both cases involve Black victims who died at the hands of white officers, but as a community, we’ve decided that Floyd’s death was more horrific, and therefore more important. Without having actually seen Breonna shot to death, her body riddled with eight bullets by police who entered her home with a “no-knock” warrant, is her death somehow less horrific? As sickening as it was to see Floyd begging for his life while an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, what we didn’t see in Breonna Taylor’s case could be even worse.
RELATED: OPINION | Why I Run In Honor Of Ahmaud Arbery
That’s because the three plainclothes Louisville police officers who came to her home that night in an unmarked car were not wearing body cameras. Therefore, we only see her death in the text of the lawsuit that tells the story of that fateful night from the perspective of Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, the only living witness who is not a police officer.
Walker, a licensed gun owner, said he dialed 911 and then fired a single shot in self-defense because he didn’t know that the men bursting into the apartment were police officers.
'I don't know what happened ... somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend,' Walker can be heard telling the dispatcher on the call.
Until last week, he was on home arrest for attempted murder, but realeased after mounting pressure from activists and protestors.
The problem with this case is that police should not have been there in the first place. The man they were seeking on a drug warrant was already in custody before they arrived at Breonna’s apartment. In the lawsuit surrounding the case, her family says police fired those shots blindly. Neither she nor her boyfriend had criminal histories or drug arrests and no illegal drugs were found in the home. They were simply sleeping.
Last time I checked, there was no death penalty for sleeping while Black, but because a judge had approved a “no knock” search warrant that allowed officers to enter the home without identifying themselves, a chain of events was set in motion that resulted in this woman’s death.
Now, on what would have been Breonna’s 27th birthday, when she and Walker should be celebrating and planning for their future together, Breonna isn’t living at all. And while Louisville’s police commissioner has since been fired in the wake of another controversial police shooting, none of the officers who recklessly took her life have been arrested.
This must change.
Maybe in another time, police killing an unarmed Black woman asleep in her own home would dominate the news cycle. But when a deadly virus has killed more than 100,000 Americans and set the stage for Great Depression-era unemployment rates, stories like Taylor’s become less compelling. When protests, violence, fires, and looting rock American cities after police kill an unarmed Black man, stories like Breonna’s fall by the wayside. When the fight for Black lives routinely portrays men as headlines and women as footnotes, we are left with a single question in cases like this one.
What will it take to get justice?
I asked lawyer and critical race theorist Dr. Tim Golden to look at the case from both a legal and social perspective. He didn’t mince words.
A criminal case is going to be difficult to prove, he said, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
‘I think this would have to be a charge of involuntary manslaughter because the police didn’t intend to kill Breonna Taylor, but in the course of that I think that there’s an argument,’ he said. ‘Not that they were reckless, but that they were at least negligent in their duty to enforce the law. It just looks incompetent. A—you’re at the wrong house and B—the person you’re pursuing is already in custody.’
Dr. Golden, however, believes the police have a built-in defense saying, ‘The police are going to turn around and say Kenneth Walker fired at them and actually hit one of them, and so they’re going to have a strong case for self-defense.’
Perhaps that’s true, but as the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI review the police department’s internal investigation of the shooting, and the Kentucky attorney general prepares to act as a special prosecutor, I am outraged that this case has not moved forward. This kind of slow justice does not happen to white people. They don’t need online petitions to call attention to their cases. And the reasons for that are tied to this country’s history of policing.
‘The police are there historically to protect the financial and property interests of the white racial empire,’ Dr. Golden told me. ‘And the people deputized to protect their interests tend to be poorer whites.
‘The history of policing suggests that the police are there to protect society from Black people for the benefit of white people,’ Dr. Golden said. “We have yet to escape that societal trap.”
As many have commemorated George Floyd’s life with an 8 minute and 46 second moment of silence, I hope we can all make similar efforts for Breonna on her birthday. Start by saying a prayer for her mother, sister, boyfriend and those who are suffering through her absence today. In the same vein and with the same energy, we have to keep pushing for her killers to be held accountable and to change the system that continues to protect them. Her death cannot be in vain. She cannot be forgotten.
Solomon Jones is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer, where he writes regularly about race and class. A strong voice in Philadelphia radio, Jones has been featured nationally on CNN, ABC’s Nightline, NPR, HLN, TV One, and Al Jazeera.