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 an impetus for similar demonstrations whose participants called for greater police accountability and racial equality. But her murder also revived decades-old criticisms of police brutality against Black women – an issue which activists, including Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, contend are far too often ignored.
The deaths of Black women like Breonna, as well as Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Natasha McKenna and hundreds of others – either at the hands of police or while in police 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 an interview with CNN just days before the one-year anniversary of Breonna’s death, Palmer said she’ll never abandon her efforts to see the officers who killed her daughter criminally charged. She recently filed internal affairs complaints against six Louisville officers in a complaint which 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 an 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 newfound love for and respect of Black women, particularly given the recent election of Kamala Harris – the nation’s first Black, female vice president. In Georgia, Stacy Abrams came within a whisper of becoming the first Black woman elected governor in a greatly contested race. The list goes on.
Three women of color, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, founded the now prominent, Black-centered, political will and movement building project #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. But ironically, Black women have rarely benefited from the fanfare, slogans, hashtags and social media hoopla which now surrounds the Black Lives Matter Movement.
In similar fashion 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.
Perhaps 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. Gender notwithstanding, all these women were killed by police or died while in their custody.
History shows that nearly 6,500 Blacks were lynched between 1865 and 1964. However, while many of these deaths included women and children, we rarely think of women as victims. Is it impossible for our imaginations to perceive of 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.
So, while the death of George Floyd and other Black men dominate the news, the murders of Breonna Taylor and other women or girls remain more like 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 done to Black women.
Only then, will we say the names of Emmett Till as well as women 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 what a difference a year makes. Tragically, for Breonna, or perhaps more correctly her mother, family and friends, one year ago must seem as far away as ancient history.