In the days after Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police, she was labeled as a “suspect” by Louisville Metro Police and the media. The case drew some attention — but it didn’t really take off until more than two months later, after the videotaped police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis outraged the nation.
When Black Lives Matter protests spread across the nation, it was Floyd’s name the protesters chanted.
Not in Louisville.
“Say her name!” they chanted over and over. “Breonna Taylor!”
Floyd’s death helped to spearhead months of protests against police violence, and in its wake, new attention was paid to Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman and ER tech killed by LMPD officers on March 13. Soon, with the help of #SayHerName social media hashtags, Taylor’s name and story were at the forefront nationwide alongside Floyd’s.
Alicia Keys, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tracee Ellis Ross and Queen Latifah have participated in a PSA campaign by the justice group Until Freedom asking the viewer one poignant question: Do you know what happened to Breonna Taylor?
By what would have been Breonna’s 27th birthday, protesters from Louisville to Brooklyn and around the world were saying her name. Even Beyoncé penned a letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, urging him to charge the police officers who killed her.
But Taylor’s story highlights an issue activists, advocates and academics have studied and reckoned with for years: Why are Black women’s stories of police brutality not highlighted with the same intensity of Black men? Why does it seem harder for stories like Taylor’s to catch fire?
‘She’s Black and she’s a woman’
On March 13 in the early morning, Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were home sleeping when LMPD officers executed a no-knock warrant in her apartment. Startled by the entry and mistaking them as intruders, Walker shot at police, who shot back and hit Taylor eight times. LMPD claims they entered on the belief that they’d find evidence related to a drug investigation because an ex-boyfriend, the target of their investigation, had received a package there. They did not find any drugs.
In an interview with NPR, Taylor’s family described her as a loving person who became an emergency medical technician in order to care for others. The family told NPR it lifts them up to know her story is being heard, and they’re “grateful that her name is where she should be.”
But that took time. Louisville author, blogger, and activist Hannah Drake said she was sharing information about Taylor’s case on her Twitter feed for a while. But it wasn’t getting traction.
“Breonna just had two things working against her: She’s Black and she’s a woman,” said Drake.
But after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and his death gained national attention, Taylor’s name and story followed.
“If I asked you right now to tell me four Black men that were killed by the police, you may know four, probably more than four,” she said. “But now if I tell you to tell me four Black women that have been killed by the police, you’re going to say, ‘Sandra Bland’ at best.”
Drake believes that’s because of a hierarchy of importance in America: “white men, white women, Black men, and then at the bottom, Black women.”
However on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram the hashtag #SayHerName and #SayHerNameBreonnaTaylor has helped to add circulation of Taylor’s name and story.
The #SayHerName campaign was launched In 2014 by the African American Policy Forum and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies to uplift the stories of Black women who have experienced police violence.
While stories of male Black victims like Eric Garner or Michael Brown have received mass attention, the campaign sought to bring the same attention to Black women like Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Atatiana Jefferson, and now, Breonna Taylor.
“I always explained to people this isn’t a competition between Black men and Black women who suffered the most,” said Drake. “This is a campaign for awareness because often our stories are overlooked.”
No comprehensive national database exists that captures rates of police use of force according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled, “Police Use of Force: An Examination of Modern Policing Practices.”
The report states that while Congress has required the Department of Justice to release annual reports on police force local police departments aren’t required to submit their data to the DOJ.
“The majority of the more than 17,000 police departments in the United States only selectively report data and some do not report at all,” according to the report.
The report does conclude high rates of use of force nationally, and “increased likelihood of police use of force against people of color, people with disabilities, LGBT people, people with mental health concerns, people with low incomes, and those at the intersections of these groups.”
In 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced that it would be launching the National Use of Force Data Collection. The database allows police departments to voluntarily submit data about use of force for a nationwide perspective. According to a Washington Post article only 40% of police departments submitted data.
Since it’s not federally mandated, the work of tracking police brutality often falls on nonprofit organizations, activists and the media.
University of Florida professor and critical race theorist Michelle S. Jacobs has been researching the ways in which Black women are viewed in criminal law and American society as early as slavery and onward.
