The news that the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor wouldn’t be charged in her death didn’t come as a surprise to many Black Americans – the state of emergency and boarded up buildings in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, combined with hundreds of years of history, were strong clues that she would not get the justice they were demanding.
That didn’t make the announcement any easier to take.
“This was not a surprise for us, and that’s the problem,” said Ashlee Phillips, a 28-year-old businesswoman who just opened her own thrift shop in Louisville. “We may say ‘we’re not surprised,’ but that doesn’t mean that it’s not traumatic.”
Thousands of Black Americans are voicing their frustration, anger and angst on social media with the tag #sickandtired, which has come out several times this year after the controversial deaths of Black men and women. And they’re sick and tired of having to use it.
Phillips was born and raised in Louisville and says her city has been living Taylor’s story since March 13, when the 26-year-old EMT and aspiring nurse was shot and killed in her apartment by police serving a no-knock warrant.
“A lot of us are realizing how different it is when it happens to where you’re from, when it happens on streets that you drive down all the time,” she said. “So it’s not even following. It’s actually being immersed in it, it’s actually living it, it is actually feeling it and feeling the impact on it.”
On Wednesday, more than six months after Taylor was killed, a grand jury indicted fired detective Brett Hankison on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment because he allegedly fired blindly through Taylor’s window and door, sending bullets into a neighboring apartment. The other two officers were not charged.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and Det. Myles Cosgrove were “justified in their use of force” because Taylor’s boyfriend fired at officers first.
The FBI has said it is conducting a separate investigation.
They feel their lives are ‘undervalued’
Taylor’s family, their supporters and protesters around the country have called the charges inadequate because they don’t address her death.
“It’s just a slap in the face to her family, to her legacy,” said Aeriel Murphy-Leonard, a materials science engineer who’s finishing up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “And then as a Black woman, just knowing that your life is so undervalued, you know, like, you are really, so considered less than a human being.”
Murphy-Leonard, 30, is about to start a new position as an assistant professor at Ohio State University. She said she relates to Taylor as a young Black woman and is sad that she was robbed of a chance to achieve her dreams for the future.
The disappointment she feels is a combination of anger and hurt for Taylor’s family, her boyfriend and all the people who loved her, as well as anger at a system that she says is designed to hold Black people down.
“It’s exhausting to wake up every day and have to exist in a space that is that is created for you to fail, it’s created for you to go to jail, it’s created for you to not have equitable access to resources,” she said. “It’s literally created to keep you down, and to have to fight that every day is just exhausting.”
Home should be a safe place
Murphy-Leonard said she’s never had a run-in with the police and has only been pulled over for speeding once in her life, but that doesn’t make her feel at ease.
“I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe anywhere. It’s enough, the anxiety of it all,” she said. “That’s why I feel exhausted. I deserve better.”
The circumstances of Taylor’s death – being shot in her own home in the middle of the night – adds to the sense that nowhere is safe.
“I would at least think I should be able to go home and feel safe in my home,” Lae’l Hughes-Watkins told CNN. “Once I lock those doors, I should feel safe in my home and that did not happen for Breonna Taylor.”
It also did not happen for Botham Jean, who was shot while sitting on his couch eating ice cream in 2018 by a then-police officer who claimed she’d entered the wrong apartment and shot him because she thought he was an intruder. That officer was convicted of murder and is serving a 10-year sentence.
Or Atatiana Jefferson, who was playing video games with her nephew last October when a now-fired police officer shot her through the window of a home. The officer is awaiting trial on murder charges.
“One of my favorite quotes is actually from Maya Angelou where she says ‘My home is a refuge, not only from the world, but a refuge from my worries, my troubles, my concerns,’” Hughes-Watkins said. “That is something I hold dear. That’s how I feel home is supposed to be.”
She said she feels less safe knowing that someone could come into her house and take her life and not be charged.
Hughes-Watkins said the global outcry following the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in southeast Georgia and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months gave her some hope that there might be justice in Taylor’s case.
“We are seeing some policy changes occurring in different spaces and institutions, some institutions are starting to break ties with local police, so I thought maybe, you know, this could be a pivot,” she said.
She described Wednesday’s indictment as “a gut punch.”
I feel ‘Black lives don’t matter to many Americans’
Amira Bryant calls Louisville her second home. She listened to the announcement over loudspeakers along with members of the community who’d gathered downtown.
“We kind of already knew what was coming, but the charge that they did decide to go through with just seemed very disrespectful, and kind of ridiculous,” she said.
Bryant says she went on a hunger strike for 21 days over the summer in hopes of pressuring authorities to bringing charges and has continued to be active in the protests.
“I feel as a whole that Black lives don’t matter to many people in our nation and this movement has opened my eyes to how much less Black women’s lives matter,” she said. “And it messes me up.”
Bryant, 27, said marching and being on the front lines of the protests has taken a physical toll on her body and that stress and anxiety have caused stomach pain and headaches.
Plus she still has to deal with the pressures of day-to-day life.
“You’re also carrying the mental grief and stress and anguish that your peers are also holding, your family is holding, other similar Black women, past Black women that have been killed and hurt and future Black women are going to be killed and hurt,” she said. “You know the list can kind of go on.”
She said she plans to keep fighting for justice despite the setbacks and the challenges.
Elliott White Jr., a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia, says he’s been conducting his own solitary protest since mid-June.
He spends an hour or two every weekday walking around campus and nearby streets in Charlottesville wearing a sandwich board sign that says “My PhD Won’t Stop Crooked Police” on the front and “My Life Can’t Wait On Your Delicate Sensibilities” on the back.
“I am not immune to these things, they are real, and I’ve experienced them, and I know that I will probably continue to experience them,” he said. “So it will be ignorant of me, and foolish of me to just assume that ‘Well, once I become successful and wealthy and etc, then all of this will be fine.’”
White says he gets the occasional disapproving look on his walks, which cover about three miles each day, but most people either give supportive honks or a thumbs up or just carry on with their day.
“I need to continually remind people that this is real, and these are real people. It’s not just something that happens on TV. And we have to keep talking about it, because if we don’t talk then things will not change,” White said.
He hopes that the protests will bring new voices into the political process and help White people understand what Black Americans are facing.
“I’m not extremely optimistic. In the near term,” he said. “I’m fairly young, but I don’t see a whole lot of change happening by the time I die, honestly. And that’s been true for most of the lives of any Black person that lives in America, not much has changed in individual lifetimes.”
Hope for the future
Bryant said she’s seen some good ideas and policy changes put forward in response to the protests, and is watching to see if they will actually be put into practice.
Hughes-Watkins is the archivist at the University of Maryland and works with marginalized student groups around the country to help them preserve their records.
“The students are not waiting around and they’re demanding change, and they’re expecting it to happen,” she said. “So that that gives me hope.”
Phillips has a four-year-old daughter, who’s too young to understand everything that’s going on. But Phillips says her little girl knows Breonna Taylor’s name and that her death has affected the community.
“We’re having to break our kids in way earlier than we ever should have to while trying to still maintain their innocence,” she said. “So parenting was already hard on us, in general, so imagine being a Black parent of a Black female, explaining why another Black female got killed.”
She said she still maintains hope for her daughter’s sake.
“I have to always choose optimism, I have to always choose peace, I have to always choose positivity, I have to always choose happiness over what the reality is,” she said. “So essentially, I’m painting my own reality over the reality that’s presented to me every day.”