Building a World Where Breonna Taylor Could Live
Victory will not be achieved through prosecutions, but through transforming the conditions of violence
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.
The outcry in response to Breonna Taylor’s murder by the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department is indisputably unprecedented — I have never, in my two and a half decades of organizing to end police violence against Black women, seen billboards, mainstream magazine issues, celebrities, or an entire basketball season dedicated to demanding justice on behalf of a Black woman killed by police. Police violence against Black women, is, at least to some degree, indeed invisible no more.
The thing is, visibility is only the starting point, not the endgame.
The goal is a world where Breonna Taylor would still be with us. A world where Black women aren’t the group most likely to be killed by police when unarmed, the women most likely to experience arrest or use of force during a traffic stop, the fastest-growing arrest, prison and jail populations. The goal is a world where cops like Daniel Holtzclaw don’t target Black women, queer, and trans people for sexual violence. The goal is a world where Black women don’t face the highest levels of domestic, sexual, and community violence alongside Native women.
As shown by the decision not to indict anyone for Breonna’s murder, accountability won’t come from the system that sent them to her door.
Black women’s experiences of policing and safety teach us that abolition is the path that leads us there.
Yet, overwhelmingly, the primary call of the chorus demanding #JusticeforBreonna is for arrests and prosecutions of the cops who killed her. And, as shown by the decision not to indict anyone for her murder, accountability won’t come from the system that sent them to her door.
As Mariame Kaba and I wrote in July for Essence, “We want far more than what the system that killed Breonna Taylor can offer — because the system that killed her is not set up to provide justice for her family and loved ones…Families and communities deserve more than heartbreak over and over again each time the system declines to hold itself accountable.”
Beyond leading to dead ends, calls for prosecutions legitimize the criminal punishment system by promoting the idea that it can do justice in individual cases — against cops, a premise that directly undermines our wholesale challenges to its legitimacy on the grounds that it systematically defines justice as killing, maiming, raping, caging, and deporting Black people. As longtime abolitionists Rachel Herzing and Isaac Ontiveros taught me:
If we apply the same logic to the state that we do to ourselves, however, the same questions remain: how does putting an agent of the state in a cage hold the state accountable? How does prosecuting an agent of the state highlight the systemic nature of repression and genocide of Black communities and not simply exceptionalise this situation as the result of one bad cop?… Appealing to the same system that engineers and executes repression and genocide of poor people, youth, queer communities, and communities of color for remedies only strengthens that system’s hold over us.
Calls for police prosecutions offer an illusion of justice while reinforcing the status quo. That’s why they garner widespread support among people invested in upholding it. Arresting individual cops leaves the conditions that make their violence possible unchanged, and injustices multiply in the absence of effective accountability.
Of course, I share deep and fierce outrage at the blatant unfairness of a system that refuses to sanction an officer for murdering a Black woman in her home but will imprison a man for life for attempted theft of lawn shears, lay charges on a pregnant Black woman that could put her in prison for three years simply for voting while on probation, or incarcerate Black women and queer and trans people for decades for defending themselves when society won’t. But doubling down on trying to make a violent system “work for us” comes at tremendous costs — of fueling the system, and of what we could be doing instead.
Imagine what would be possible if all the energy and resources directed toward demanding arrests and prosecutions of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor were instead focused on making a world where she would still be here.
Abolition — dismantling systems of policing and imprisonment rather than trying to “fix” them — invites us to stop investing our faith, time, energy, and resources in seeking justice from a system that has consistently failed to recognize harm against Black women — and has consistently perpetrated and then justified it.
Imagine what would be possible if all the energy and resources directed toward demanding arrests and prosecutions of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor were instead focused on making a world where she would still be here. As Kaba powerfully puts it, “People are tweeting every day about Breonna Taylor, about her death and what are they saying? When are you going to arrest these people, when are they going to prison? People don’t put the question as when are we going to dismantle that police department?” What if, instead of acting from a futile hope of justice from the system that killed her, we sought broader and more lasting accountability by working to #DefundPolice and build community-based safety strategies that prioritize the safety of Black women like Breonna — and hundreds of others killed by police or state-sanctioned violence?
