The world is still in the middle of a pandemic, and since March of this year, most of us in the U.S. have been asked to stay home in order to keep ourselves and our fellow citizens safe. I had successfully quarantined for nearly two and half months, cooking 100% of my meals and venturing out for "essentials" only, but in May when I heard about Breonna Taylor and understood why she was indeed not “safer at home,” I couldn’t for the life of me continue to stay in mine. For the first time ever, I boarded a plane to another state to attend a protest where I learned first-hand what happened to Breonna Taylor and how the on-going events that lie in the wake of her death hold the intersectionality of police accountability, patriotism, feminism and gentrification.
What We Know About What Happened To Breonna Taylor
On March 13, 2020, just moments before 12:43 a.m., Breonna was home sleeping peacefully with her boyfriend in preparation for her next shift as an emergency room technician. We know she and her boyfriend were then abruptly awoken by multiple knocks at Breonna’s front door. After a few moments, the door flew off its hinges from the outside and her boyfriend, who is a legal gun owner, fired a single warning shot at strangers he and Breonna deemed to be intruders. That shot hit the first intruder in the leg. Almost immediately, additional presumed intruders then fired more than 20 rounds of ammunition into Breonna’s apartment and the neighboring residence. Five of those bullets hit Breonna. We know that those same three intruders then fled the apartment without administering medical aid to Breonna, who was still alive at the time. We know her boyfriend, in a state of confusion and terror, called 911 to report that “somebody kicked in the door and shot [his] girlfriend.” And we know the unknown intruders that entered Breonna’s home and caused her death are police officers, still.
According to Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, it was a long and quiet two months that passed as she sought out answers from the Louisville Metro Police Department to no avail. Kenneth Walker, Breonna’s boyfriend and the only witness to the shooting, was arrested while Breonna laid dying on the hallway floor of her apartment. A chilling video captured by an upstairs neighbor shows Kenneth walking out of the complex while nearly ten police officers berate him with commands to “walk backwards,” but also “walk faster.” Kenneth is sobbing in the video like he was on the 911 call, while repeating the word “help” to the officers and medical personnel to go inside and save his girlfriend. Following his arrest, Kenneth was charged with attempted murder for the shot he fired, despite it being a lawful action in the state of Kentucky when one is fearful for their life. Kenneth’s charges were later dropped without prejudice, but not in time for him to attend Breonna’s funeral.
It was not until protests began to ripple across the country in response to the killings of Ahmad Aubrey and George Floyd that the name Breonna Taylor began to be somewhat amplified. However, for the most part, her story has existed on the periphery of the national outcry.
Via social media, many people began to question why this is the case. In all the comments and conversations I read or participated in, the majority consensus offered three justifications: (1) Breonna’s death was not caught by camera phone (nor body cam, as the officers wore off-duty clothing with no such gear); (2) Breonna was a Black woman (the #SayHerName campaign exists to demand inclusivity of slain women when challenging state sanctioned violence against Black people); and (3) her death has been reduced to an unfortunate accident not worthy of any punitive action. Each of these ideas deserve their own op-eds, but I mention them because I believe all three play a major role in why justice has thus far been denied for Breonna.
Holding Law Enforcement Accountable
Public interest aside, what is indisputable are the actions that have been taken by leadership in Minnesota, Georgia and Kentucky in response to officer and former officer involved killings. Justice for anyone wrongfully killed by an officer begins with leadership and accountability. For example, George Floyd was killed on a Monday in May, the police involved were fired by the Minnesota mayor on that Tuesday, then charged and arrested by that Friday. Whereas, Ahmad Aubrey’s death in Georgia occurred back in February; the men, including a retired officer, who stalked and killed him were not charged or arrested until May — 74 days after he was killed. Up until the horrific camera phone footage of Ahmad’s murder was released, the state’s prosecutor saw no need to even present facts to a grand jury to determine if there was probable cause to bring criminal charges. Once the video surfaced, that same prosecutor later recused herself from the case all together, citing that the former officer involved had previously worked as an investigator in her office.
