Breonna Taylor’s life is irreplaceable. Infinitely worthy, infinitely valuable. The loss is incalculable, not only to her family and friends, but to all human beings.
These are just words. I write them, and I believe them to be true. Or I believe that I believe them to be true. I hope that other people agree. But there is no objective measure that determines how much our lives matter. We determine that, through our actions and our choices, the way we view and respect one another – or don’t. We also determine it through the law. The law is our attempt to make our abstract notions about justice concrete. The law is supposed to reflect what matters to society. And we want to believe that human life matters. And yet.
According to the letter of the law, no crime was committed anywhere in the long chain of events that lead to Breonna Taylor’s death.
What Happened to Breonna Taylor
Breonna Taylor was sleeping soundly in her bed when someone began banging loudly on her door, terrifying her and her boyfriend, Kenneth “Kenny” Walker. She had reason to be scared, as she had a jealous and intimidating ex-boyfriend, someone who could easily show up with a gun. When the door flew off the hinges, Kenny – believing it to be her ex – fired a shot with his legal weapon. This was his absolute right, as Kentucky is a stand-your-ground state and someone had just burst in to Breonna’s home. However, Kenny did not know that the person he was firing at was a police officer. And when he hit that officer, he suddenly lost the right to defend himself. But Kenny still didn’t realize it was the police.
Police fired into her room, shooting Breonna. And she bled out slowly. Kenny called 911 – still not realizing it was the police who shot her. The ambulance didn’t show up in time. More shots came through the wall. Breonna kept bleeding. Kenny panicked, kept calling, begged for help. Nothing. She died there, on the floor.
No Lives Matter Until Black Lives Matter
The moment the police officer was hit, nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter that man they were looking for wasn’t in the apartment. Or that the suspect was no longer in Breonna’s life. Or that there were no weapons or drugs in the apartment. It didn’t matter that Breonna Taylor was not a suspect in any crime. Or that the gun which fired the shot was legal. Or that the shot was fired in self-defense. It didn’t matter that she was bleeding out on the floor at that moment. Legally, the only thing of importance was that Kenny had fired at and hit a police officer.
If this is how our laws are written, then human life has no value under the law. There is an undeniable series of errors – both moral and institutional – that lead to the moment of Breonna’s death. Any one of us can point to several moments and say “but surely this was a crime. Surely there will be consequences for that.” But we would be wrong. This is what is written, and this is our failure as a society. If we can’t hold our government and authorities accountable for loss of life in this moment, then we have already decided that life doesn’t matter.
Law and Justice
We determine what kind of society we want to live in. Calls for law and order attempt to restore a sense of calm by maintaining the status quo. But do we value order or do we value life? Some will bring up as a counter-example the two officers that were injured – thankfully not fatally – in an act of vengeful violence last night. There is no justification for this. But it’s also no counter-example. The person who shot them will face greater consequences than than the officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor. This demonstrates only that some lives are more valuable than others under the law. There is no justice in this and certainly no order.
Calls for peaceful protest recognize that for a time there will be discomfort. For a time there will be disruption. But the end goal is a society that is not merely orderly, but just. A society that values the lives of human beings.
This is a society that I would like to live in.