Breonna Taylor's Killing Forced Black High School Girls To Grapple With Uncertainty
It was Breonna Taylor’s Twitter account that first struck then-17-year-old Skylar Wooden. After hearing about Taylor’s death last year, the Central High School student found Taylor’s tweets and started scrolling: selfies from nights out, notes of encouragement for her sister, music videos she liked, even mundane complaints about a bad night’s sleep or the freezing weather.
“I just feel like we know so many Breonnas,” Wooden said. “The music she listened to, the way she interacted with people: it was just all so reminiscent of the people who I was walking the halls with every day.”
“It changed the whole narrative of how police are supposed to protect us and serve us," she said. “I definitely just don’t feel that anymore.”
In the year since officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department forced their way into Taylor’s apartment, shot and killed her, Black teenage girls and young women in Louisville have changed. Taylor’s death has forced Black teenagers like Wooden to grapple with the uncertainty of their futures in a racist society, and spurred many onto paths of activism.
The warnings about police weren’t explicit in Wooden’s home, but they were there.
As a Black girl growing up in Louisville, her family taught her at a young age that dialing 911 wasn’t an option if she felt in danger or saw something suspicious.
The first time Wooden started to understand why was in 2012 when a neighborhood watch captain shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Wooden was nine years old at the time.
Just weeks before LMPD killed Taylor, Wooden had a firsthand encounter with police violence. At the homecoming dance for Central High School, Louisville’s historic majority-Black high school, two LMPD officers grabbed and dragged one of Wooden’s Black classmates out of the building, causing minor injuries. The student said he was arguing with the officers because they wouldn’t let his girlfriend wait inside the building for a ride, then they tackled him. Wooden was standing nearby when it happened.
The homecoming incident wasn’t the only memory that flashed through Wooden’s mind when she learned what happened to Breonna Taylor.
“It instantly made me like replay every interaction I’ve ever had with the police in Louisville,” she said.
Not every interaction was negative. There were career days, festivals. Wooden remembered waving at officers marching in the Pegasus Parade during Derby season.
But now she was asking herself, had she waved at one of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor?
She thought about the black-and-white photographs from the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“People being sprayed with hoses — for some reason as a child it never clicked that, like, it was the police doing that,” she said. “Now I understand.”
Wooden started seeing her own experience as part of the larger arc of American history.
After she learned about how Taylor died, the homecoming incident took on new significance. It happened exactly one month before LMPD officers shot and killed Taylor during a middle-of-the-night raid on her apartment.
Police were trying to search Taylor’s apartment as part of a broader narcotics investigation focused on her ex-boyfriend. Her current boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired at them, thinking they were intruders. They returned fire and killed Taylor. Investigators found no drugs or cash at her apartment.
As a member of Central’s Black Student Union, Wooden tried to organize a protest during school hours against LMPD in response to their actions at the homecoming dance, but it never got off the ground.
“I wonder, like, if we have applied pressure and done something, if maybe they would have acted more carefully [when raiding Taylor’s apartment],” she said.
For Wooden’s friend, 18-year-old Central High School senior, Nabou Diallo, it was different.
Diallo grew up with more explicit warnings about the police, especially from her father. In 1999, Diallo’s father was a recent Senegalese immigrant living in California when he heard about a police shooting that shook him to his core. Four police officers in New York City fired 41 bullets at a Black immigrant from Guinea while he was reaching for his wallet, striking him 19 times. Diallo’s father and the victim shared the same first and last names: Amadou Diallo.
After years of warnings from her father, Nabou Diallo was nervous around the police even before officers killed Taylor.
“It didn’t really change the way I see them, but it did make me more scared of them,” she said.
In June of last year, Diallo and her father got pulled over by police in St. Matthews for being out past a curfew imposed by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer after days of mass protests for racial justice. Diallo’s father was picking up Diallo and her three siblings from her mother’s house after work.
“My anxiety was through the roof,” she said.
Her father went through all the steps he’s drilled into his children for years: Keys on the dashboard. Two hands on the steering wheel. No reaching for anything, ever.
Diallo said the officer was polite and told them to go straight home. But her body shook uncontrollably in the passenger seat, and tears rolled down her face. She was terrified because she knew what happened to Taylor, whose death was a central motivator of Louisville’s protests.
