I wrote a “Dear Breonna” letter too. Weeks ago. It said something like “I’m sorry black women are truly ‘the help’; invisible but essential in every way.” I ranted about toxic masculinity and sensationalized black deaths. I flirted with passive aggressiveness as if the letter were not addressed to her. Then, I signed it as one invisible black woman to another. In the wake of the failed indictment of Breonna’s murderers, I decided not to share my Dear Breonna letter because its tone was all wrong. I wanted to resist the temptation to characterize Breonna as another failed black woman victimized by the patriarchy and double standards. Instead I want to send a message to encourage us to promise more to Breonna other than to mention her name in circles of mourning; because there are other areas in which to remember her and to invoke the power of her story. Indeed, we must mention Breonna’s name in ongoing education for our community and calls for reform.
Don’t let your pain tempt you to oversimplify the system.
I am in pieces and a quick google attempt to decipher the chaos after the grand jury’s decision threatens my already fragile 2020 psyche. So as an attorney, I leaned into my logic and rationality to try and make it all make sense. The media is doing what it does best; feeling out the waves of emotion and reporting in a way that will draw attention (and ratings). It is aware of how black women are cast aside in the race debate. It knows society is hypersensitive to all forms of bias. Consequently, the grand jury decision is being reported with undertones of conspiracy; sowing more seeds of paranoia in our community. In my quest to make sense of a demoralizing conclusion to this tragedy, I realized that reporting on Breonna is being done all wrong. What is missing is an honest conversation of the procedure — what a grand jury is, the scope of charges presented, and how evidence was shared — so that we can direct the blame in the proper direction. Given that each state has its own unique criminal procedure, it is easier (ye, catchier) to over simplify this one state’s grand jury’s decision as (1) convenient in the wake of President Trump short-listing Daniel Cameron to fill the Supreme Court’s vacancy, or (2) as clever sound bites of the justice afforded to walls rather than black bodies. Don’t be fooled. There remains a tangible confusion about how the criminal justice system works that fundamentally undermines our attempts to reform it.
Stand your ground is still alive.
Breonna and Trayvon are more alike than you think. Trayvon Martin baffled the nation. How could a child be stalked and justifiably murdered in his family’s neighborhood by an overzealous wanna-be cop? As conversations about hoodies, convenient store snacks and the weaponization of black skin shocked the nation into the familiar debate on race relations, a light was shed on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Simply put, the law allows a person to kill first if their space (including personal vehicles and even public places) is perceived threatened. Research into the history of the 2005 Florida law revealed that it was pushed by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and similarly replicated in states across the nation in order to promote weapon purchases. Stand Your Ground complicated the investigation and evidence, eventually leading to the acquittal of Trayvon’s murderer.
Here, police murdered Breonna while they were executing a no-knock warrant, which allowed police to enter her property without identifying themselves. No-knock warrants are inherently dangerous for both police and bystanders, yet grand juries tend to sympathize with police when injuries occur. The Kentucky legislature and governor quickly signed the “Breonna Law” to ban the use of no knock warrants, portraying it as a sweeping resolution to the Breonna problem. But Kentucky remained conspicuously silent on Kentucky’s Stand Your Ground Law. Enacted in 2006, the Kentucky’s Stand Your Ground law does not apply to force used against police officers if the police identify themselves in accordance with the applicable law. Police claimed they announced themselves, yet prosecutors quickly dropped the attempted murder charges against Breonna’s boyfriend almost as if they did not want to provoke a critical analysis of the very law that would allow Breonna’s murderers to go free. Without body camera footage, and media reports of likely conflicting testimony about whether police actually identified themselves, I would not be surprised if the grand jury had no choice but to dismiss any charge relating to Breonna’s death. Breonna’s murder needs to pick up where Trayvon’s left off. Breonna was the perfect victim, a dedicated essential employee during a global pandemic just trying to watch a movie until she fell asleep. No knock warrants coupled with Stand Your Ground created the perfect storm, but the loud repeal of no knock warrant law only distracted attention away from “stand your ground” that likely complicated the investigation and exonerated an over-militarized police force. You are right, we should not be satisfied with the Breonna Law, but not because changing a law isn’t enough. Rather, enough laws have not yet been changed. As we say her name, let it be to carry forward a cry for Stand Your Ground reform that grew hoarse over time.
She deserves more than this.
My words are imperfect and I hope one day someone writes a more eloquent law review article immortalizing Breonna’s life with tangible reform options. But right now, I am exhausted because the realization that police do not care about sleepy unarmed tenants has kept me up the last few nights. This piece was written with the last of my effort to remain hopeful and productive. As a black woman, I stand in outrage over Breonna’s murder because attention to it was so tempered and delayed. It is true, our country only allows justice to progress in increments and the patriarchy demands that the black man first be saved. But the point of this piece is to show that Breonna’s work is not done. A failed indictment is not enough to bury Breonna solely as another failure of the system. She deserves more than that.