Breonna Taylor, Police Brutality, and Black Women’s Historic Demands for Justice

Twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor should be alive today. 

Instead of enjoying a day off work or joining other emergency medical technicians, deemed essential, in Louisville, Kentucky’s fight against the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, Taylor joined the shockingly high number of black women and girls—such as Aiyana Stanley Jones, Rekia Boyd, and Sandra Bland who were—killed by the police. 

At a time when over 100,000 Americans, many of them disproportionately black and brown, have lost their lives to Covid-19, her mother Tamika Palmer’s primary concern for Taylor’s safety revolved around the virus. She constantly told her daughter to “make sure you wash your hands.” 

It never occurred to her that Taylor would “not be able to sleep in her own bed without someone busting down her door and taking her life.”

Yet during a world-wide pandemic, Breonna Taylor, who aspired to be a nurse and worked to save other people’s lives, lost her own to state-sanctioned violence.

After midnight on March 13, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky, three plainclothes police officers, entered Taylor’s residence to carry out a “no-knock” warrant looking for evidence of drug activity.

Believing that the police were intruders, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, called 911 for help and pulled out his legally-registered gun, shooting at the officers and injuring one in the leg. 

The officers responded with more than 20 rounds of bullets that fatally struck Taylor 8 times. 

No drugs were discovered.

Neither Taylor nor Walker had a criminal record.

Walker’s attempt to defend Taylor and himself from the police led to his arrest for attempted murder.

In what has become a familiar refusal to hold the police accountable for their actions, the officers were not fired or charged with Taylor’s murder but put on administrative reassignment while the department conducts a public integrity investigation.

Taylor was one of the essential medical workers that so many media ads applaud, yet her case failed to receive nationwide attention until April 27th when her family demanded justice filing a lawsuit against the three officers accusing them of wrongful death, excessive force, and gross negligence.

These types of police complaints should not surprise those familiar with the movement for Black Lives nor the equally important #SayHerName movement.

Black women’s experience with police brutality and state-sanctioned death has a long history that needs to be understood during this critical moment.

In the nineteenth century, black women—as public figures and everyday folk—fought against violent police misconduct in ways that are quite similar to what we have seen today.

An 1879 New York Times article entitled, “Charges Against Policemen . . . Complaints By Colored Women Against Patrolmen” reported, in the span of several days, instances where Alice Archer, Bessie Striker, Maria Simpson, and Christine Cousins charged three separate officers with misconduct and brutal force. 

Archer complained to the police superintendent that, without provocation, on a late Sunday night an officer “accosted” her “called her foul names, struck her with his fist, and knocked her down.” 

Emphasizing that they were “respectable women,” Bessie Striker and Maria Simpson made a complaint against another officer contending that they were assaulted “without cause.” The officer, they recalled, “abused them in a shameful manner, and finally wound up his abuse by beating them unmercifully with his fists.”

In yet another case, Christine Cousins submitted a complaint about an officer who she said, “beat her with his club about the body, struck her in the face with his fist, and finally arrested her and charged her with soliciting.” Cousins was locked up in jail overnight but dismissed by a magistrate the next morning.

These cases show us that gender did not protect black women from vicious harassment.

These women learned that simply being black in public amounted to just cause for officers to presume that they were disorderly and criminal.

In other instances, black women physically defended themselves in their homes.

Another New York Times article, in 1888, aptly entitled, “Not Quite Free Yet,” chronicled Dora Coleman’s experience with an “off duty” policeman who “dragged her out of the house and kicked and beat her” and then “fired a shot from his revolver at her.” They were both arrested for disorderly conduct. In court, he was discharged but faced a pending investigation from the Police Commissioners for an “unbecoming conduct” charge. Coleman, however, served a month-long jail sentence when she could not pay her $300 bail. 

These nineteenth-century cases remind us of two things: police brutality against black women has been a longstanding issue and black women have consistently demanded justice by defending themselves.

Black women’s history of police brutality provides crucial context for understanding gendered resistance but also forces us to raise some painful questions.

Even as Breonna Taylor’s case receives more attention outside of Louisville, largely as a result of national and international responses to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, can we really expect justice if almost 3 months after her murder none of the accused officers have even been charged?

Will the FBI’s investigation of the case which led to prosecutor’s dropping charges against Taylor’s boyfriend and the mayor’s recent firing of the police chief make a difference and provide the full justice that her family members seek?

Tamika Palmer’s demands are clear: “I want justice for her. I want them to say her name. There’s no reason Breonna should be dead at all.”

If, as activists argue, the U.S. and international rebellions responding to George Floyd’s horrific videotaped murder have the ability to create social change, will Taylor’s mother’s demands for justice be addressed? 

In this time of crisis where we demand justice, as Kali Gross has noted in this series, black women must be central to the call for social change and for black lives to matter. 

History shows us that when black women—women like Ida B. WellsElla BakerFannie Lou Hamer and others—become central to conversations about injustice there is social change and new radical movements.

In 1887, in the midst of despair when her legal case for discrimination against a railroad company was overturned, Wells reminds us that the trajectory of our hope and disappointment in the American justice system are not new. 

She wrote in her diary: “I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them. O God,” she prayed, “is there no redress, no peace, no justice in this land for us?” 

She could not have imagined that five-years later she would be fighting again, this time against lynching through her pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”

History shows us that, against incredible odds, Wells and other nineteenth-century black women kept demanding justice. We must continue their legacy.

Cheryl Hicks is associate professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She is author of the award-winning book, Talk with You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935. Follow her on Twitter @CherylDHicks1.