Inappropriate Or Empowering? 'BreonnaCon' Divides Activists
Saturday marked the first day of “BreonnaCon,” a series of events intended to raise awareness about the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
Over the course of four days, there will be barbecues, food drives and empowerment events, culminating in a march on Louisville Metro Police Department’s training academy on Tuesday.
But the event, and the group organizing it, have been criticized by some local and national activists who say they are making light of Taylor’s death and interfering in the work that local groups were already doing.
Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, was killed in her home on March 13 by LMPD officers serving a “no-knock warrant.” One of the officers has been fired; the others remain on administrative reassignment.
The FBI is investigating the case, as is Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. The city awaits his decision on whether or not he plans to charge the officers.
The case caught national attention in late May as protests broke out in Louisville, and across the country. “Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry against racial injustice and police brutality, and nationally, celebrities, activists and everyday people began calling for justice for Taylor.
In May, Until Freedom, a national social justice organization, came to Louisville and met with Taylor’s family. In early August, the group relocated its staff to Louisville to focus on the Taylor case.
What is Until Freedom?
Until Freedom was founded by national civil rights leaders, including Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, who both co-chaired the Women’s March on Washington. The group has previously advocated for a variety of social justice issues, but in recent months, they’ve focused all their energy on Louisville.
“We have just built a very deep relationship with the family of Breonna Taylor and have promised them that we are going to bring whatever skills, resources and talents that we have to continue to infuse enthusiasm and consistency into the movements here,” said Sarsour.
Some local organizers have welcomed the national megaphone and additional resources the group brought with it. Until Freedom worked with the Louisville Urban League to distribute boxes of food to families in need, and have collaborated with the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
Shameka Parrish-Wright organizes on behalf of the Kentucky Alliance. This weekend, she’s in Colorado to protest the police killing of Elijah McClain.
“So happy Until Freedom is able to hold the #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor protesting down while some of us travel to support others dealing with police abuse and brutality,” she told WFPL in a text message.
But other organizers say Until Freedom is parachuting in and hijacking the hard work of local activists who were involved long before the Taylor case made headlines.
Chanelle Helm works with Black Lives Matter Louisville, and said she had early conversations with Until Freedom about how to amplify local activists without just taking over. She felt like those conversations “fell on deaf ears.”
“The people in the streets are the folks that got this moving,” said Helm. “It isn't the people who have access to the boards, or the multimillion dollar nonprofits. It isn't even the grassroots organizers. It's the people who are seeking justice, not only for Breonna, but for themselves … and that's who we should be moving with and assisting.”
Helm said Black Lives Matter stopped working with Until Freedom in part because she felt the group was focused on the Taylor case to the exclusion of other victims of police brutality and other long-term problems facing Black Louisvillians.
“We have a huge trust problem when it comes to race relations, and how we build in our communities,” said Helm. “We just want to make sure that our people know at the end of the day that we still got them and that we're always gonna be there for them, housing them, feeding them, fighting for them, doing what we can to make sure that they're okay.”
Sarsour said Until Freedom is in Louisville “indefinitely,” and hopes to help build an infrastructure for change that will outlast their presence in the city. She said they are distributing food and working on voter registration and the census, as well as issues of police brutality.
Asked specifically about Black Lives Matter, Sarsour said they are willing to work with any group that wants to work with them.
Controversy over ‘BreonnaCon’ branding
These local tensions around Until Freedom’s role in Louisville spilled onto the national stage with the launch of BreonnaCon this weekend. There was outrage across social media at the use of Taylor’s name in several event titles, like Sunday’s Bre-B-Q, the TaylorMade women’s empowerment event and Bros For Breonna.
At the TaylorMade event, about 100 women gathered to hear from reality TV stars Yandy Smith-Harris and Porsha Williams, as well as Lonita Baker, a lawyer for Taylor’s family. The theme of the event was “Beauty, Money and Justice.”
The free event came with giveaway bags with makeup samples, a buffet and an ivy-covered wall holding glasses of champagne. Everything was donated, organizers said, and intended to encourage people to come out and learn about how to be better advocates for themselves.
“Breonna was all about empowering everyone around her,” Baker told the crowd. “Her saying was, ‘Apply pressure. Pressure burst pipes.’ She wanted everyone to be the best person she could be.”
But on social media and among some local activists, the event was condemned as disconnected from the goal of getting justice for Taylor.
“These events do not impact Daniel Cameron's decision,” said Metro Councilperson-elect Jecorey Arthur. “He's not looking at them as some sort of pressure or some sort of tipping point for what's going to come from his office.”
Arthur, who is a teacher and musician, said he had been asked to be on a panel discussion on Sunday as part of BreonnaCon. He agreed, but once he saw the branding, he became concerned. After consulting with community leaders he trusts, he said he decided to pull out from the event.
“So much response to these events locally has been, ‘we don't want this, we don't appreciate it and it’s inappropriate,” he said. “And I would never want to be a part of something that our community at large sees as exploitation or meme-ification.”
Taylor’s death, maybe more than any recent police killing, has become a social media phenomenon. In seemingly unrelated Instagram, Twitter and TikTok posts, people all over the country are advocating for the termination and arrest of the officers involved in her killing.
Many advocates have said this uniquely 2020 response cheapens Taylor’s life and death — and they see BreonnaCon as the latest iteration of this issue.
“People have died, and it just feels like people treat Black lives as a joke,” Helm said. “And we can move in a way that advocates for justice without adding to that.”
Sam Aguiar, an attorney for Taylor’s family, said while “there may have been other names they could have come up with,” he had no issue with the branding.
“Events shouldn’t be overtaken by the titles given to them,” he wrote in a text message. “We’ve always said to keep saying her name. And they’re still saying her name.”
During her speech at the TaylorMade event, Until Freedom co-founder Tamika Mallory defended her group and BreonnaCon from the criticism they had been weathering. She said they had full support from Taylor’s family, several of whom were in the crowd.
Mallory specifically addressed the “Bre-B-Q”, which had been the subject of much derision on Twitter. People said it was an offensive name, Mallory said, but she’d recently discussed it with Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother.
“When we were talking about Bre-B-Q, she looked at me with almost tears in her eyes and said, ‘wow, Breonna would love Bre-B-Q,’” Mallory said. “And so, y’all can kiss my butt.”