“It just makes me feel like no matter what I do — like even if I’m in the comfort of my own house, I’m just minding my business — I’m not safe from being killed,” she said.
An Uncertain Future
Doss High School junior Joleen Gima has big plans. She’s a straight-A student, president of the Doss Black Student Union and wants to go to Howard University. But Taylor’s death cast a new shadow of uncertainty across her future.
“She didn’t see her death coming her way. She didn’t see her death happening,” Gima said.
One reason Black teenage girls and young women in Louisville find Taylor’s death so disturbing is it forces them to grapple with the precariousness of their own futures.
Taylor had a scrapbook in high school, which was obtained by the New York Times. On one page she wrote: “Graduating this year on time is so important to me because I will be the first in my family to accomplish this. I want to be the one who finally breaks the cycle of my family’s educational history. I want to be the one to finally make a difference.”
Taylor achieved that goal, and graduated on-time from Western High School in 2011. She got a good job. She was saving up to buy a home. She did the things society says will propel young Black women toward the American Dream. But none of it saved her from becoming a victim of police brutality.
“It’s so scary because these goals that I set for myself — I don’t know if I’ll be able to reach them,” Gima said.
The other scary part for Gima is the lack of justice for Taylor. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron recommended charges against just one officer. Those were for firing into a neighbor’s apartment, a white family. Gima was in a virtual social studies class when a teacher told them the news.
“And I asked, is there a way that it could be reversed? Is there a way that they could take that back? Because that’s not it. That’s not it,” she said.
Taylor’s case inspired Gima to think about a career in law, to make the justice system more just.
“I want to be a part of that change,” she said. She’ll be a senior next year at Doss.
Meanwhile Wooden is finishing her senior year at Central. She wants to be a filmmaker and tell stories about the Black experience. She’s looking at schools out of state.
“I just need a break from the tensions in Louisville,” Wooden said.
She’s saving up for school, working at W.W. Cousins. Even while selling hamburgers, the tension seeps in.
“Every time an officer comes in it’s just like — I don’t know it’s just like this weird energy. And then we have to give them the uniformed officer discount,” she said.
For Diallo, Taylor’s death reignited her drive to fight racism after a couple years of feeling worn out.
“It kind of rerouted my focus. It kind of made me passionate to talk about that stuff again,” she said.
Diallo is also a senior now, and was recently accepted to Fisk University in Nashville. Like Gima, she’s considering a career in law, or maybe teaching.
For some students, Breonna Taylor’s death has sparked an internal search for healing, for preservation of spirit.
Kyonia Dow provides mental health services at Doss High School. She helps many Black students through the emotions and fear associated with Taylor’s killing.
“For one of those students, their goal was to be comfortable being in the world,” Dow said.
This isn’t something that will happen in one school year, Dow said. But she’s trying to help the student get a strong start.
“Will there be a struggle? Will something else happen that might push you two steps back, where you’ve come one step forward, you know what I’m saying? Yes,” she said. “But it’s about providing those tools to you so you’re able to push through it.”.
Dow is working on this herself, too. She’s Black, and the exact age Taylor would be today if she were still alive: 27.
One thing Dow said her students seek out is action.
Wooden said protesting gave her a sense of hope. She and Diallo went to the Juneteenth protest and gathering downtown last year.
“It was a celebration. And even though it was like, sadness, we were all still [a] community and very strong,” she said.
A bright moment for Wooden was when she saw a former classmate from middle school, a white student, who Wooden had an argument with in eighth grade over his use of the N-word.
“To see three or four years later, he’s actually out here protesting...it was a nice feeling,” she said.
Protests died down after the summer. Diallo worries that people are losing interest in the movement for Black lives. She doesn’t want it to be a fad.
“I loved the support that us as Black people were getting, and I really hope that people haven’t just forgotten about it and abandoned it because it was convenient,” she said.
Diallo wants people to remember what happened to Breonna Taylor.
“It was a life,” Diallo said. “She’s not a symbol....She was a person. And now she’s gone.”
Breonna Taylor was killed one year ago this week. Here is WFPL’s series remembering her.
This story has been updated.