BY MARIAME KABA & ANDREA J. RITCHIE · JULY 16, 2020
Calls for arrests of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor are intensifying daily – Breonna’s family, community, celebrities, social media, Black women and allies across the United States are demanding equal justice for our sister slain by police. Many of these calls point to the arrests of officers who killed George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks days and weeks after their deaths, compared to the fact that there have been no arrests in Breonna’s case more than 100 days after she was killed as she slept in her bed in her home. One officer, Brett Hankison, has been fired, the other two remain on administrative leave. Both the FBI and a special Kentucky prosecutor are investigating Breonna’s killing and whether charges can be brought against the officers.
We fully support demands for accountability for Breonna’s death, and her family and loved ones’ quest for justice. When agents of the state act violently against an individual, and in this case, callously and negligently takes their life, there is no doubt that collective responses are absolutely warranted and essential. Collective responses can include uprisings, demands that the officers involved be fired and never allowed to serve in positions of power again, community campaigns to defund the police, and calls for compensation, healing and repair for people harmed or families left behind. Calls for prosecution and imprisonment are just one of many possible collective responses to a clear injustice. Of course, individuals, families, and communities – including Breonna’s – are entitled to decide on their own paths for justice – including seeking justice in courts and criminal punishment.
As prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionists, we want far more than what the system that killed Breonna Taylor can offer – because the system that killed her is not set up to provide justice for her family and loved ones. Experience shows that officers who harm are rarely arrested by the departments that employ them, and prosecutions and convictions are even more unlikely. Since 2005 there have only been 110 prosecutions of police officers who shot people, while police have killed 1000 people a year on average since 2014. There were convictions in less than 42 cases, usually on lesser charges. Even when convicted, police officers’ sentences – such as the 2 year sentence handed down to Johannes Mesherle for killing Oscar Grant by shooting him point black in the back of the head on a subway platform as he lay on the ground, the 3 year sentence for former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who tortured confessions from over 100 Black men and women, or the 7 year sentence Jason Van Dyke is currently serving for murdering Laquan McDonald – rarely bring satisfaction or healing to families and harmed communities.
As prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionists, we want far more than what the system that killed Breonna Taylor can offer – because the system that killed her is not set up to provide justice for her family and loved ones.
The number of prosecutions of police officers has not increased in spite of consistent uprisings and attention to police violence over the past decade – because the law ultimately protects them. The officers who killed Breonna Taylor will claim self-defense because a confused, half-asleep person defending his home and his fiancée against what he reasonably believed to be a home invasion fired shots. And, even if they are arrested and brought to trial, if past experience is any indicator, the law will once again provide them with cover for killing another Black person. Meanwhile, countless Black women and trans people who act in self-defense when police fail to protect them languish in prison, denied the right to assert self-defense because our legal systems deems that they have no legitimate selves to defend, while consistently legitimizing the use of deadly force by officers who “reasonably” believe their lives are in danger, no matter how flimsy or rooted in deeply entrenched criminalizing narratives about Black people this belief might be.
Why are we asking the police to stop being the police over and over again? Ultimately, calls for collective responses rooted in arrests and prosecution are likely to lead to dead ends and deep disappointments. But even if successful, the arrest, conviction and sentencing of individual cops represent an exception to the rule: the rule is impunity. Focusing on arrests leaves the whole system intact. As the popular chant goes, “indict, convict, send the killer cops to jail, the whole damn system is guilty as hell.” The answer to why calls for arrests and prosecutions are unlikely to bear fruit, or bring about fundamental change to prevent future killings, is in the second half of the chant – which highlights the fundamental flaw in the demand reflected in the first half. We want to direct our energies toward collective strategies that are more likely to be successful in delivering healing and transformation, and to prevent future harms. Families and communities deserve more than heartbreak over and over again each time the system declines to hold itself accountable.