Abolition for the People

Breonna Taylor and Bearing Witness to Black Women’s Expendability

Why #SayHerName is crucial to the struggle for Black freedom

This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.

September 23, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the much-anticipated decision on whether Breonna Taylor’s killers would be prosecuted. Guided by Cameron’s judgment of the legality of the officers’ actions, a grand jury decided that none of the officers involved in killing Breonna Taylor would stand trial for her death.

Cameron’s gut-wrenching announcement came on the 65th anniversary of another jury decision that absolved white men for a murder that transformed the nation: On September 23, 1955, 12 white jurors took less than two hours to acquit two white men of torturing and killing 14-year-old Chicago native Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi.

Mamie Till’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son — in order to, in her words, “let the people see what they did to my boy” — awakened an entire generation of young African Americans to take up the centuries-long struggle for Black freedom. Her simple act demanded that the world bear witness to the profound savagery of white racism and to reckon with the complicitous legal system that effectively facilitated its ongoing horrors.

Like the murder of Emmett Till three generations ago, the police killing of Breonna Taylor and the legal judgment that lent it legitimacy may inspire a new generation to repudiate policing, illegitimate state power, and its legalized facilitation against Black bodies.

Indeed, the galvanizing dimension of Emmett Till’s murder was not the shock that a lynching had happened in 1955, but that such a gruesome, unspeakable killing was licensed by a legal system that would hold no one accountable. Similarly, the state’s judgment that no legal or moral harm had been done to Breonna Taylor offers an abject lesson in the contemporary ways that law has facilitated a particularly lethal relationship between Black bodies and the police. The fact that the officers who killed her would be subject to no consequences for taking her life uncloaks both the failed structures of our legal system and the long overdue confrontation with how the contours of acceptable police practice are shot through with anti-Black racism.

This unveiling could well be a ground-shifting moment in the epic struggle against anti-Black violence. Like the murder of Emmett Till three generations ago, the police killing of Breonna Taylor and the legal judgment that lent it legitimacy may inspire a new generation to repudiate policing, illegitimate state power, and its legalized facilitation against Black bodies.

If Breonna’s story serves as the cornerstone for a generation of activism, like Emmett’s did, it will foreground something new in the Black freedom struggle, something that the #SayHerName Campaign has been fighting for since 2014. It will make all Black women central to any analysis of and challenge to anti-Blackness.

Some will seize on differences between the two killings to discount the relevance of Emmett Till’s death to Breonna Taylor’s. Emmett was tortured and killed by vigilantes enforcing Southern codes of white supremacy, and his killers were acquitted after a full trial by an all-white jury. The trial’s faux-murder-mystery frame belied the fact that jurors had every reason to know that the two accused had conspired with others to kidnap and kill the 14-year-old. Their hasty acquittal amounted to a brazen act of jury nullification. Breonna, by contrast, was killed by sworn officers who were executing a warrant. Her death was ultimately framed by a grand jury — sealed proceedings headed up by Kentucky’s African American Attorney General — as a permissible homicide, committed during the course of law enforcement.

In both Breonna’s and Emmett’s deaths, the state blamed the victims for alleged behaviors that triggered the murderous responses by white men empowered to exercise their prerogative to kill. Pretense abounded in both the assertion that there really was reasonable doubt that J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and that Myles Cosgrove, Brett Hankison, and Jonathan Mattingly really had no choice but to shoot into Breonna Taylor’s home — stopping to reload — after they encountered one shot from an occupant who had the right to fire it.

The overkill on display in these murders renders the racially punitive aspects of both exceptionally legible: Neither death would be remotely imaginable had the racial roles been reversed. The contemporary failure to hold police accountable for their wanton disregard for Black lives is as much of an expression of embedded racial power as was the legal facilitation of white supremacist vigilante violence. And it has forced every Black woman to confront a horrifying fact: “Breonna could easily be me.”

Like so many of us, Breonna had curled up in the arms of a loved one after a long day of work to watch a movie as she drifted off to sleep. In the wee hours of the morning she was abruptly awakened by an attack on her home from persons unknown. It escalated after a single gunshot fired from her boyfriend in self-defense prompted at least 32 rounds from the plainclothes firing squad attempting to annihilate them both. After being struck by a fusillade of bullets, she took her last breath as her boyfriend begged her to stay with him, never knowing that the very men who took her life were the same men sworn to protect her.

Those of us who have chanted “We are Breonna Taylor!” are saying that we can imagine our lifeless bodies left in the hallways of our homes. We can imagine ourselves exposed for hours while uniformed vultures pick through the remnants of our lives, seizing upon choices we made and those that were made for us in order to quiet the qualms that might otherwise arise had we been another woman in a different body, in a different part of town, living a different life, with a different man endeavoring to protect us.

We can watch in our minds’ eye the belated but widespread saying of our names to insist that our shuttered futures would be made to count for something. We can feel the hope that with the gaze of the world finally upon us, that the fact that we had done nothing wrong would make it wrong that we’d been reduced to nothing. And we can taste the tears that mark our bitter awareness that despite the countless demands to arrest the cops that killed us, our deaths would ultimately be dismissed as just one of those things that happens: A no-harm, no-foul misfortune that counts among the acceptable costs of maintaining the anti-Black foundations of police and policing.

