I was on a call with a client when my phone buzzed and delivered the news that the three police officers who burst into Breonna Taylor’s home while she was in bed, shot her and left her to die on the floor were not charged for her death.
The news that—despite the fact that the city of Louisville, Kentucky, paid Taylor’s family $12 million to settle a wrongful death suit—no one, apparently, did anything wrong to cause her death.
That then-detective Brett Hankison was perhaps guilty of “wanton endangerment” for firing into the home of Breonna’s white neighbor, but neither he nor his other Louisville Metro Police Department co-conspirators (Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove) even needed to stand trial for killing the 26-year-old.
Tears instantly pricked my eyes at the thought of her family hearing yet another confirmation that Breonna’s Black life didn’t matter in the view of the state. But there was no surprise there. There is not a moment when patriarchy and anti-Blackness don’t conspire to block Black women’s opportunities. Our livelihoods. Our lives. As always, misogynoir ruled the day.
The protests that have filled the streets of Louisville since May show that we have reached a collective tipping point. We can’t continue to be soaked in the blood of Black women and be quiet about it. People who never heeded the call to #SayHerName have been able to see themselves in this woman and finally understand that they, too, could have died in a hail of bullets for having the audacity to … what? Stop seeing someone who was involved in illegal activity? Be Black? Live?
But that reckoning has nothing to do with our so-called justice system. It hasn’t forced people like Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to use the tools at his disposal to affirm Breonna’s humanity. The system and the police who prop it up are still doing exactly what they were created to do: violently suppress the most marginalized among us to keep the status quo chugging along. On the slim chance that a law enforcement officer is actually charged in the death of a Black person, they are unlikely to be convicted; while police kill about 1,000 people annually in the United States, just one of the 11 officers charged with killing someone in 2019 has been convicted to date (three were found not guilty, and the other seven’s cases are still pending).
It couldn’t be clearer: The carceral system as we know it is incapable of giving us transformative justice outcomes and efforts at reform have gotten us nowhere. And so we can’t look to grand juries and attorneys general to heal communities in the wake of Black death— it’s an exercise in futility to call for the dismantling of the carceral system out one side of our mouths and ask it to deliver justice out the other.
And so we have days like September 23, 2020. Like September 5, 2020. Like June 16, 2017. Like January 30, 2015. Like December 3, 2014. Like November 24, 2014. On each of these days, we were reminded just how little value the state places on our lives—and just how important it is for us to remind the world that Black lives do indeed matter.
The final chapter of my book How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance centers on freedom dreams, a concept that draws on the work of Robin D. G. Kelley and pushes Black people—all people—to close our eyes and imagine a just world where we all take care of each other. People who can’t see a world without police and prisons are just not imaginative enough. Or even observant enough, really. If they looked around, they would see that we currently have a system that has no problem defunding education, health care and housing programs. Or expecting people with, on average, 58 hours of firearms training—and just eight hours of de-escalation training—to not revert to the violence that dominates their skillset. Or attacking and locking up 127 people overnight for exercising their First Amendment right to protest.
To me, transformative justice looks like envisioning and then building a system that forces accountability for the racist actions of the three cops who shot into Breonna’s home and takes away their ability to harm other people via Louisville MPD or any other police force. Justice looks like delivering restorative healing to the families and communities impacted by her life and her absence. Justice looks like eliminating the policies that paved the way for her death, like no-knock warrants, which were recently banned in Louisville via “Breonna’s Law.”
To me, justice for Breonna looks like channeling our energy and our funds into short-circuiting the situations that often lead to our interactions with the carceral system in the first place. To that end, we need to provide housing for the unhoused, champion comprehensive and anti-racist health care, fund community care workers who are trained to support their neighbors, operate schools that don’t function as pipelines to prisons and create jobs that pay a living wage and provide legal opportunities for us to support ourselves and our families. It looks like defunding the police and pouring that money into services that actually serve us.
No Black woman should ever have to be a martyr for people who lack enough imagination to reimagine and remake our world. But here we are, with her name on our lips and tears in our eyes. We need to let ourselves dream of—and create—a future that actually supports justice for all. That’s how we will ultimately save Black lives like Breonna’s. Like yours. Like mine.
Kenrya Rankin is an award-winning author and anti-racism advocate whose work amplifies the lived experiences, advocacy and work of people of color and shifts the narrative around who deserves liberation, justice, joy and dignity in America. She is also the former senior editorial director of Colorlines. Learn more about her books, Anti-Racism: Powerful Voices, Inspiring Ideas and How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance at Kenrya.com. Follow her @Kenrya on Instagram and Twitter.