For Breonna Taylor, the police responsible for her death in March of this year have continued to walk free of any charges or arrests. In response to demands to fire the officers, Louisville’s Mayor Fischer made claims in an Instagram post that his hands were tied in the matter, because it would cost too much taxpayer money and that the officers would only be re-hired somewhere else, in which case the word, “copout” comes to mind. Pun-intended.
Furthermore, in response to the Louisville resident’s calls for transparency in the — at that point — 80-plus day investigation of Breonna’s death, the LMPD made an official public release of a nearly blank investigation report. To add further insult, the report indicated “no” with question to the police’s use of forced entry and “none” with regards to Breonna’s injuries.
In response to further protests, letters and calls (all measures I personally exercised), Kentucky’s Attorney General Daniel Cameron took on the investigation in late May, but did not offer any further transparency or timeline of when the public could expect to receive updates or actions from his office. In fact, while many waited with baited breath for more announcements from him, the only update that came concerning the AG was that he closed on a new house and threw a party with his girlfriend, sharing with the world, “we’re engaged.”
The scales of justice only began to balance themselves upon truth and fairness surrounding Aubrey and Floyd's death because citizens nationwide called upon the leadership in those cities to be courageous enough to hold law enforcement accountable, and those leaders were honorable enough to do so. This sort of leadership is what all citizens should be able to rely upon from elected officials across any political party, but when it was learned that Attorney General Daniel Cameron had a campaign fully backed by the Fraternal Order of Police and openly declared Kentucky to be “Trump Country,” those interested in justice for Breonna became gravely concerned that leadership in Kentucky would not respond as it had in the other cities.
On June 7, 2020, when Tamika Mallory, co-founder of Until Freedom, a non-profit activist organization, posted to Instagram a call-to-action for a protest in Louisville, the only questions I posed to myself were how would I get there and what exactly were we going to do?
I had already begun to follow Tamika’s activism after her profound speech in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at a George Floyd rally and in connection with Lonita Baker (the attorney representing Breonna’s family). I understood her to be a committed and trustworthy leader, so with little time left to sign-up as a participant, I quickly researched her organization and their intended plan of action.
There wasn’t much to be found, which was actually somewhat of a good sign to me; it implied someone was protecting the integrity of the plan and the safety of all involved. After a few days of weighing all the options and risks, including meditating and praying on the idea, I concluded that I would participate. I packed a bag, invited a trusted friend, bought a plane ticket, got a COVID-19 test (it came back negative) and all was a go.
In a few days, I found myself in Louisville marching down a long wooded two-lane road alongside my friend, Marquis, and 100-plus additional protestors. Until Freedom had led us in a non-violent and civil disobedience training earlier that day, where I got to know many local activists and young leaders from all over the country. While marching we social-distanced ourselves as best as anyone’s adrenaline would allow. A local news chopper began to hover over-head and many cars crept by to see what was happening. It was a very hot day, but our intentions were calm and focused.
Less than a couple minutes into our march, the traffic on the other side of the road began to blow their horns in rhythmic support of our first chant, “Say Her Name, Breonna Taylor,” as they passed by. Black fists, white fists, brown fists hung outside car windows in solidarity.
Another one of our chants was a call and response that said, “Show me what democracy looks like? This is what democracy looks like!” It didn’t occur to me at the time, but our protest, like many others from New York City to Portland, was also a display of what patriotism looks like. Patriotism by definition is the vigorous support of one’s country, and there were about 120 of us representing so many different groups and classifications of American citizens unified in our concern of justice for Breonna Taylor and our radical optimism about what leadership in our country is capable of.
Retrospectively, we can appreciate that among us were Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, Arabic, White Americans; LGBTQ folks; cis-gender men and women; gender-non-conforming people; able-bodied, dis-abled bodied people; immigrants; folks with various religious, spiritual and atheist beliefs alike; all social-economic classes or levels of privilege from artists and celebrities, to TV stars, NFL athletes and more. It was the kind of unity that would make J. Edgar Hoover roll in his grave (per his notion that the alignment of “Blacks” and young whites was the one of the most dangerous threats to America).
Once we rounded into the neighborhood of our destination, parents and their children came out of their homes to witness our march. Others chanted along with us and held Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter signs. Before long we were outside the home of none other than Attorney General Cameron.