What if we committed our energies instead to creating a world where we don’t entrust the safety of Black women, trans, and gender nonconforming people to institutions that report that nobody was injured in a home invasion that left Breonna bleeding to death, or to people who describe the events of that night as “legal, moral, and ethical.” A world where the police department that killed her is no longer looting resources from the health care system she was proud to be an essential part of while violating and killing people who demand justice in her name. In other words, a world without police.
What if the national days of action, billboards, sports team tributes, and celebrity statements, instead of demanding prosecutions that won’t get us there, called for an end to the “war on drugs” — which is really a thinly veiled war on Black and Brown communities like Breonna’s. That would bring us closer to a world where women like Breonna Taylor, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, and Alberta Spruill would no longer be continuing casualties of militarized police raids, a world where women like Frankie Ann Perkins would no longer be choked to death by police in broad daylight — like George Floyd — on the suspicion that they swallowed drugs. A world where we invest in strategies around drug use and sales that save lives instead of taking them — like voluntary, accessible, and universally available harm-reduction programs that don’t mobilize the threat of punishment, but instead offer support in all the forms it is needed, for as long as it is needed.
What if our outrage at Breonna’s murder extended to demanding a world where officers like Brett Hankison aren’t empowered by their position to engage in sexual harassment and assault, whether in the context of the war on drugs, traffic stops, and “broken windows” policing like Holtzclaw, or under the pretext of offering assistance, like Hankison. A world where women like Charnesia Corley aren’t subjected to state-sanctioned rape through an 11-minute forcible body cavity search in full public view because an officer claimed to have caught a whiff of marijuana during a traffic stop for rolling through a stop sign on the way to the store to pick up medicine for her grandmother. Where Black women can travel safely without fear that they will be strip-searched, their breasts groped, or their genitals probed when they land.
What if our indignation at the state’s failure to hold the officers who killed Breonna Taylor accountable led to demands — like those enshrined in the Movement for Black Lives’ BREATHE Act — to defund police as a systemic form of accountability for what is in fact a systemic problem. Defunding police offers more expansive and more effective accountability — ensuring that neither cops who kill, nor those who come after them, will be able to do harm in the future. It also points us toward a world where the $100 billion we currently invest in policing every year would be diverted to quality, affordable, accessible, sustainable, and affirming housing, public spaces, health care, education, jobs, and community-based violence prevention and intervention strategies.
The BREATHE Act also calls for accountability in the form of reparations for survivors of police violence, families of people killed by police, and communities, inviting us to apply the framework of the historic struggle for justice for survivors of police violence in Chicago to current demands for accountability, and seek holistic repair of individual and collective harms of police violence. Beyond Chicago’s victories, a reparations framework would provide for immediate cessation of harm through termination of all cops involved in perpetrating it, and nonrepetition through termination of the policing that requires it.
What about violence against Black women in a world without police? Our calculus when answering this question must include all forms of violence — recognizing that Black women currently experience significant violence at the hands of police, and very little protection. Black women’s safety requires us to build a world where Black women are not killed, violently arrested, sexually assaulted, or deported by police — or abandoned to be killed or harmed by someone else. A world where women like Aura Rosser, Janisha Fonville, and Kiwi Herring aren’t killed by police responding to calls for assistance, and where Mia Green, a Black trans woman allegedly killed by a man she was in a relationship with, would still be with us. A world where survivors like Kassandra Jackson — a Black woman violently arrested, manhandled, handcuffed to a chair, placed in restraints, and incarcerated away from her children for days for simply expressing frustration that she was unable to obtain an order of protection — aren’t subjected to more violence from the very institutions looting resources from the things they desperately need to prevent, escape, and avoid violence.
What if our demands to protect, defend, and value Black women did not call for more policing and prosecutions, fueling a system we cannot and do not trust with our safety because it targets us? Over 40% of domestic violence survivors and 75% of rape and sexual assault survivors don’t call the police. For every Black woman who reports her rape, at least 15 do not. Two-thirds of Black trans respondents to the U.S. Transgender Survey said they would be uncomfortable asking for help from the police if they needed it — in spite of epidemic levels of physical, sexual, and fatal violence targeting trans women. Both groups cite fears that they will not be believed, or will experience further violence and criminalization by cops. Almost a third of respondents to a national survey of advocates and service providers reported that police used force and threatened to arrest or arrested survivors, noting that these tactics were disproportionately mobilized against Black women. None of this can be reformed away — in fact, reforms attempted to date, like mandatory arrest policies requiring officers to arrest someone when they respond to domestic violence calls, have resulted in increased arrests of Black women and girls who are survivors, because the system operates through controlling narratives that frame us as deserving of and contributing to violence against us, and unworthy of protection.
