What Justice for Breonna Taylor Really Means: The Fight for Change That's Keeping Her Memory Alive

It's been a year since Breonna Taylor was killed in her own apartment by cops executing a no-knock search warrant. Inside the ongoing fight to prevent the list of names like hers from growing.

By Natalie Finn Mar 13, 2021 9:00 AMTags
Breonna Taylor 1 year anniversaryKyle Grillot/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Before March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was an ordinary 26-year-old woman. She loved her family and friends, worked as an emergency room technician at a hospital and was otherwise going about her business navigating the joys and challenges of life in Louisville, Ky., where the Michigan native had lived for 12 years. She was the proud owner of a new car and was saving up to buy a house.

After March 13, 2020, she became a cause, a symbol, a cover girl, a rallying cry. And a memory.

At around 9 p.m. on March 12, Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, returned from a date-night dinner to the apartment she shared with her younger sister, who was out of town. Taylor had been working night shifts at the hospital and was expecting an 11 p.m. call to head to work, but the phone didn't ring. Instead, she baked some cookies, they played Uno and then put on Netflix in her bedroom. They started watching the movie Freedom Writers but soon fell asleep, first Taylor, then Walker started to doze off.

"The last thing she said was, 'Turn off the TV,'" he later told the New York Times.

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At 12:40 a.m., three officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department, toting a "no-knock" search warrant, showed up at her place, unit No. 4, on the ground floor. They say they did a "knock-and-announce," rapping on the door and identifying themselves as police.

The couple were startled out of bed by the banging. Walker would remember both of them calling out, asking who was there, but no one answered and the banging continued. The cops have said they didn't hear anything from inside and used a battering ram to break down the front door, expecting to find one unarmed woman home alone. Taylor and Walker, who had gotten dressed so fast he pulled on his girlfriend's pants, were in the hallway by then. Walker, a licensed gun owner, had grabbed his 9-mm Glock. 

Walker, who told police he thought at the time that Taylor's ex was breaking in, fired what he insisted was meant to be a warning shot to scare him off. Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly was hit in the thigh.

Mattingly and detectives Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison then proceeded to fire off 32 shots, some of the bullets entering two neighboring apartments. When they retreated to attend to Mattingly outside, where another handful of officers were stationed as part of the operation, Walker called 911 at 12:47 a.m., telling the operator, "Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend."

Taylor, who was struck six times, one shot proving fatal, died right there.


A search of the apartment later that morning turned up no cash or drugs, only some mail addressed to Taylor's ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, whose alleged criminal activities were what put her on the authorities' radar in the first place. When she was killed, Glover had just been taken into custody. A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Taylor's family against the city alleged that more than 60 officers, including a militarized SWAT team, executed "no-knock" warrants at three addresses on another street, seizing drugs, a scale, cash and guns, and arresting Glover and four others without incident.

"She was already an accomplished and certified EMT for the City of Louisville and currently worked for [University of Louisville Health's Jewish Hospital East] as a medical tech," Taylor's aunt Bianca Austin told WHAS-11 News two days after her niece was killed, the battle already on to clear Breonna's name from posthumous tarnishing. "This is not a woman who would sacrifice her life and her family morals and values to sell drugs on the street."

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Taylor was innocent of any wrongdoing, Sam Aguiar, an attorney for her family, said at a news conference in May after they filed suit against the city. "The warrant in and of itself looks like another wild goose chase to try and get drug dealers and other folks in Louisville, and Breonna Taylor got lumped right into the middle of it," he said.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, whose office was overseeing the investigation into the events of that night, assured that he would take "appropriate action." Gov. Andy Beshear called the reports coming out about the circumstances of Taylor's death "troubling."

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But once the case started receiving national attention, Taylor's life was the one under the microscope, the tendency to scrutinize the victim when law enforcement commits violent acts all too common. At a press conference the day after the raid, Police Lt. Ted Eidem had said that the cops were "immediately met by gunfire" when they entered the apartment. The department stated that the officers "knocked on the door several times and announced their presence as police who were there with a search warrant."

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Taylor's family said they initially had trouble finding a funeral home to hold a service for her, some establishments reluctant to get involved with rumored criminals.

"She was a good girl. She just did not deserve what she went through," Austin told a small group gathered outside the Jefferson County Judicial Center, where she and her sister, Taylor's mother Tamika Palmer, had gone seeking answers on March 19. 

"The pressure has already been applied," Austin added, "and we not lettin' up. This is only the beginning."