Reduced to collateral damage, our deaths can seem so natural that some Black men dismiss them with the same breezy equation that Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal did: A man had shot at intruders in self-defense, and for his mistaken belief that the right to self-defense applies to us, our deaths are justified. Black women like Breonna Taylor have been shunted — by race, class, and gender — into a place far from the gated neighborhoods men like Barkley and O’Neal have been permitted to occupy. It’s hard to believe that the same violence and the same justification would be accepted had it been their wives or girlfriends whom they’d sought to protect.

This double loss of life — first at the hands of police, and then in the justification of death — might otherwise have continued unaddressed were it not for the fact that this time the whole world has borne witness. The open and notorious exposure of the brutal truth that lays beneath the surface of law-and-order justification is fully legible with unprecedented clarity. Breonna, like Emmett, lost her life according to the false imperative that this is just the way things have to be. It’s a lie built around a contingent set of practices that reflect and sustain a historic pattern of police power that is racist and patriarchal.

Breonna Taylor’s murder stands as a potential historical parallel to Emmett Till’s only if the gendered racism that Black women have always faced is understood to be as vital to our justice demands as was the gendered racism that killed Emmett Till. Emmett’s body forced us to confront the volcanic reservoir of white supremacy that was fed a boy’s life — a ritualist sacrifice born out of the white male ownership of white women. His murder was a bloodsport that was inhumane even if the claims that preceded it had been true. That it was predicated on a lie adds but an asterisk to the horror it unleashed.

That the murder was situated as a conflict between men — supposedly between a Black boy and white men over the sexual ownership of a white woman’s body — did not diminish that Emmett’s death was a symbol of the overarching subordination of the entire Black community. Its gendered specificity only enhanced the virulence of anti-Black racism, writing Emmett into a long history of legal and extra-legal lynchings that was understood as the quintessential embodiment of white supremacy. His murder helped frame a zoomed-out view of how lost lives in the 1950s were linked to lost lives in the 1930s, 1920s, 1870s, and 1610s. It was a murder that connected a chain of tyranny expressed from within law and at its margins.

Emmett Till’s death continues to ground a particular vision of anti-Black racism rooted in patriarchal white supremacy. But the telling remainder of that story is in the discarding of Black women as subjects of anti-Black racism. For us to mobilize around Breonna Taylor in the same way our foremothers and forefathers mobilized around Emmett, we must bear witness to the ways that Black women’s precarity is a continuous enactment of surveillance and punishment grounded in slavery’s logics.

To bear witness to this buried history, we must equip ourselves with tools to excavate and recover. This is the work of the African American Policy Forum and our #SayHerName Campaign: to re-center Black women’s vulnerability as the subject of anti-racist mobilization.

Turning back the clock on #SayHerName links Breonna’s vulnerability in her own home to the fact that Black women were unsafe in the slave quarters, in the fields, and in the homes of white people that they worked for. It regrounds anti-racism in the reality that Black women have never had the right to self-defense — at least not one that the state was bound to respect.

Thinking of #SayHerName within this broader historical context opens up the possibility of reclaiming what’s been forgotten, and recalibrating our imaginations in a way that broadens the scope of what we are fighting for today. It expands the scope of the state’s role in facilitating, licensing, and authorizing multiple forms of violence against us.

Imagine how integral the fight against misogyny might have become had Fannie Lou Hamer’s struggles against forced sterilization been as centered in the discourses against racism as her struggle to vote was. One can only dream about how sexual harassment and assault would be centered as a form of anti-Black racism if Rosa Parks’ entry into the American imagination began when she was a rape crisis advocate for Recy Taylor. And one can only envision the world we would be living in now if race and gender had not been violently torn apart when Anita Hill came forward and told her story.

Building on #SayHerName and imagining safe futures for all Black women would be a firm step toward a new social order without the terror of the anti-Blackness that suffuses policing in the United States. It would mean not simply becoming witnesses of history, but being activists contesting the consequences of that history in the here and now. It would mean ensuring that the Emmett Tills, Eric Garners, Tamir Rices, George Floyds, and Mike Browns are linked to the Breonna Taylors, Michelle Cusseauxs, Tanisha Andersons, Kayla Moores, and India Kagers — all Black lives lost to police violence. It would mean that all Black women are fully centered in every effort to dismantle the barriers to Black freedom.

It is now up to those of us invested in confronting and challenging this vicious history to decide whether Breonna’s killing will mobilize an entire generation to foreground and challenge the many gendered dimensions of anti-Black racism. For our #SayHerName Campaign, this means working directly with the mothers and sisters of Black women, girls, and femmes killed by police, and amplifying their testimony to inform our activism.

These mothers, like Mamie Till 65 years ago, are fighting to show the world what the law did to their children and to seed a movement to do something about it. Join them, and us, in fighting for a history that could’ve been. One in which all Black lives mattered.

Kimberlé Crenshaw is the co-founder and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum, and a Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School.

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