It’s been one year since Breonna Taylor, 26, was fatally shot while asleep in bed during an ineptly executed police raid at her apartment in Louisville on March 13. Her death provided more fuel to other protests across the U.S. in which demonstrators demanded greater police accountability and racial equality. In addition, her senseless murder also revived criticisms of police brutality against Black women — an issue which activists, as well as Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, contend are far too often ignored.
For Black women like Breonna, as well as Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Natasha McKenna and hundreds of other women and girls, their deaths — either at the hands of police or while in custody — continue to take a backseat to those of Black men’s.
So, while their gender and race have left them unprotected from police violence, for Black women, unlike Black men, their stories of injustice continue to be muted within a larger push for police reform.
During a recent interview with CNN, Palmer asserted that she’ll never abandon her efforts to see the officers who killed her daughter criminally charged.
“I’m still out here, I’m still doing what I need to do to get justice for Breonna to make sure that people do right by her,” said Palmer who recently filed internal affairs complaints against six Louisville officers. In the complaint, she alleges that the behavior of four officers was “unacceptable, intolerable and contributing factors to Breonna’s death and the deficient investigation thereafter.”
Since Breonna’s murder, Louisville has passed Breonna’s Law banning no-knock warrants, fired three of the officers involved in her death and settled a historic $12 million lawsuit with Taylor’s family that included an agreement for the city to institute police reforms.
But is it enough? Surely, it is. After all, America has embraced a seemingly newfound love and respect for Black women, particularly in light of the recent election of Kamala Harris — the nation’s first Black, female vice president. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams came within a whisper of becoming the first Black woman elected governor in a greatly contested race. The list goes on.
For Krystal Oriadaha, co-founder of PG Change Makers and resident of Maryland, it is not enough. She, in concert with others who support her organization and its premises, will hold a virtual discussion March 30 on PG Change Makers’ Facebook page. The forum, “When Black Women Speak: Everyone Should Listen,” will include topics like owning our own bodies, our relationship with our mothers, community expectations of women and the role of women in the household.
“We really wanted to have this laid-back conversation on the politics of it and what it’s like being a Black woman today and the complexities of that,” Oriadaha said. “We wanted to create that space in honor of the women we’ve lost like Breonna Taylor and the movements that have been built on the backs of Black women.”
She says more Black men must join in the struggle for equal justice for women of color.
New Carrollton, Md., resident Ashanti Martinez of New Carrollton, an advocate for PG Change Makers since its inception last year, agrees.
“Breonna Taylor’s death is a time for us to reflect on how we are showing up for the Black women in our lives — women who support [us], often without condition. It’s a reminder that I need to do more and should always strive to do more for the women who are in my life,” he said.
Ironically, three women of color, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, created the now prominent, Black-centered, political will and movement building project #BlackLivesMatter in 2013. Created as a response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, Black women have rarely benefited from the fanfare, slogans, hashtags and social media hoopla which now surrounds the Black Lives Matter movement.
Similar to systemic racism, the dominating impact of patriarchy in the U.S. has long been as American as apple pie. On one hand, race, gender and class undergird our perceptions of what’s “acceptable” in terms of political or social resistance movements. On the other, as a patriarchal society, men’s stories and experiences — including Black men’s — are privileged and therefore more often central to our attention.
This explains why we’re far more familiar with the police-involved murders of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice than the deaths of Alberta Spruill, Shantel Daviittle, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Kyam Livingston, Miriam Carey or Eleanor Bumpurs. But gender notwithstanding, all of them were killed by police or died while in their custody.
U.S. history confirms that nearly 6,500 Blacks were lynched between 1865 and 1964. But while many of these deaths included women and children, we rarely think of women as victims.
Is it impossible for our imaginations to perceive images of Black women’s bodies “swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” as jazz diva Billie Holiday asserted in her haunting song of protest, “Strange Fruit?”
Perhaps we don’t want to admit that for 400 years, Black women have been the victims of state-sanctioned beatings, rapes and murders. In truth, the inhumane system of white patriarchy which continues to prevail in America causes irreparable harm to both women and men in its codification of masculinity in terms of domination, violence and in men’s relationship with women.
This is why the death of George Floyd and other men are headline news while the murders of Breonna Taylor and her sisters remain footnotes on the pages of life. But if America has truly changed and evolved so that it’s now permissible to imagine what America “could be,” we cannot ignore what this nation has always been like for Black women.
Only then, will we say the names of Emmett Till as well as women’s like Mary Turner and Eliza Woods — all victims of lynching — within the same breath. Only then will the history of civil rights activism in Montgomery, Ala., include both the contributions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the sacrifices of Gertrude Perkins. Perkins, a Montgomery resident, sexually assaulted by local white men, formed a Black women’s movement which demanded protection of their “bodily integrity” — long before King’s arrival on the scene.
One year ago, we could not escape images of Breonna Taylor’s name or face prominently displayed on magazine covers, memes and protest signs as advocates and celebrities worked to ensure that her case didn’t lose momentum.
But for Breonna, or perhaps more correctly her mother, family and friends, one year ago must seem like ancient history.
WI staff writer William J. Ford contributed to this commentary.