#SayHerName: Seeking Justice for Breonna Taylor

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More than six months after Breonna Taylor’s murder and in the wake of former detective Brett Hankison’s indictment on three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree, many in Louisville, Kentucky, and around the world issued clarion calls for justice. Presumably “justice” would include something akin to the following: all three of the officers involved in the murder relieved of their duties and charged accordingly; the release of audio from the grand jury’s deliberation; the passing of legislation like “Breonna’s Law” to ban no-knock warrants across the state of Kentucky and not just in Louisville; divestment from the Louisville Metro Police Department; and a settlement for the bereaved family, at the very least. But what if “justice” is insufficient? What if the courtroom cannot and could never adequately account for Breonna Taylor’s life and death or that of any Black person? What does “Justice for Breonna Taylor” even mean in relation to a litany of similar calls made for Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile and Rekia Boyd and George Floyd and Michael Brown, Jr. and others unnamed here? Is this what M. NourbeSe Philip meant when she wrote in Zong! about “the etc in justice?” Or why Saidiya Hartman contends that, “even a word as anemic as justice isn’t forthcoming?” Or the reason Dionne Brand does not “write toward anything called justice, but against tyranny and toward liberation?”

News coverage following Taylor’s murder focused on great unknowns. Did the police announce themselves upon arriving at Breonna Taylor’s home? If so, did Kenneth Walker, Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend, hear them? Why did the police call civilian witness, Aaron Sarpee, three different times after the murder? How did Sarpee’s recollection of whether or not he heard the police announce themselves before entering Taylor’s home change from “no” to “yes” in two months? What evidence was presented to the grand jury and how? Why was an officer with a “troubled history” with the police department still on the force? Did the grand jury vote on whether Jonathan Mattingly or Myles Cosgrove should be charged with any degree of homicide, or did Attorney General David Cameron decide they acted in self-defense? How come the ballistics report failed to match a bullet that hit the Louisville cop in the thigh to a shot fired by Walker? Why was the public initially told there were no body cameras activated during the raid? What difference does the leaked footage make now?

Every attempt at answering these questions reveals more noticeable gaps in knowledge. Every press conference appears more corrupt. What if these are not great unknowns but what some of us have known all along? That this is more than just a case of a few bad apples. That a system designed to arrest and detain—one rooted in “law and order”—is functioning exactly as intended. That justice exceeds the perimeters and parameters of the courtroom. That the gap between law and justice is just that, a gap. That no settlement, regardless of how large, can bring Breonna Taylor back to life.

Following the murder of Breonna Taylor, the police left the incident report virtually blank including the section designated for the report of injuries. Police, then, proceeded to ask Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, whether she knew of anyone who wanted to hurt her daughter despite the excruciating reality that they, themselves, committed the worst form of harm imaginable. In Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Andrea J. Ritchie asks, “How does centering women’s experience of racial profiling and police violence shape, shift, and expand our understanding of the operation of white supremacy?” Perhaps one answer is that together, the blank incident report, the exchange between Palmer and the police, the lack of body cameras, the demand for the release of the grand jury report, and the charges for counts of wanton endangerment instead of murder confirm that white supremacy is, in fact, an operation. That is, claims for justice “fail” precisely because so many systems work simultaneously to produce and maintain “insufficient” evidence. What Ida B. Well’s wrote in 1893 remains as fiercely true in 2020, that the leaders of the lynch mob “write the reports which justify lynching.” As Breonna Taylor’s case suggests, though, sometimes a report is not always even necessary to create, “the ongoing state of emergency in which black life remains in peril.”

I have so many stories.” These words, uttered by Palmer in the wake of her daughter’s murder, makes me wonder what, if anything, do we lose by only saying their names and circulating their images? Can we truly “defend the dead” if we do not also speak their stories? What can and should and must stand in place of or even replace that violently blank incident report? No single answer suffices just as no one story could or should come to stand in for Breonna Taylor. Recall how the oft-invoked “healthcare hero” image emerged inseparable from invocations of her name as if to suggest that she should not be shot because of her professional obligations and aspirations as opposed to the fact that she should not be shot. Period.

In the impossibility—the “etc”—of justice, can we strive towards humanity? Perhaps this entails not only writing another story about the life and death of Breonna Taylor but listening to those, like Palmer, who have their own stories to tell. They are more than ready to tell it.

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Sasha Ann Panaram

Sasha Ann Panaram is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Fordham University. She received her Ph.D. in English from Duke University in 2020, where she also completed certificates in African & African American Studies, Feminist Studies, and College Teaching. Prior to Duke, she received her B.A. in English from Georgetown University. Her research, which focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century African American and Caribbean literature, brings together discourses in slavery studies, Black feminisms, and geography studies. Follow her on Twitter @SashaPanaram.

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