The Police Called Breonna Taylor a ‘Soft Target.’ She Wasn’t the First.
Since before this country’s founding, Black women have been treated as vulnerable—and disposable
12:38 a.m. was the last peaceful minute of Breonna Taylor’s life.
On March 13, 2020, at 12:38 a.m., Breonna Taylor and her partner, Kenneth Walker, were asleep in bed. At 12:39 a.m., officers beat on her door for approximately one minute. During that 59 seconds of banging, Taylor shouted at the top of her lungs: “Who is it?” But no one said a word. “No answer,” Walker said later in a police interrogation. “No response. No anything.” The boogeymen kept beating. At 12:40 a.m., Louisville Metro Police Department Officers Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison as well as Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly — all in plain clothes — shattered the forest green front door of Breonna Taylor’s apartment with a battering ram.
The police blindly shot over 20 rounds of bullets into Breonna’s home. Eight of those bullets found their way into Breonna’s Black body, killing her.
Roughly two weeks later, Mattingly spoke with Louisville Police internal investigators. During that conversation, he said that officers had been told that Taylor’s ground floor apartment was a “soft target” — and that Taylor too was a soft target because she “should be there alone.”
A soft target is a person, location, or thing that is deemed to be unprotected. Vulnerable. Powerless against military or terrorist attacks. Attacking soft targets is meant to “disrupt daily life, spread fear.” To destroy dignity. To ambush and bring unexpected carnage. In 1845, attacking soft targets is how J. Marion Sims, considered the father of modern gynecological studies, was permitted to experiment on enslaved Black women — without consent, without anesthesia, and without consideration of their humanity.
In 2015, attacking soft targets is what led to 13 Black women testifying against Daniel Holtzclaw, at the time a police officer in Oklahoma City. They spoke of how Holtzclaw targeted them during traffic stops and interrogations, forced them into sexual acts in his police car or in their homes. Holtzclaw “deliberately preyed on vulnerable Black women from low-income neighborhoods,” prosecutors said, while committing his acts of sexual terrorism. While 170 years separate the hellish acts of Sims and Holtzclaw, what bridges the gap in time — between those two men serially targeting Black women’s identities, dignities, and humanhood — is an unbroken history of war being waged on Black women’s entire selves.
Black women have always been exploited in America. Violated in America. Terrorized in America. Killed in America. The relationship between Black women and America was birthed in targeting and torture.
I cast my mind back to Malcolm X’s rebuking of this nation in 1962, when he said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” It’s as if Brother Malcolm was talking about Breonna’s death before she was even born into this world. Before she was awakened by police pounding on her front door. Before she had a name that needed to be said. While Malcolm’s words may feel prophetic in their precision, they are not. They were painfully predictable. Malcolm lived, and died, in anti-Black America. He was a scholar of America’s history of anti-Blackness.
There has never been a period in the history of America where Black women’s bodies, hearts, minds, and beings have not been reduced to being treated as soft targets. Black women have always been exploited in America. Violated in America. Terrorized in America. Killed in America. The relationship between Black women and America was birthed in targeting and torture.
In antebellum America, White owners of enslaved African women raped them, freely and with legal impunity, often in front of their own families and fictive kin. In Jim Crow America, close to 200 Black women were murdered by lynch mobs in the American South, many having been raped before having their necks bound and burned by knotted nooses before being hanged to death.
Black women, too, were strange fruit.
Black women like Eliza Woods. Woods was a cook. A cook who, in 1866, was accused of poisoning a White woman to death by the woman’s husband. She was arrested and taken from the county jail by a lynch mob. She was stripped naked. She was hung from an elm tree in the courthouse yard. Her lifeless body was then riddled with bullets as over a thousand spectators watched.
In 1899, the husband admitted that he had poisoned his wife — not Woods.
Black women like Laura Nelson. Nelson allegedly shot a sheriff in 1911 to protect her 14-year-old son. A mob of White people seized Nelson and her son and lynched them both, hanging them from a bridge — but not before raping Laura Nelson first.
Elderly Black women like 93-year-old Pearlie Golden (2014), 92-year-old Kathryn Johnson (2006), 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs (1984), and 66-year-old Deborah Danner (2016) — all were in their homes and shot to death by the police. Michelle Cusseaux (2014) was 50. Kayla Moore (2013) was 41. Aura Rosser (2014) was 40. Tanisha Anderson (2014) and Natasha McKenna (2015) were 37. Alesia Thomas (2012) was 35. Miriam Carey (2013) was 34. Charleen Lyles (2017) was 30. India Kager (2015), Sandra Bland (2015), and Atatiana Jefferson (2019) were 28. Mya Hall (2015) was 27. Meagan Hockaday (2015) was 26. Shantel Davis (2012) and Korryn Gains (2016) were 23. Rakia Boyd (2012) and Gabriella Nevarez (2014) were 22. Janisha Fonville (2015) was 20.
The police did not give a damn about these women’s ages. They did not care if they had nearly lived for a century on this earth or if they were just a few years removed from their high school graduation. They killed them just the same. The police have shown that anybody, at any age, can be on the fatal end of their force, if you were born with Black skin.
Aiyana Mo’nay Stanley-Jones was only seven years old. On May 16, 2010, at 12:40 am, a Detroit Police Department special response team officer ended her life. Her last peaceful minutes in this world were spent sleeping on the couch near her grandmother. That’s before a no-knock warrant (at the wrong apartment) was executed. That’s before law enforcement threw a flash-bang grenade through her family’s front window. That’s before the grenade burned the blanket covering Aiyana’s body. That’s before the wooden front door exploded under the force of police boots. That’s before Officer Joseph Weekley fired a single shot that entered Aiyana’s head and exited through her neck — all while an A&E crew were filming an episode of the copaganda program The First 48.
There is no softer target in this world than a sleeping child.
Aiyana never had the chance to reach womanhood, but had she, her “soft target” status, both in perceived personhood and lived location, would have left her vulnerable to domestic anti-Black police terrorism attacks. The disturbing truth is that, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw notes, “about a third of women who are killed by police in the United States are Black, but Black women [in the UA] are less than ten percent of all women.” This speaks directly to the anti-Black police terrorism faced by Black women of all ages in America.
The devil is in the details. Look directly into the data, and see how many of the law enforcers who have killed Black women have been convicted of committing a crime. The American judicial system does not protect Black women. It too treats them as soft targets. The lack of Black women’s names being said in conversations surrounding anti-Black police terror speaks directly to their deaths and narratives as being deemed as unworthy of outrage. Of newsworthiness. Of action.
Breonna Taylor’s killers are free. Brett Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove are walking the streets, free. Breonna was shot dead in her home in March, and now, in August, 143 days later, her killers are free. There is no justice to be had for Black women when the intersections of their Blackness, their class, and their gender mark their bodies, their homes, and their narratives as soft targets to be attacked with little to no consequences.
The politics of Black women being vulnerable to targeting predates America being a sovereign nation. It goes as far back as Virginia’s December 1662 decree stating that the children of enslaved Africans and Englishmen would be “held bond or free according to the condition of the mother.” That notion effectively incentivized sexual terror against Black women, Kali Nicole Gross writes, “as their offspring would swell planters’ coffers — a prospect boon to countless rapes and instances of forced breeding.” One must understand, when you witness Black women passionately protesting on behalf of Breonna Taylor, yes, it is a fight for Black women today, but it is also a part of the uninterrupted fight Black women have always faced in America — the fight against being casualties of “soft target” terrorist attacks.