Her work uses past literature, political discussions, judicial opinions, and more to examine how Black women are viewed. She identified three consistent tropes and stereotypes; that Black women are “not women” or “womanly.” That Black women are liars, and — perhaps most relevant to the Say Her Name movement — that Black women are not really victims.
“These stereotypes really add the very foundation of how our nation has developed its understanding of how Black women exist. And from the beginning, we have never existed in their minds as people who are worthy of protection of the law or human beings who are entitled to dignity,” said Jacobs.
Ava Thompson Greenwell, a video journalism professor at Northwestern University, believes one reason that Black women’s stories are not told as often in the mainstream media is due to largely white newsroom leadership. Black press tends to be run by Black men, she said.
”People tend to cover people who are like them,” Greenwell said. “Black women don’t fit into any of those categories; they’re not white men, they’re not Black men, and they’re not white women, so they’ve really been disregarded historically.”
Taylor’s case faces another disadvantage: the officers who executed the search warrant at her home weren’t wearing body cameras, and so there’s no footage of the moments leading up to her death. Meanwhile, the video of the police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck has been viewed millions of times, and led to widespread condemnation even from law enforcement.
In Taylor’s case, the police’s story and witnesses’ stories didn’t match on several details, such as whether officers knocked and announced themselves before entering and whether her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, knew they were police before he fired a shot in self-defense.
“It’s almost like if it wasn’t on video these days, it didn’t quite happen, right? Because then it’s going to be the police officers word versus yours,” said Greenwell.
Greenwell notes that a lot of younger adults tend to increasingly get their news from social media or non traditional outlets, and with Floyd’s video circulating media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, awareness of his story grew rapidly.
In recent weeks, Breonna’s Law has been passed and signed by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. The ordinance bans no-knock warrants like the one used in Taylor’s killing. Louisville Metro Police (LMPD) have also fired one of the three officers involved in Taylor’s death; no progress has been reported about the other officers. During the course of this, LMPD was also under scrutiny for behavior and leadership.
“I spoke at that rally, and I celebrated the fact that the law was passed,” said Drake. “So now it’s no more no knocks in the city. Great I said, but it’s always hard that it came from the back of a Black woman’s death,” said Drake. “A Black woman has to die for this city to do the right thing.”
Despite the changes that have occurred, University of Louisville Department chair of Criminal Justice Cherie Dawson-Edwards said the case highlights the need for more attention to be paid to police policy reform.
“There’s problems with police officers, but there’s also problems with policies and processes that allow you to do things that end up with a Breonna Taylor,” said Dawson-Edwards. “I think that’s what we are grappling with and have to come to grips with as a community is, are you mad at the person or the policy that allowed the person to do what they did?”
Dawson-Edwards believes that more policies will be created around racial justice but worries about the intersectionality of future proposed legislation.
“I worry about gender-related justice and racial justice not meeting together for Black women and Black girls,” said Dawson-Edwards.
The Nation Grieved A Health Care Worker
Taylor’s case raises another issue about representation that hits the intersection of socioeconomic status and race: Drake says the one factor working in Taylor’s favor in terms of public perception was that she was a health care worker on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.
In other words, in some people’s eyes, Taylor was a sympathetic victim.
“One thing I want America to get out of this is that every victim will not look like that,” said Drake. “You have to feel sorry for her and grieve because she was an EMT … and that’s honorable.”
But Drake asks: what if, like some other Black women killed by police, she hadn’t fit the mainstream depiction of sympathy?
“America still needs to be outraged,” Drake said.
The coronavirus pandemic may have played a role in the initial lack of attention on Taylor’s case, as Kentucky was just beginning to shut down. But it also may have accelerated the activism that followed in the Black Lives Matter movement.
During times of quarantine and a global health pandemic, more people are at home watching the news and on social media, Drake noted. Protests have occurred in all 50 states and internationally at a time when record numbers of Americans are out of work.
“I think what happened with the coronavirus is that many people were home and they weren’t in the business of life and going to work,” said Drake. “It was like the world paused for a minute.”
But despite all this, Drake doesn’t see this as a turning point.
“No I don’t, I have to be honest,” she said. “I think women, particularly Black women will always continue to fight to be heard and fight to be seen, always.”
And even if this is a sign of a change, she said, she is still sad that it came at the cost of Breonna Taylor’s life.