Now, if you saw a picture, witnessed via live feed or watched news coverage of the raw footage, you would have seen us wearing mostly white T-shirts that said Until Freedom on the front and #BreonnaTaylor on the back. After orienting ourselves we walked onto the lawn and sat down in three rows. The majority of us protesters were seated in what true yogi’s would call Sukhasana pose, a cross-legged position of peace. Every protester wore COVID-19 protecting masks with Breonna Taylor written over them, and from our lips rang a repetitive call and response of “Say Her Name, Breonna Taylor.”
Within minutes, a unit of about 20 officers came and surrounded us on the lawn. They weren’t wearing riot gear or carrying guns with rubber bullets, but instead dawned their vests and their very real deadly weapons, however, not one of the 87 of us who dared to sit on Daniel Cameron’s lawn were unclear about who we were there to oppose; it was not those individual officers or even Daniel Cameron himself, but rather the system of leadership and law enforcement that has thus far failed to protect Black lives by not holding bad actors lawfully responsible for their actions.
White supremacy sits at the bedrock of policing in our country. We know there are indeed many cities and communities who have left that dark truth in the past, but the vast majority of our nation’s city police forces are holding on to that past with all their might. Many otherwise progressive cities and states have had their highly regarded police forces infiltrated by white supremacists, and those individuals are taking advantage of their proximity to power, resources and qualified immunity; because that is the case, it is critical that all fair and just citizens scrutinize the tactics of law enforcement and call upon elected officials to hold police accountable for their transgressions.
The Attorney General is the chief enforcing officer of the law in any state, so our insistence upon continuing to sit upon his lawn was indicative of our collective belief that an America where all Black lives are deemed worthy of justice, is undoubtedly an America worth fighting for. Steadfast in that belief, we willingly put our bodies between a dark past/present and a very necessary future. And consequently, all 87 of us who stayed were arrested.
Before that day, I had never been arrested, never received so much as a point on my license, but when the officer came over to me I surprisingly did not flinch. She asked if I had any weapons on me, asked what my name was and then fully searched me. Once the citations were written up all 87 of us were then transported via paddy-wagon to the Louisville Metro Police Correctional facility.
The ride was probably the most disturbing experience of everything. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a space so small and dark in my life; the walls were so close there wasn’t enough room to sit forward and hold my hands down behind me with the handcuff zip ties on. Thankfully, the woman beside me, Malinda, was shorter than I and so kind as to insist that I turn diagonally towards her, which provided some relief. In the meantime, every time I felt my mind wanting to drop into a claustrophobic panic attack I concentrated on the sound of Malinda’s voice. It turned out she had lots of friends and family from the part of North Carolina I was born and raised in. Hearing her recount her experiences in my hometown and place of peace helped a great deal.
When we finally made it to LMPC, we all waited in a garage chain-linked together until we received COVID-19 temperature checks and were officially booked. After having my mugshot taken, I was escorted to a holding cell with 26 other women, where the ability to social distance was impossible; not to mention, the N95 mask I wore in the paddy wagon was confiscated and replaced by a mask of lesser quality.
Though the situation in the holding cell was far from ideal, the next 15 hours would prove to be one of the more divine experiences of 2020 for me. Our leaders Tamika and Linda Sausour (another Until Freedom co-founder) had the presence of mind to have us go around the room to introduce ourselves, sharing where we were from and why we came to protest. What followed were the accounts of women choosing to stand up for other women, or stand up for themselves; stories of pain, struggle, loss at the hands of state violence, resilience and deep love of womanhood. What became abundantly clear was that the white women in the room made the intentional choice to show up and fight on the frontlines for a Black woman (Breonna) and alongside those of us who identified as Black women — the kind of alignment that could bring Sojourner Truth back to life just to see it for herself (per her reason for writing the famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech).
