Why The World Says Breonna Taylor’s Name
The night they killed her, police did not say her name.
The first news reports led with an account of a shootout that left one officer wounded and one woman dead over a drug investigation.
Her mother, Tamika Palmer, told Vanity Fair she learned that Louisville Metro Police shot and killed her daughter from the news.
In the aftermath of the March 13 raid, former LMPD Chief Steve Conrad said there was no body camera footage to share from the shooting.
Later, police released a mostly-blank incident report that included the victim’s name, but listed her injuries as “none,” despite the fact that officers shot and killed her in the hallway of her own apartment.
For the first two months following the raid — which took place a week after Kentucky’s first confirmed COVID-19 case — stories of a Black woman shot and killed by police trickled out in news reports amid a deluge of lockdown orders, mask shortages and daily case numbers.
Breonna Taylor’s name was nearly lost to history, like that of other Black victims of police violence. Gabriella Nevarez, Aura Rosser, Alexia Christian, Natasha McKenna; these are names of Black women killed by police in 2014 and 2015. Many more have died since.
Some say this is why Black women need the “Say Her Name” movement. To others, the almost-erasure of the fates of women like Taylor is in line with America’s attempts to rewrite its history in a more flattering light.
Sometimes police and vigilante violence against Black people is too gruesome for the masses to ignore: the lynching of Emmett Till, the beating of Rodney King, the choking of Eric Garner. Most of the examples are of Black men.
Louisville poet Hannah Drake and others say violence is often the price of admission for attention. And in the spring of 2020, unemployed, outraged and stuck-at-home Americans took notice.
In early May the world watched footage of armed white men shooting 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while he jogged in a south Georgia neighborhood. Weeks later, they saw Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on the neck of George Floyd.
“For eight minutes and 46 seconds America was on display to America,” Drake said.
In the absence of video footage of Taylor’s killing, the movement to say her name kept her story in front of the world.
Stories Propel Social Movements
Short stories are easy to remember.
They feed outrage, circulate swiftly and often triumph over more complicated narratives, according to David Meyer, a professor of sociology at UC Irvine and author of “The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.”
Take the story of Rosa Parks. In the simplified retelling, Parks was a tired, elderly woman who refused to move from her seat at the front of the bus. In reality, she was a 42-year-old committed activist and a youth division chapter secretary of the NAACP. Her direct action was the result of meticulous planning and organization.
Parks was not the only one to be arrested for violating bus laws in Montgomery in 1955. In fact, Meyer said activists chose to organize around her because they thought she was a sympathetic figure.
But he said telling a story about hundreds of activist heroes is harder. It’s more effective to tell the story of one person and one event to symbolize a broader set of circumstances.
So it was for Taylor.
She was not the first Black woman to die as the result of police violence, but in 2020 her story resonated with America. In that way, she also stands for all of the Black women who have died under similar circumstances.
But why did her story break through when others didn’t?
“The way that they did it,” said 88-year-old Louisville civil rights activist Mattie Jones. “I feel like it’s almost like assassination. A young woman, a young Black woman home in her bed, not bothering nobody.”
Jones has witnessed the city’s injustice over the decades. She remembers protesting against segregationist policies in downtown Louisville that prevented Black people from ordering sandwiches at a lunch counter, trying on clothes and going to the theater. She remembers speaking with a minister whose son had been beaten by police on his own front lawn.
She said law enforcement practices have not changed.
“We don’t deal with the Klan like we used to deal with the Klan,” she said. “But what happened here? Did the Klan change their uniforms for police uniforms? Did they become judges? Did they become lawmakers? What has happened that we are still being oppressed in the same manner?”
American police have killed Black people for grabbing their own wallet, holding a toy gun, playing video games, on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes and, as in Taylor’s case, for being connected to an alleged drug dealer.
But Taylor was also a 26-year-old emergency room technician working at two area hospitals at the start of a global pandemic — at a time the world heralded health care workers as heroes. The image of a smiling Taylor dressed in her EMT uniform, holding a bouquet of flowers, helped her story go viral.
To Jones, if it could happen to Taylor, it could happen to any Black woman.
“Because you climb a few steps up the ladder, that you’re on your way, you did what they told you to do so now you're supposed to have freedom, if you will,” Jones said.