Taylor had no criminal history, but, records later showed, she had talked to Glover on the phone in January 2020, when he called her from jail. GPS information from a tracker that police put on his car showed he had made multiple trips to her apartment.

But, her many advocates have always insisted, absolutely nothing she had done in her life, or any perceived misstep, justified what the cops did to her.

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"You can't just look away from it and act like it's not there," community organizer Christopher 2X told the New York Times in August, referring to her association with Glover. "My hope is courageous people will say: 'There it is—it's what it is—but was this shooting justified? She should be alive today.'"

Walker was arrested on charges of assault and attempted murder of a police officer. He didn't have an entirely clean record, but had never been charged with a felony before, and said he'd never fired his gun outside of a shooting range until that night. (The charges were dropped in May and permanently dismissed just this past week.)

"Breonna Taylor gets shot in her own home, with her boyfriend doing what's as American as apple pie, in defending himself and his woman," Aguiar told the New York Times last summer, alleging that "catastrophic failures" on the part of the police had led to her death. 

Walker said that he first met Taylor on Twitter in 2012 when she was a student at University of Kentucky and he was attending school about two and a half hours away. They exchanged flirty messages and struck up a friendship, until finally a romance blossomed four years later.

"I kept on telling her, I don't want to be friends no more," Walker told the Times. "But I'm a Gemini, and she was also a Gemini. So, you know, some days it was, 'Yeah let's, let's get married and have a kid,' and another day it's like, 'No, let's be single and live carefree lives.'"

He told the police that they started dating in 2016 but a few months in she started seeing Glover too, and was off-and-on with both of them until just weeks before she died. Aguiar said that Taylor cut ties with Glover for good in mid-February.

She tweeted Feb. 23, "Gotta watch how you let men treat/deal with you especially when you got lil sisters/cousins looking up to ya!!!"

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On June 5, what would have been her 27th birthday, mourners released balloons into the air and, at a vigil the next day, Austin told the more than 1,000 people in Jefferson Square (a quad bordered by Metro Corrections, City Hall, Metro Hall and the courthouse), "Breonna comes from a strong background, a strong family, but most importantly, she comes from love. We love her and miss her so much."

Louisville Urban League CEO Sadiqa Reynolds, speaking on behalf of Taylor's mother, told the crowd, "She said tell them they took the wrong child. Tell them we will not stop until we have justice. She says tell them we want peace. But peace requires justice. She said tell them we want these officers fired. She said we want these officers indicted. She said we want these officers prosecuted.... Everyone knows what parents say: 'Baby, call me when you make it home. Call me when you make it home.'

"Well imagine that your baby makes it home and then they lay in the bed and the police, with a bad warrant, knock through the door and shoot that child. What do you do? What do you say? You say: No justice!"

"No peace!" the crowd replied in unison.

Demonstrators ultimately made Jefferson Square, which came to be called "the Breeway," a destination for 180 straight nights, starting May 28. Walker told the Courier Journal it became a "safe haven" for him last summer, "a place of hope."

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"Eternally grateful," Palmer told Today's Blayne Alexander this week, asked how she felt about those who marched on Breonna's behalf, in Louisville and all over the country. "So many people who never even met her, but they learned of her and they—they came to stand for her because what happened to her wasn't right. I could never say thank you enough."

And in addition to the millions of people who paid tribute to Breonna in some way, also spurred on by the May 25 death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes (the murder trial of now ex-cop Derek Chauvin is currently underway), the celebrity world adopted her memory. Countless boldfaced names used their platforms to bring awareness to not just Taylor, but to the systemic injustices that allowed for this—for all of this—to happen. 

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The WNBA devoted its 2020 season to Taylor's memory. Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris invoked her name during the Democratic National Convention. Oprah Winfrey took herself off the cover of magazine for the first time ever to spotlight Taylor. A portrait of her by Amy Sherald was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair's September issue. Beyoncé, LeBron James, George Clooney, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Cardi B and tons of other actors, athletes, singers, scholars, artists and authors wrote, created and spoke out about Taylor and the need for a reckoning. For an end to systemic racism. For police reform. For real change. For arrests. For justice.

Taylor's sister, Juniyah Palmer, told Today in June, "Now that everybody knows her name, it does bring comfort because we're no longer fighting this alone. It's everybody fighting for her." 

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Winfrey wrote in explaining her motivation, ""What I know for sure—we can't be silent. We have to use whatever megaphone we have to cry for justice. And that is why Breonna Taylor is on the cover of O magazine. I cry for justice in her name."

Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama's official portrait upon the end of her husband's presidency, explained in Vanity Fair that Taylor is an "American girl, she is a sister, a daughter, and a hard worker. Those are the kinds of people that I am drawn towards." And her portrait of Taylor, every detail laced with meaning, was her contribution to the "moment and to activism—producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever."

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Meanwhile, Cosgrove, Mattingly and Hankison were placed on administrative reassignment while their actions were investigated. Hankison was fired in June and, in September, was the only one charged with a crime—three counts of wanton endangerment, for the rounds that entered other apartments. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is currently set to begin Aug. 31. (Cosgrove, who FBI analysts say fired the shot that killed Taylor, was let go from the department in January, along with the detective who secured the warrant, Joshua Jaynes. They're both appealing their terminations, as is Hankison. Mattingly, who underwent surgery on his wounded leg, was found not to have violated any policies and remains on the job.)

In announcing the grand jury's decision last year, Daniel Cameron said that his office's investigation found that the cops were "justified in their return of deadly fire after having been fired upon." He said a civilian witness had heard the police knock and identify themselves. (A number of other neighbors said they didn't hear police announce themselves, while one person claimed to have heard the officers yell "Police!" once, according to interviews conducted by The New York Times.)

No one was labeled responsible for Taylor's death, Cameron instead basically blaming Walker for what happened. 

"There will be celebrities, influencers and activists, who, having never lived in Kentucky, will try to tell us how to feel, suggesting they understand the facts of this case and that they know our community and the commonwealth better than we do," Cameron also said at the press conference. "But they don't. Let's not give in to their attempts to influence our thinking or capture our emotions."

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Needless to say, the outcome was a slap in the face to everyone who had taken up her cause, who had spent months protesting racial inequality and police violence, who had demanded "Justice for Breonna Taylor!" and chanted "Say Her Name!" To everyone who had loved her when she was here, among the living, before she was another hashtag, another face on a T-shirt, another reason to be outraged that the law—and it was the law that gave license to the cops to barge into her apartment that morning—had once again failed to protect or serve a Black woman.

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"I was reassured Wednesday of why I have no faith in the legal system and the police and the law that are not made to protect us Black and brown people," Taylor's mother said in a statement read by her sister Bianca Austin at a press conference.

The Kentucky attorney general's office said in a statement that "everyone is entitled to their opinion, but prosecutors and grand jury members are bound by the facts and the law."

Days later a member of that grand jury insisted that transcripts of their proceedings, which had been sealed, be made public, joining calls from Taylor's family, other government officials and many more to see the evidence that led to their decision. People once again took to the streets to say her name—and more than a few had some choice words about Cameron.

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On Sept. 29, Kentucky's top prosecutor acknowledged to WDRB News that he didn't present a murder case to the grand jury, finding such charges "not appropriate."

"They're an independent body," Cameron said. "If they wanted to make an assessment about different charges, they could have done that. But our recommendation was that Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in their acts and their conduct." He added, "The charge that we could prove at trial, beyond reasonable doubt, was for wanton endangerment against Mr. Hankison."

The fact that he didn't try to secure murder charges still haunts Taylor's family.

"I haven't met with him since the day he delivered, whatever he called that," Palmer said of Cameron on the March 11 episode of Dr. Oz. "But I think he failed, and he lied. I don't really have a lot of thoughts of him."

Asked to explain where he failed, she replied, "He said that the grand jury had decided that no charges should be brought against the officer, and then we later found out that that wasn't true at all, and that he never even presented the case to the grand jury."

But whether or not the cops' actions were legally justified isn't the most egregious policy failure at play, according to those who've been fighting for years to change the laws at the very root of what led to the police showing up at Taylor's door in the first place.

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"We have to recognize that drugs are not an excuse for law-enforcement to violate privacy—or kill us," says Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks to end—through education, social engagement and, most importantly, official policy change—the draconian War on Drugs that, since President Richard Nixon first declared it in 1971, has disproportionately affected communities of color and led to the militarization of police forces.

"If you want to fight for Breonna Taylor, if you want justice," Frederique told E! News in an interview, "part of that justice has to include making sure that this doesn't happen again."

She pointed to a 1995 Supreme Court case, Wilson v. Arkansas, which decided that there were situations in which officers did not have to announce themselves while executing a warrant, such as when there's a chance the suspect may flee or destroy evidence—hence the "no-knock" provision that was added to the Taylor search warrant.

An analysis by the Louisville Courier-Journal found that, between 2018 and June 2020, when the city banned them, 27 no-knock warrants were approved. In 22 of the warrants, 82 percent of the listed suspects were Black and 68 percent listed addresses in the city's West End, which comprises predominantly Black neighborhoods.