All of us ladies echoed the sentiments of not accepting that Black women were less important in the fight for Black lives or for women; nor that Ms. Palmer, or Breonna’s sister, Juniyah Palmer, should be left to fight for Breonna’s justice alone. Additionally, there were Black women who shared accounts of their own reckoning with our willingness to race to the defense of others, but treading slowly to do so for ourselves and were finally questioning why that was. Tears, prayers, songs, laughs were all involved. It was powerful, progressive and transformative. There was love in the room — radical love among women and for the future.
Eventually, the night grew long, the toilet in the corner with no covering became more gross, the room started to get colder — our stomachs hungrier, the benches harder and the black mold more concerning, but the space and time we shared became ours to know and hold forever.
By 4 a.m. we got word that all protesters would begin to be released little by little. From next door we could hear the guys chanting to “free the guys”, but “first, free the girls.” In those more trying hours between 4 a.m. and 11 a.m. (when I was finally released), I could hear the men who’d been arrested were also making the most out of a very difficult situation by engaging in their own bonding time.
We didn’t know until later, but of the 87 of us arrested, 67 were women and 20 were men. There is no doubt in my mind that every man among us was also a feminist. Each of them showed up, followed the leadership of women, supported women, organized without needing to be out front and willingly put themselves in the way of danger. Their actions affirm the notion that it is just as important for men to show up to the fight for women as it is for non-Black people to show up to the fight for Black folks. And in one night we had it all.
When we were released from the jail the next day, we were met by a crowd of people from Louisville who came to show their support. Someone shoved a bottle of water under my arm, a container of breakfast in my right hand, while pouring a glob of hand sanitizer in the other — all before I could take four full steps. The adjustment to receiving my temporarily suspended freedom back was a bit overwhelming to my senses, but I was very thankful they were there.
What’s This Have To Do With Gentrification?
Since our release, the Government Oversight and Audit Committee of the Louisville Metro Council has launched an internal investigation of Louisville’s Mayor Fischer for his handling of the Breonna Taylor investigation, the death of another resident David McAtee and his treatment of protestors. Turns out some 485 protesters have been arrested since Breonna’s death.
Additionally, a very concerning connection has been made that links the mayor to a special police unit called “place-based investigations.” The mayor allegedly organized this unit in order to clear out a particular area of town for a multi-million dollar redevelopment plan. There were a few homeowners in that part of town who refused to sell their properties, including the man police were sent to investigate in connection to Breonna Taylor. The Metro Council found this particularly disturbing because they claim no one on the council, but the mayor, ever even knew this unit existed.
Development, and even gentrification, can actually be a beautiful thing — when it benefits the original occupants of the space — but we also know that neglect on behalf of city officials and housing authorities is very real. In addition to policing, our country holds a dark past with using unlawful and violent measures to take and acquire land for the sake of development, which persists today. While I hope the findings of the investigation show that the mayor’s efforts to redevelop did not have a domino effect on why Breonna Taylor is no longer with us, the uncovering of such a truth would not be a far reach at all.
As for the American feminist patriot citizens now known as the Louisville 87, it was not until we were released that we learned of our charges: Criminal Trespass 3rd Degree (Violation), Disorderly Conduct 2nd Degree (Class B misdemeanor) and Intimidating a Participant in a Legal Process (Class D felony). Yes, you read that correctly — for the felony charge, which was rightfully dismissed, we were looking to potentially face one to five years in prison, if convicted — which was a scary proposition for a couple days. But then, nothing was or is more frightening than living in a world where people are allowed to take Black lives with impunity.
It’s been over 160 days since Breonna Taylor was killed and the residents of her hometown of Louisville continue to occupy the streets on her behalf. While I’m back in the safety of my own home, I still have so many questions: How is it that Breonna’s boyfriend feared for he and Breonna’s life — yet had the poise and grace to fire a single warning shot at intruders in self-defense — but the police officers who are trained and had planned to enter Breonna’s home lacked any semblance of that same composure? If the suspect in question that the LMPD associated in connection to Breonna was already in custody, what made it necessary to request a no-knock warrant and use force such as a battering-ram to enter her home in the first place? Are tax dollars really the only things standing in the way of firing Breonna's killers? Why is this investigation taking so long? Why do we have to give up our time and freedom to get people to even care? And do the contributions of officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove matter more to the state of Kentucky than Breonna Taylor’s?