Last week a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, handed down the result of its investigation of the police-shooting death of Breonna Taylor.Breonna was a 27 year old, black emergency medical technician shot dead in her own apartment in a hail of bullets in the early morning hours of March 13, 2020. Imagine yourself for a moment as Breonna’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, deeply asleep, abruptly awakened by a “bang” outside the apartment door, a shout, and the door breaking inward. You live in a “Stand Your Ground” state. As such, you understand you have no duty to retreat in the face of a threat. Disoriented and afraid, you reach for your 9mm handgun and fire a shot at the plain-clothed intruders, striking one in the leg. In the next minutes thirty-one shots are fired in return by the invaders, six of them striking–and killing–your girlfriend.
Last week’s grand jury verdict: One of the officers, Brett Hankison, was indicted on three counts of “wanton endangerment,” one count for each of the three people in apartments adjacent to Breonna’s who might have been killed by Officer Hankison “blindly” firing ten shots from his .40 calibre semiautomatic pistol. Several of those shots entered adjacent apartments.
The other two officers identified in the investigation, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and Det. Myles Cosgrove, were not indicted by the grand jury Wednesday. The attorney general said Kentucky law finds that the officers were justified in their use of force in response to Walker’s shot.
While many were hoping that the officers who shot Taylor would be held responsible for her death, Cameron said murder charges were “not applicable to the facts before us.”
The grand jury decided that, faced with a man who fires one round in what he clearly perceives as self-defense, the police are justified in producing a hail of gunfire (31 or 32 shots), including six shots that take the life of an innocent woman. That is a startling and enraging conclusion, but in consideration of every detail of known context and the system that produced that context, it may be the technically “legal” conclusion–even though that conclusion feels tragically unjust.
Adrenaline is a powerful drug. “Fight or Flight” isn’t the half of it. Adrenaline galvanizes the mind of everyone in whom it courses, home defender and policeman alike. It clouds judgment. Training and reflexes take over. Adding adrenaline to the firepower and lethality of modern-day handguns produces an explosive mix. Everyone in this sad incident, home defender and policeman alike, was facing split-second adrenaline-fueled decision making.
I am outraged at a system that sets the stage, trains some of the players, and sets in motion a tragic, miserable, heart-rending scene that results in an innocent young woman’s death. I am the more outraged to consider how likely it is that race played a role in the setting of the stage and the actions of the players. Let us not lose sight of the culpability of those who set the stage.
I want justice, but the justice I want is far broader than castigating three police officers. Those three men were playing (very badly) a role assigned to them by an unjust, biased system. I want people to wake up to the systemic injustice that focuses enforcement of draconian drug laws on the black community–while drug use among whites is often overlooked with a nod and a wink. (Better to legalize, regulate, educate, and treat–the way society deals with alcohol after the disaster of Prohibition.) I want us to understand and reform a legal and law enforcement system so negligent that it issues a “No Knock” warrant to break down an apartment door in a “Stand Your Ground” jurisdiction and then blames the innocent and legally compliant inhabitants of the dwelling. I want us to wake up to the sloppiness of the investigative division of the Louisville police that was so inept, misinformed, and anxious to ask for a warrant to apprehend a man who was nowhere near the home they proposed to invade. I want accountability from the legislators and law enforcement officials who pushed a “Stand Your Ground” law, broadly promoted the ownership of lethal weaponry and the arming of police with military arms, and then look away when the tragedy they helped stage is played out.
Those are the goals for which people march–and that is why, even in the unlikely event that somehow the three police officers involved are charged with murder, the protests will not stop. We need to focus on why these horrible events keep happening. We must work toward the awareness and reform that will make them less likely. None of this will happen while Republcans hold majorities in any government body. Conservatives and their enabling media want the public to focus on the protestors, not on the gross injustice that drives them to protest.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. After I wrote this I discovered that Trevor Noah gave eloquent voice to the same issue last July. Here’s the link to his 12 minute youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWBppiSkr1M