"You can't kill someone in the name of the drug war, but that's exactly what they're doing, and they've codified it in these laws," Frederique said.

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But lawmakers are chipping away at decades' worth of bad policy, the gears of change grinding ever so slowly.

Last June, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously adopted Breonna's Law, an ordinance banning no-knock warrants and requiring officers to wear body cameras during raids, and they established a civilian board to review complaints against the police. In September the city reached a $12 million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit that had been filed by Taylor's family, the largest-ever amount in the city's history.

"The legislation is great, but these officers also need to be monitored and they need to be held accountable," Aguiar, who had pushed for system reform in their civil complaint, told the Courier-Journal. "These body cameras need to be watched. The policy and law is only as good as its enforcement."

The next step, taken up by State Rep. Attica Scott, is to get Breonna's Law adopted statewide. A competing measure, however, from State Sen. Robert Stivers, would only ban no-knock searches from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. unless a judge found there was "clear and convincing" evidence to proceed anyway.

The Louisville Metro Police Department also has a new chief, Erika Shields, who has reportedly been in touch with attorneys for Taylor's family in order to set up a meeting, Austin telling the Courier-Journal that they had yet to receive any sort of apology from the police.

But, she added, "The table's wide open. We're here ready to discuss any day you're ready."

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Austin attended President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris' Jan. 20 inauguration with James Blake Sr. and Justin Blake, the father and uncle of James Blake Jr., a Black man who was shot multiple times in the back by a police offer in Kenosha, Wis., in August. While the shooting resulted in largely peaceful protests (the NBA and some Major League Baseball teams also postponed games), there was more destructive unrest as well, turning Kenosha into an unlikely flashpoint in what had already been such a tinderbox of a summer.

"It's a sorority and fraternity that we did not choose," James Sr. told Milwaukee's TMJ4 News in Washington, D.C. Said Austin, "It's so many names to name. But we're here to represent that."

Asked about the policy they were hoping to see changed, James said, "We demand abolishing immunity of police, from being able to not be charged for what they do. We demand that off the top. Justin added, "It's much bigger than our families. We want to make sure each African descendant living in this country are under the laws and liberties that exist."

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Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which also bans no-knock warrants, restricts qualified immunity for police, and establishes a federal registry for police disciplinary actions and misconduct complaints.

But Frederique says it's an underwhelming piece of legislation, noting, for starters, that while it does include a ban on the loathed "no-knock" policy, a "quick knock" hardly suffices either, and the bill doesn't begin to address the militarization of the police force that's so directly connected to overzealous drug laws.

"We need to start shifting that money to things that actually support people—education, housing and other services," she said, explaining, "We cannot deal with this issue piecemeal. We have to deal with it wholly. It wasn't just a little bit of Breonna Taylor that died, it wasn't just a little piece of George Floyd that died. They're gone. Their families and their communities will always feel the wholeness of that loss. And therefore our response has to be as whole. For so long, we've been doing little pieces here, little pieces there—and it has not worked."

And with the public having been motivated last summer in a way not seen in generations, it's not a time to accept less than what is called for, she says.

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So at this point, for Frederique, justice for Breonna Taylor means "ending police militarization. To me it means ending the drug war. Decriminalizing drug possession, low-level sale. Recognizing that we need to deal with drugs in a a different way, that we shouldn't be incarcerating people or incentivizing law enforcement to enforce these laws. It means reparations for Breonna Taylor's family, and making sure that this doesn't happen to other people."

And preventing more tragedies like this one is a goal for Taylor's family, though they still are holding out hope that someone will be held accountable for her death. The best, and perhaps only chance remaining of that, is the ongoing federal investigation into the shooting, which has reportedly expanded to examine more actions taken by the Louisville police than on just that one night.

"We can't expect people to continue to emotionally and mentally keep moving forward when there hasn't been any justice yet for Breonna Taylor," state lawmaker Attica Scott told the Associated Press this week. "We've been failed every single time from every level of government, and we need a freaking break."

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In the meantime, asked what the passage of Breonna's Law in Louisville meant to her, Palmer bluntly told Dr. Oz, "It means nothing for me. When it comes to Breonna, it doesn't help her—but you get some comfort hoping that it'll save the Breonnas to come."

"We're still angry, we're still emotional," Austin told the Courier-Journal recently. "Except now, it's been a year later. We realize a big part of our lives is just gone. It's just been hard.

"But we still got that passion to keep her legacy alive, trying to continue to allow her to be the face of change and to keep standing in that spotlight."