Social Movements Uplift Stories
Timing was critical to the world taking notice of Taylor’s story. Between the pandemic and the carnage on display from the deaths of Arbery and Floyd, the country was primed to amplify stories of racial injustice. But Meyer said it was more than those elements.
“You can’t organize effectively unless you’ve built an infrastructure way in advance of that,” he said.
And past social movements can lay the foundation for ongoing organizing.
The infrastructure for last year’s racial justice protests — the biggest in the country’s history — goes back to the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida boy shot and killed while walking to his father’s fiancé's house. In the wake of his death, Black women co-founded Black Lives Matter.
The movement gained traction in 2014, following the unfolding tragedies of Eric Garner, who died after police put him in a chokehold, and Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Brown’s death led to widespread protests and the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
At the same time, Louisville was dealing with its own racial tensions, stemming from a series of cascading events that ultimately led to the wrongful arrest of four Black teenagers.
That same night, LMPD arrested Craig Dean, Shaquazz Allen, Jerron Bush and Tyrone Booker Jr., later dubbed the “Misidentified Four,” on the front porch of a west Louisville home. The following year, Louisville Metro Government settled a lawsuit over the wrongful arrests for $1.5 million.
By November 2014, the Louisville chapter of Black Lives Matter was holding rallies outside LMPD headquarters in solidarity with protesters in Ferguson.
“It always comes to a moment where it’s just so much, and it’s not even so much for that area or a particular locale, it’s so much for all of us,” said Chanelle Helm, lead strategic organizer for Black Lives Matter Louisville.
So by the time police killed Breonna Taylor six years later, an advocacy structure was in place, not just in Louisville but around the country. And one key role of Black Lives Matter has been recording and curating the stories of people who lost their lives to police violence.
“You’ve got to remember who your loved one is and keep that centered, because people will erase us like we’ve never existed,” Helm said.
Behind the scenes, Helm said she and others were trying to jump start the machine. They held demonstrations and protested by driving car caravans past the mayor’s house, she said.
It was Taylor’s aunt, Bianca Austin, who shared a photo of Breonna Taylor in her EMT uniform, Helm said. It later went viral, in part because activists spread it so widely.
The demonstrations reached critical mass in Louisville on the night of May 28, hours after LMPD released a recording of the 911 call by Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, from the night of her death. That audio, much like the videos of Arbery and Floyd, helped further awareness of Taylor’s death.
Say Her Name
“Say Her Name” was another crucial element in lifting Taylor’s name into national and international consciousness.
The African American Policy Forum started the campaign back in 2014 with the goal of bringing awareness to the “often invisible names and stories of Black women” who were victims of violence at the hands of police.
“I mean it’s short, it’s simple, and a reminder that if you have nothing else in this world you have your name,” said Drake, the poet.
She said Black women fight to be seen in life and in death.
She remembers walking among the pillars of a Montgomery memorial for Black Americans who had been lynched. Most of the pillars at the memorial included a name, but others simply read “unknown.”
“How can someone be unknown?” Drake said. Someone knew them at some point, they had parents who gave them a name. But history does not know who that person is, and that is the history of America when it comes to Black people, Drake said.
Princeton University African American Studies professor Eddie Glaude Jr. describes this revisionism as a symptom of America’s tendency to see its evils as mistakes on its way to a “more perfect union.”
On the marquee, America purports that “All men are created equal.” In the footnotes reside chattel slavery, Japanese internment camps, Native American genocide, waterboarding and the secret bombing campaign of Laotian farmers.
“Taken as a whole, then, the lie is the mechanism that allows, and has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of [B]lack people and how it deforms the soul of the country,” Glaude Jr. writes in his book, “Begin Again.”
But for every name erased, there are those aching to remember.
Meyer, the sociologist, points to the infinite regress of social movements, each one building on the foundation laid by those that came before.
Helm with Black Lives Matter Louisville said last year’s protests unleashed a whole new world.
“We’re really looking at something different here because of that moment,” she said. “And that’s what we want to name as we come up on the anniversary of these things.”.
When people remember Breonna Taylor and say her name, they share the honest, more complicated story of America in pursuit of a more perfect union.
Breonna Taylor was killed one year ago this week. Here is WFPL’s series remembering her.