We can end this war on Black women. But that victory will not be achieved through prosecutions or police reform. It requires us to invest in the things survivors need to prevent, avoid, escape, and transform conditions of violence.
The value of our lives is not set by the amount of time a person does in a cage for hurting us, but by the ways in which we organize to keep each other safe.
Black Lives Matter Louisville’s demands for justice in Breonna Taylor’s name have shifted over time to reflect these realities — from focusing on arrests of officers involved and elimination of no-knock warrants to tackling systemic forces of gentrification that contributed to Breonna’s murder, dismantling the department that killed her, and securing investments in institutions that would make her community safer like ecosystems of health care workers, universally accessible and affordable housing, universal basic income, and community conflict resolution training. They mirror a similar evolution across the country in the context of the current uprising against police violence in calls to #DefundPolice.
The In Our Names Network, made up of over 20 organizations and individuals working to end police violence against Black women, girls, trans, and gender nonconforming people has followed a similar path, from demanding justice in individual cases of police violence to simultaneously working toward systemic responses that would have prevented them from happening in the first place. For instance, EveryBlackGirl, founded in the wake of the #AssaultatSpringValleyHigh, is creating safety for Black girls in and out of the classroom, including fighting for #PoliceFreeSchools. Along with other network members, they will train Black youth as researchers to document sexual harassment and violence by cops stationed in and around schools to show that police presence in schools makes students less safe, not more.
Oakland’s Anti-Police Terror Project, which organized around police killings of Yuvette Henderson and Jessica Williams, is building Black-led prevention and intervention responses to unmet mental health needs that prioritize avoiding police involvement and psychiatric incarceration. Programs like this could prevent up to half of police killings of Black people who are — or are perceived to be — in a mental health crisis. Network member Maria Moore is fighting for justice on behalf of her sister Kayla Moore, a Black trans woman killed by police, by working toward a 24-hour nonpolice mental health crisis response in Berkeley. Network members Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, Tamika Spellman of HIPS, Monica Jones of The Outlaw Project, BYP100, and Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project are working to build safety for Black trans women — from police, migration-related, and community violence.
Organizations like INCITE! teach us that expanding the lens through which we examine police violence and gender-based violence to include Black women, trans, and gender nonconforming people’s experiences leads us much more quickly to abolition. It helps us to see how policing Black women, whose labor is deemed essential, but whose lives and safety are not, is at the core of the criminal punishment system, whether we are targets of police or seeking protection. It also helps us see how other institutions offered as “alternatives” to police — like the family court and foster system, medical industrial complex, and social services — can operate as “soft police,” controlling and criminalizing Black women, queer, and trans people through denial of care, benefits, resources, and protection.
The Interrupting Criminalization initiative I co-founded with Kaba is identifying women and LGBTQ people’s points of contact with all forms of policing so as to interrupt and eliminate them. We work collaboratively with groups across the country to document the criminalization of Black women, girls, trans, and gender nonconforming people, decriminalize, divert, decarcerate, divest, and dismantle, and dream a world without policing, in which everything we need to be safe is universally and accessibly available. The goal is to reduce police contact and, as Kaba often puts it, to multiply the options available to survivors to access safety and transform harm.
That is what #SayHerName means to me: Not just making sure we know Breonna Taylor’s name, but understanding the forces that converged to kill her; divesting financially, ideologically, and emotionally from the systems that perpetrated and justify her death; and directing our energies toward building a world where Black women are safe, in her name and in honor of her life. It means understanding that the value of our lives is not set by the amount of time a person does in a cage for hurting us, but by the ways in which we organize to keep each other safe. Kaba and Herzing teach us that the tools for abolition are in our hands, and we can practice them every day, in every interaction, institution, and imagining we engage in. We each have a role in bringing us closer to a world where Breonna would still be with us — let’s put all of our collective energies into getting there.