Breonna Taylor would have been 27 on Friday, but most of the people who showed up in downtown Louisville to mark that milestone did not know her. A lot probably wish they had never heard her name.
If Taylor had not been shot dead by police in March, her mother believes she would have been out here on the streets herself, protesting against the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and David McAtee here, and demanding reform and an end to police brutality, just like the protesters who had shown up for her.
As an emergency medical technician (EMT), maybe she would have been be a volunteer medic at the mass demonstrations that have convulsed the city over the course of almost two weeks. Or maybe – having risked her own health to work in the emergency room through the coronavirus pandemic – she’d be handing out protective masks.
“I’m so grateful to everybody,” said Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, as she gave brief remarks at a gathering that was half celebration of life, half protest.
“Y’all don’t understand. It started off lonely, but it’s so amazing to see so many people standing up for her, just saying her name. And trust: if it was anybody else, Breonna would be out here doing the same thing. And that’s what I want people to understand about her.”
It has been nearly three months since Taylor was killed in her home. Plainclothes cops had been serving a no-knock search warrant in a narcotics investigation when they burst through her door in the first hour of 13 March while Taylor was sleeping. Her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, a licensed gun owner, grabbed his gun and fired off a shot, thinking they were witnessing a home invasion. He hit an officer in the leg.
Police fired back more than 20 times, killing Taylor and sending bullets flying into a neighboring apartment. No drugs were found. Her family say police had the wrong address.
Yet after her killing, Louisville metro police department described her as a suspect. Her boyfriend was charged with attempted murder of a police officer, and a police union called him an “attempted cop killer”. The cops involved in the incident were not wearing body cameras.
Charges against Walker have since been dropped, but the officers still have their freedom and their jobs, driving anger in Louisville. That anger has been compounded by the death of McAtee, who was shot and killed at his barbecue stand far from the center of protests early Monday morning as LMPD officers and national guard troops tried to clear a crowd violating curfew.
Police say McAtee fired a shot, prompting them to open fire. In violation of policy, officers involved were either not wearing body cameras or did not activate them. The killings – combined with nationwide rage over Floyd’s death and police brutality – have prompted widespread protests in Louisville over the past nine days.
On a sweltering Friday afternoon in downtown Louisville, businesses were busy boarding up windows, but the mood at the park was calm, hopeful and welcoming. People signed a large banner wishing Taylor a happy birthday while others wrote birthday cards and letters to the city. A woman painted a portrait of Taylor.
“I’d just like to tell her: happy heavenly birthday,” said Tamba Foyah, a 32-year-old artist. “That’s really sad that we have to say heavenly birthday, because she should be here. She should be here celebrating her birthday. I mean, she should be here protesting with us over what happened to George Floyd. She should be with us.”
As he walked through the crowd, Foyah was holding an artwork he’d made showing black bodies hanging in nooses from the barrel of a pistol.
“Nothing has really changed,” he said. “It’s just we’re not hanging from trees any more. We’re just hanging from their weapons,” he said, referring to the police.
A 22-year-old who identified himself as Bam Bam was signing a long banner wishing Taylor a happy birthday.
“What I did was, I told Breonna happy b-day, and we want her to look over us,” he said. “Man, it’s hard, and it’s crazy that we have to lightweight turn half the city up so people can hear our voices. It’s not right and it’s not cool.
And Breonna, baby, if you hear us: we love you, we sorry that this BS happened to you and we all here for you.”
He added: “We letting the world know what it really is, what it’s like to be a black person in America. We letting you know what it’s like that we fearing for our life every time we get pulled over by the police.”
Aleah Cohen, 23, was holding a “No justice, no peace” sign for passing cars to see across the street from Metro Hall with her friend Destiny Hancock, 22.
“It’s beyond scary. It’s something that could literally happen to any of us, especially because she’s at home, in her bedroom,” Cohen said. “If you can’t be safe at home in bed asleep, where can you be safe?”
Cohen says she has experienced racism as a young black woman in Louisville. At an old job, her and her friend got called the N-word and she was accused of stealing. She says HR told her to suck it up.
On the night Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 she says a guy chased her around her neighborhood in a pickup truck. She’s moved since, but one of her neighbors is a cop who she says has pulled her over for no reason and asked if she had a weapon.
“Like: we shouldn’t be scared to leave our houses. I shouldn’t be scared to drive around at night,” she said.
Hancock said the protest response to Taylor’s death now goes much further than just getting justice for her.
“It’s for Breonna to make it about more than Breonna,” she said. “It’s about more than just Breonna – it’s about change long-term.”