By Owen Brown
Breonna Taylor’s legal murder goes unpunished. No surprise, here. Why? For hundreds of years African Americans have known that the American justice system rarely grants them justice and particularly when a black woman dies at the hands of a white law enforcement official. This is the grievous experience of Tanisha Anderson, Shelly Frey, Rekia Boyd, etc. They all suffered untimely deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers that were paid to protect life and property. Breonna Taylor was the latest victim of this enduring legacy of American racialism.
Who was Breonna Taylor? She was a young woman of African descent and a medical worker who was shot and killed in her home. Breonna’s death came at the hands of police paid to protect human life. Breonna’s death at the hands of Louisville police officers led to nationwide protests that decried the continued abuse of African Americans at the hands of their local police.
Historically, large numbers of white police officers charged with abusing black citizens have gone unpunished. This trend continues when a Kentucky Grand Jury declined to bring murder charges against three police officers involved in Ms. Taylor’s untimely demise, thus legalizing her killing.
Only one of the three officers involved in the state sanctioned murder of Breonna Taylor was charged in the botched no-knock raid by the Republican Kentucky Attorney General, Daniel Cameron. That detective, Brett Hankison, was fired and indicted on three counts of first-degree endangerment for discharging gunshots into Ms. Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment. Equal right protesters were disappointed with the grand jury’s decision, but they would not if they understood the African Americans’ nightmares in America since slavery.
We must remember that the first mass incarceration experience of people of African ancestry in America and the Americas, starting in the sixteenth century, was slavery, which should be referred to accurately as the Africanization of Slavery. This grave and enduring injustice unleashed on African Americans began with the Middle Passage and was institutionalized with slavery.
Even enlightened men such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, whose bold cries for freedom from British tyranny leading to America’s independence, refused to believe that wo\men of African descent were their equals as human beings. Equally important, during this period, enslaved Africans were robbed of their freedom and racialists’ ideas portraying Africa and Africans as without history and forever inferior to whites took root and flourished. Black bodies were relegated to the bottom of a racialized hierarchy that was facilitated by the Fugitive Slave Laws and upheld by Prigg v. Pennsylvania.
Under American settler colonists’ racialism, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were branded criminals because they dared to lead their people from slavery to freedom. Indeed, since the passage of colonial Virginia Laws, Act XII in 1662 that rendered the offspring of women of African descent partus sequitur ventrem, America’s judicial system has been routinely employed to marginalize and impoverish black bodies.
This Western centric judicial system that provided the legal foundations for American racialism was and still is lorded over by people of European ancestry serving as its judges, court officers, district attorneys, police officers, etc. much like their white settler counterparts in apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia, and New Zealand. In these white settler colonies, laws were enacted to disadvantaged people that look like you and me. Not all people of European descent agreed. Unfortunately, in America, they were marginalized, and their opinions silenced.
That is, in America, brave people such as Juliette Hampton Morgan, William Lewis Moore, Fred L. Davis, Robert Graetz, and Rev. Bruce Klunder’s calls for racial equality were frustrated and largely, ignored. Instead, former New York Republican Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and Democrats such as Tip O’Neill and the Congressional Black Caucus introduced or voted to enact state and federal criminal justice laws that ended up warehousing generations of African Americans in prisons, for non-violent drug violations. Large numbers of these individuals were disconnected youth. These young adults, before being arrested, had either dropped out of schools or did not have jobs.
Not surprisingly, a quick review of the legislative mandates that empowered our criminal justice system shows that people of African ancestry were\are disproportionately represented among inmates in local jails and state and federal prisons. Conversely, white Americans constitute many of the faces of law and order. While monetarist policies dominate our national economic system, Keynesian prescriptions are still central to the American criminal justice system and its military industrial complex. Are my statements hyperbolic? Let us further examine the criminal justice system and its impact on people of African descent, particularly women since 1619.
Women of African descent and their offspring have been the main victims of this cruel and unjust system of mass incarceration. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, “One in 18 black women born in 2001 will be incarcerated sometime in her life, compared to one in 45 Latina women and one in 111 white women.” Moreover, Forty-four percent of incarcerated women are black, although black women make up about 13 percent of the female U.S. population. Drs. Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Kimberelé Williams Crenshaw’s scholarship have brought this grim reality to the world’s attention. The untimely deaths of Natasha McKenna and Michelle Cusseaux were\are powerful testimonials that black lives are still not valued like white lives. A non-violent interaction between a black woman and the police should not end in her death –a la Sandra Bland. It is in this context that we should understand Breonna Taylor’s legal murder going unpunished, even when a black attorney general is at the head of the state’s legal system.
During the Civil Rights Movement, it was believed that if blacks were given control over their communities and its institutions, they would be able to uplift themselves. Unfortunately, over the last 50 years this dictum has proven itself empty in that many black leaders appear complicit in the perpetuation of white supremacy, in the name of political urgency. Langston Hughes anticipated this dead end when he discussed Harlem and who really controlled it during his lifetime in The Ways of White Folks. Recently, we saw it in Baltimore and Minneapolis, black elected leaders do not result in meaningful changes in the forms of employment, gun violence reduction, and hope. Nevertheless, in each election cycle they ask for our votes, therefore we need to listen to their promises and hold them accountable, like many did with Michael Bloomberg’s Presidential campaign.
Despite my disagreement with but support for Michael Bloomberg’s Presidential campaign and his since repudiated defense of Stop-and-Frisk, he must be applauded for apologizing and providing Florida ex-felons’ a pathway to vote in the upcoming elections. In this act of kindness, Bloomberg was not the first. We must remember Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer who died because his home was fire-bombed by radical racialists opposed to him offering to pay poll taxes so blacks could vote. Before these men, women have always sacrificed for their people’s equality.
Many of us did not grow up learning about Phillis Wheatley, Maria W. Stewart, and Georgia Gilmore. These women were the North Stars in the resistance to American racialism and their actions were perhaps best embodied in the Montgomery Improvement Association and, today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Historically, these movements for human equality faced significant head winds. It is in this context that I humbly submit that Breonna Taylor’s legal murder in fifty years may be very well remembered as the start of the third Black Reconstruction. With your support, let’s make it so for our dearly departed sister. Our ancestors are watching and praying for us, all.
Dr. Owen Brown is a Professor in the Department of Social Behavioral Sciences at Medgar Evers College. He is currently completing a book titled: The Awakening: Women of African Ancestry and the Making of America.
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