A steady flood of pings and vibrations starts erupting on my phone, and soon I am looking at family photographs of Breonna Taylor. The first shows her sitting in the car, wearing a white dress, well-done hair, and evident confidence. “Wake Pray Slay” reads the back of her sweatshirt in another image. At Christmas time, she wears a sweater with a fiery hearth depicted on the chest, strewn with garland and tree lights along the sleeves as she stands among gifts at her feet. The lights are off, but as in most of the photographs, her smile is on.
Something awful has happened when you get these kinds of texts from Benjamin Crump. Wednesday was the second time inside a week that I had needed to make such a request. The former attorney for Trayvon Martin’s parents is now representing two newly bereaved families of young black folks who were shot and killed by white people in recent months. Last Thursday, he sent just one picture of Ahmaud Aubrey holding an NFL football. This time, I got six.
One, in particular, might stand out, especially if someone had no context for who Taylor was or what happened to her: the picture of her in uniform. Taylor is standing in front of the Louisville, Kentucky, city seal, holding a floral bouquet in her left arm while clutching an award. She has on a short-sleeve blue top and black pants with supplies, including scissors, still visible and ready for use. Taylor was an emergency medical technician — one of what Americans have rightfully come to know as “essential workers” during the coronavirus pandemic.
Taylor was likely a hero to many Americans before they ever knew that she was dead. Working two jobs as a first responder, she made her life’s work keeping people alive. She was the kind of person who Americans applaud and serenade in appreciation as they return home at night, recognizable both by their uniform and exhaustion. Certainly, though, all that gratitude can only do so much. It hasn’t slowed the disease; no one is asking for miracles. But no divine anointing will improve work conditions, conjure up needed equipment, or boost pay. Nor can calling people like Breonna Taylor heroes somehow keep them safe, whether or not they’re wearing that uniform.
According to a lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family accusing three Louisville police officers of wrongful death, excessive force, and gross negligence, the young award-winning EMT died after what appears to be one of the more unnecessary and botched police raids in recent memory, no matter who tells the story.
The officers — Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and officers Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove — claimed that they arrived at Taylor’s apartment shortly before 1 a.m. on the morning of March 13th to execute a search warrant. Rolling Stone requested comment from the Louisville Police Department and received no response, but reports indicate that they were not there to apprehend a drug suspect named Jamarcus Glover — who had been arrested earlier at a different location — but allegedly were there because they believed Taylor’s apartment was a place for Glover to pick up packages. (That claim has come under fire from local attorney Sam Aguiar, who said during a Wednesday press conference that the no-knock raid represented “another wild goose chase” by Louisville police.)
The officers have claimed that they knocked repeatedly and declared their presence, but neither Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, nor neighbors recall hearing any such announcement before the cops burst into the unit.
The Louisville officers were in plainclothes. Walker, a registered gun owner per the Taylor family lawsuit, fired at what he believed to be intruders. He struck Mattingly in the thigh and is now charged with attempted murder. The cops allegedly fired 20 shots that flew haphazardly into Taylor’s apartment and into a neighboring residence, where a 5-year-old and a pregnant mother were present. At least eight of the bullets struck Taylor. “Breonna had committed no crime, posed no immediate threat to the safety of the defendants, and did not actively resist or attempt to evade arrest prior to being repeatedly shot and killed by the defendants,” the lawsuit says. Taylor succumbed to her wounds not long after the shooting. She was only 26 years old.
We are now at the moment when investigations are either in process or being demanded by various political figures. Mattingly, Hankinson, and Cosgrove are now on administrative assignment, but haven’t been charged for their roles in Taylor’s death. Tom Wine, the top prosecutor in Jefferson County, recused himself from the investigation into the Taylor shooting. Why? Wine is already prosecuting Walker for shooting Mattingly during the same incident. In a strange way, that may be helpful: He now wants a special prosecutor to weigh whether charges should be brought after reviewing the internal investigation being done by Louisville Metro Police’s Public Integrity Unit. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer declared on Wednesday that that same investigation will be sent to the FBI and Russell Coleman, U.S. attorney for Kentucky’s Western District, for review. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear made a similar statement, adding that Taylor’s family and the public at large “deserve the full facts regarding her death.” Sen. Kamala Harris of California also demanded that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the shooting.
All of that momentum came after The 19th’s Errin Haines published her interview with Taylor’s mother and sister, Tamika Palmer and Ju’Niyah Palmer, in The Washington Post on Monday and brought greater national attention to the case. However, there are more probing questions that require examination far afield from a police station.
The reputations of the deceased are often the secondary victims in cases like these. The late Ahmaud Arbery’s family is enduring it, several months after he was murdered and buried in Georgia. Underestimating bigots would be foolish, but the task may be more difficult in Taylor’s instance. Not merely was her record spotless and the police raid that resulted in her tragic death a mockery of criminal procedure, but there is the imagery of a cherubic, decorated first responder who was killed for nothing.
But cops are considered heroes, as well, to the point where they remain nearly impregnable to legal consequences for their reckless actions. Few professions kill thousands of Americans each year yet remain as universally revered as police. Their automatic “hero” status is what protects that impunity. Which is why Walker, who fired a registered firearm at armed intruders breaking into his girlfriend’s residence in the middle of the night, is the one who’s on trial — and the police union actually warned the community about Walker upon his release to home incarceration rather than entertain its officers facing murder charges.
Whether it be cops or military or even, at times, EMTs and paramedics, Americans tend to celebrate valor in many jobs where violence is a risk. We have even crudely couched our “essential workers” in the language of war as “on the front lines” and such. That somehow has the curious effect of comforting the public, all while honoring the service of these people involved. Perhaps if we’re all in the proverbial shit — and people are dying out here — we can feel as though our gratitude offers a tangible contribution.
However, there are things that we can still do especially for people of color, like Taylor, undertaking that dangerous work only to suffer disproportionately from the risk of violence in the very America they work to save. And as white-nationalist terrorism continues to swell and the Trump administration’s Department of Justice and other powers loosen the reins on police abuse, it is belated to say that this is a priority. Our search for “heroes” in American life is broken and self-indulgent in lieu of reforms that can stop police from killing women like Taylor.
What value is celebrating an “essential worker” if, when the uniform comes off and she rests in her own bed, her blackness makes her disposable? If Taylor had identified herself as an EMT, would that have helped? Even if it did, is that the world we want? For black folks, “hero” is too often the bar that we must meet to avoid being murdered with wanton abandon.
If we want to protect black lives and honor the ones lost, we need a just system that protects all black lives and holds accountable those who take them. There is no level of respectability that repels bullets. We can’t resurrect black heroes, but we can administer accountability for their deaths and work on saving those who are still here. That effort should start with firing these three officers and charging them with the murder of Breonna Taylor, and then it needs to continue with elections before any meaningful progress can be achieved.
There is no courtroom nor legislative hall where the humanity of black people has been lying dormant for white people to suddenly discover one day, or for us to find and eventually present as evidence. It has been here all along, and too many in power have simply refused to see it. We were essential before “essential worker” became en vogue. So was Breonna Taylor. But that humanity doesn’t suddenly become visible to everyone whenever one of us wears a uniform or flashes the right smile. Whether it intends to or not, the hero-worship mentality can be tunnel vision for ignorant people, enabling our racist and negligent law-enforcement apparatus to continue looking at black people as suspects first.