March 13th, 2022, marked the second anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Police shot Taylor five times as they fired wildly into her apartment. She received no medical attention for 20 minutes as she struggled to breathe before dying after the botched raid (NYTimes). Her death sparked weeks of protests around the country, with protestors demanding that we “Say Her Name” and acknowledge that Black women are underrecognized victims of racist state violence (NPR). Years after the largest social movement in U.S. history made her a household name, Breonna Taylor’s family is still seeking justice.
As this article is being written, none of the police officers involved have been charged for her death. One was acquitted of “wanton endangerment” for shooting through to the adjacent apartment (Yahoo! News). One released his “tell-all book” about the raid earlier this week (Courier Journal).
Though a federal investigation continues, it’s possible that none of the officers will ever be convicted (Huffington Post). Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising. Darren Wilson was never charged for the 2014 murder of Michael Brown (CNN). Daniel Pantaleo wasn’t indicted for choking Eric Garner to death (NBC New York). None of the six cops in the van when Freddie Gray’s neck snapped were convicted (CNN, Baltimore Sun). A judge found nothing criminally wrong about an off-duty police officer drunkenly killing Rekia Boyd with a shot to the head (DNAinfo).
Cops keep getting away with murder. Outcomes this consistent have a systemic cause.
Prosecutors have a “cozy relationship” with cops, whose unions donate tens of thousands of dollars for their reelection campaigns. Nine times out of ten, they decline to file charges against a cop (Huffington Post).
Cops have broad legal protections with “qualified immunity,” which protects government officials accused of constitutional violations (NPR). In court, an officer can testify their actions met the standard of “objective reasonableness,” which is determined by the facts as seen by the officer at the time of the use of force (NPR). There’s often no way to prove that their actions were instead unjustified since the officer is testifying to their own mental state and decision-making process. And jurors tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt (FiveThirtyEight).
Only 41 U.S. police officers were charged with manslaughter or murder in the U.S. over a six-year period (Teen Vogue). That’s why Derek Chauvin’s conviction for killing George Floyd was shocking.
Mere months after Breonna Taylor’s death, the murder of George Floyd sparked thousands of protests across the country, from small-town vigils to urban rebellions (NYTimes). People began talking openly about defunding or abolishing policing (UNLV). Popular resistance broke down the blue wall, with Chauvin’s superiors testifying against him and the Fraternal Order of the Police endorsing his conviction (CNN). When rage at Chauvin threatened the law enforcement system as a whole, the system turned on Chauvin to protect itself (Truthout).
Right-wing media claimed the trial was a travesty of justice: Chauvin was a “political prisoner” “sacrificed to the mob” in a “rigged” trial (Salon). Without outside pressure, pundits said, Chauvin wouldn’t have been found guilty.
Here’s the thing: that’s probably true. Without uprisings and revolts in every major U.S. system, the odds are that Chauvin would not have joined the few cops held accountable for murder. As Cat Brooks of Oakland’s Anti-Police Terror Project put it, “We forced justice to take place” (KQED).
For accountability to have a chance, we need to keep pressuring the justice system alongside Taylor’s family (PBS). We also need to continue supporting those arrested while protesting and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, some of whom still face felony charges (Teen Vogue).
Since Taylor’s murder is an example of systemic injustices, holding those who killed her to account is necessary but far from sufficient. Taylor’s death demands accountability from those who pulled the trigger and a complete reckoning with the system that arms, enables, and protects them. True justice means eliminating that system’s ability to do harm.
“If we define justice for police brutality victims as a trial, conviction, and the imprisonment of killer cops,” writes As Black as Resistance author Zoé Samudzi, “we are relying on the very structures we are fighting against to both define justice for us and to provide us with recourse” (Teen Vogue).
We honor Breonna Taylor and her family by fighting for a penalty against those who took her life, abolishing the system that put the gun in their hands, and liberating those who risked their lives to ensure that her memory would not be forgotten. We need accountability for murderous cops today so that more Black and Brown people aren’t killed tomorrow. But we can’t depend on justice from a system built on Black and Brown death.
• None of the officers involved with killing Breonna Taylor were criminally charged.
• Police officers are rarely convicted of misconduct on the job.
• A structurally racist system doesn’t produce just results without external pressure.