Despite the months’ worth of protests and the obvious corruption at the center of Breonna Taylor’s case, she did not get justice… And many still believe she doesn’t deserve it.
In the months after her murder by police officers Brett Hankinson, John Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove, Breonna Taylor—a 26-year-old Black woman, EMT, and aspiring nurse—has not only become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, but also: a Twitter meme, a hashtag, a TikTok dance, and merchandise.While it may be true that the creators intended to spread awareness or uplift her memory, the problem is that memes are not important to her case for justice. Sure, some of them were funny, and sure, they circulated widely, but they were internet fads, made to be quickly digested then easily forgotten.
The meme-ification of Breonna Taylor’s murder follows a worrying trend of turning Black pain, and especially Black death, into consumable spectacle. Following the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, videos of their final moments were played repeatedly on television, reposted across social media, and included at the top of news articles documenting the case for the sake of “awareness.” Though not the same as being turned into a “justice coffee mug,” I see a parallel in the way these tragedies have been transformed into a type of product. The effect is undeniably dehumanizing. In Breonna Taylor’s case especially, the horror of what has really happened to her is displaced by the funny and fleeting nature of the meme itself. And in terms of benefiting her, the effect was negligible; the state doesn’t care more for her now that she’s a hashtag.
So when the Louisville PD declared a “state of emergency” ahead of the Breonna Taylor decision, I knew, as did many other Black people, that the cops were not going to be held accountable. What I did not expect, however, was for one of them to be punished for the bullets that missed. On September 23rd, the grand jury indicted Brett Hankinson on three counts of “wanton endangerment” for firing 10 rounds into Breonna Taylor’s apartment “wantonly and blindly.”
Important to recall here: there were three cops present on the night of her death, and there were at least 20 rounds fired into her home. So, how are John Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove being held accountable? What about the 10 unaccounted for bullets, including the six that fatally injured Breonna Taylor? Well, according to Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron, “Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in their return of deadly fire.”
No charges were brought in connection to Breonna Taylor’s death.
So that’s that. Or at least, for the people who resolutely believe that there cannot possibly be anything unjust about our justice system, that’s that. Almost immediately after the decision, we saw people like Samantha Marika tweeting the equivalent of I told you so:
On my own social media, I saw a girl named Tiffany* share the Tweet to a now deleted Instagram story, with a caption similarly celebrating the grand jury decision, “It’s a horrible situation that occurred but I will forever be someone from a cop family and the reality is, [Brett Hankinson] was shot at first! What is a police officer supposed to do just stay there not fighting back like r u for real. R I P breonna, it’s very unfortunate she was caught in the cross fire but remember to know all the facts.”
The mere existence of these posts suggests a perverse impulse to get on social media and gloat while live footages play of Black people mourning across the country. And underpinning these responses, once again, is the dehumanization of Breonna Taylor that comes with turning her murder into a debate. In addition to a meme, a hashtag, a TikTok dance, and merchandise, she has also become a talking point. At best, naysayers may believe her case is kind of sad, sad enough to include “R I P breonna” in a post on why she deserved to die. But something that is kind of sad is not something worth abolishing the system for, and certainly not something worth presenting a homicide charge to the grand jury for. It’s not an injustice that police shot her in her own home, and so of course Brett Hankinson only got charged for the bullets that missed.
I would go as far to say that this is the same reaction we see every time Black people—activists, feminists scholars, community organizers—call attention to the racist foundations of the American criminal justice system. Does Ben Shapiro’s response to Tamir Rice’s murder five years ago read any differently than Samantha Marika’s response to the Breonna Taylor verdict?
These responses shift focus to the behavior of the victims of police brutality and how that behavior warrants violence. Meanwhile, police conduct is minimally scrutinized, even in a case like Breonna Taylor’s that is rife with police corruption. This kind of “individual behavior” framework allows people to avoid the harder questions, for example, “Why are you comfortable with police being able to break into homes and start shooting as long as there’s even the slimmest chance there might be drugs there?” It’s the same logic applied over and over and over again: George Floyd had a counterfeit bill. Tamir Rice’s toy looked too realistic. And Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend shot first.
So, it’s fine.
“R I P breonna.” And that’s that.
For further reading on the state of the U.S. criminal justice system, please check out The Marshall Project.
If you are able, consider donating to the GoFundMe for Breonna Taylor’s family.
*Name has been changed for privacy purposes.
Illustration: Diane Lin is an illustrator and art editor for F-Word magazine. She is a senior majoring in Economics and minoring in Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.