By Faven Brook (Occidental ’21)
The police are killing Black women. However, while everyone seems to remember cases of Black men killed by the police, everyone seems to forget the names and stories of Black women, especially Black trans women, who face the same fate. Unfortunately, that is nothing new. Breonna Taylor’s unjust death is a poignant reminder of this reality. The Louisville Metro Council took it upon themselves to do something – by taking Breonna Taylor’s name and slapping it on a law that serves her no justice. What is Breonna’s Law, why did such an ordinance come to be, and why does the current justice system inherently make it ineffective?
In March of this year, the Louisville Metro Police Department went to Breonna Taylor’s home with a no-knock warrant, forcibly entered her home, and killed Taylor in her sleep. According to Kentucky Revised Statute 507, manslaughter in the first degree is defined as the “[intentional abuse of] another person…who is physically helpless.” It is clear that Breonna Taylor was physically helpless, as she was sleeping in her own home, completely unaware of the fact that the police were going to enter her residence. The police demonstrated an intent to injure as soon as they began shooting at Taylor’s boyfriend and her sleeping body. It is therefore fair to assert that this was a case of manslaughter in the first degree because the intent to injure is a clear form of intentional abuse.
Detectives Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison as well as Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, the officers involved in her case, thus should have been charged with manslaughter and arrested. Not only does arresting the officers prevent them from abusing other members of the public in the future, but an arrest also aligns with what the existing policy calls for in cases of manslaughter. However, the Louisville Metro Council instead created Breonna’s Law: an ordinance that does not offer Breonna Taylor and those affected by her death effective and legitimate justice.
This ordinance offers obvious benefits to the public that were not previously in place. Police will no longer be allowed to ask for, nor will the Louisville government be allowed to administer, no-knock warrants. Additionally, any government actor executing any warrant must now announce who they are when they knock and keep their body cameras on for five minutes before and after the execution of the warrant. These actions could aid in preventing another death like Taylor’s from happening again. Yet there are still many ways in which this ordinance is not meeting the necessities of the people it is supposed to be protecting: Black women. There is no ordinance, candidate, or executive order that can single handedly change a system that is specifically formed to disenfranchise Black people, especially Black women.
Breonna Taylor’s case is just one example of the many ways in which police across the country are failing citizens. The popularity of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020 has made that abundantly clear. A majority of the American public now believes that not only is racism alive and well, but also that protests are justified. Americans are now confronting the idea that racism is structurally incorporated beyond just the police; and defunding them will not solve these problems. In Taylor’s case, the search warrant that was administered had nothing to do with her. The police were looking for an ex-boyfriend of hers, Glover, because he was allegedly involved in drugs. Detective Joshua Jaynes claimed that he had seen Taylor’s ex-boyfriend leaving her home with a package from USPS and heading somewhere he stated was a “‘known drug house.’” Jaynes also claimed he had a “U.S. Postal Inspector” check to ensure that Glover was in fact getting his mail sent to Taylor’s home. However, LMPD never asked the postal inspector’s office to see if there was “suspicious mail” being sent to Taylor’s home; in fact, earlier in the year, a different agency (which the local postal inspector Tony Gooden refuses to identify on record) did check and the postal inspector’s office concluded that there was nothing suspicious happening. Breonna Taylor quite literally had nothing to do with the drug allegations that the warrant was approved for, and Jaynes’ justifications for the warrant’s approval were false.
So why did a judge approve the warrant? One reason could be that the area around Glover and Taylor’s home in Louisville is being gentrified like many other places in the country. Louisville Housing Authority has planned to redevelop that area since 2016, and Glover’s home was a big obstacle for the team attempting to renovate, as was Breonna Taylor’s apartment. Once Taylor was gone, the police went to work on arresting Glover; a couple of months after her death, the city bought Glover’s home. There is some controversy over whether or not the home was sold for the market price or $1, but there is evidence that the city of Louisville antagonized the landlord with public nuisance ordinances until they gave the deed of Glover’s home over.
Gentrification, like racism, is not specific to Louisville. In Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, Black and Brown communities are also unfairly policed. These cities see these disparities reflected in the homeless populations that live in areas like Skid Row and the Tenderloins, with 40% of the houseless population in the United States being Black. The police over-police and arrest Black and Brown communities. This leads to convictions that often render those community members helpless in the fight for affordable housing. Many places refuse to give jobs or public housing to people who have criminal records; this makes police responsible for part of that problem, but what about the mayor that signed off on the policing of poor communities, or the planning departments that have accepted plans for redevelopment in areas that the city has previously neglected? Even if the entire Louisville Metro Police Department were disbanded, there would still be officials trying to destroy Black communities. The current system disenfranchises Black communities in this country so deeply that Breonna’s Law, or any singular public policy decision, could not have fixed it. In fact, the system is so strong that even when Black women take it upon themselves to do something, either in formal or informal political spaces, they are often not able to actually do anything to help other Black women.
Vice Presidential Candidate and Senator Kamala Harris’s time as California Attorney General (AG) serves as a perfect example of how Black women in positions of power often fail to effectively use their clout to institute real change for other Black women. As AG, Harris pushed for truancy laws that punished parents who were unable to get their children to attend school consistently. Her own reports show that those students who had “disproportionately high chronic absence rates” from 2012 to 2016 were African American, Native American, Hispanic, Foster, Special Education, and Low-Income students.
Harris’ attempt at “helping” communities was actually incredibly harmful, especially to Black and Brown communities. When parents are too busy working to get their children to school, or if their children feel uncomfortable going to school and just refuse, the parents can still face punishments like fines. Fines hurt poor families who are already struggling and fail to address the root cause of truancy and low parent involvement. As a Black woman who grew up in Oakland, Senator Harris should have known the struggles parents go through in order to get their children to school, and should have been able to see it was her own community suffering the most from her actions. If the system forces those in formal spaces of power, like Harris, to be so disconnected from the realities of what the people are going through or are realistically able to do, then there is no wonder why Breonna’s Law is an ineffective piece of legislature. With a system that is specifically meant to disenfranchise Black people, even Black women who rise to power within this system can end up hurting other Black women.
For Black women, misogynoir follows them everywhere; they must make sacrifices between their life and their rights, their integrity and their pride, dreams and realties, as well as their blackness and womanhood. Breonna’s Law is ineffective because it doesn’t reform the system that, at nearly every step of the political process, does everything to stop Black women from advancing. It does not resolve the fact that the police murdered her, does not address the gentrification that is taking place in her neighborhood, and certainly does not do enough to prevent this type of systemic oppression from taking the life of another Black woman.