A lesson from Breonna’s death: Black lives are not valued, but the status quo is

Instead of being able to continue to live herself and to help preserve life as an ER technician, Breonna Taylor became yet another Black person murdered by police. I need not go into the details of her life and death—nor the way police tried to portray her as a villain as they do so often in these cases. If you need a refresher on what happened, Wikipedia provides a good synopsis.

What I do want to talk about quickly are my troubled thoughts as we come to the point in the story where none of the three cops were indicted for her killing and the one officer who was indicted was done so for three counts of “wanton endangerment” because his bullets went through a wall into an adjoining apartment. Interesting that the only officer indicted for anything was the one who had already been fired. Wouldn’t want to put those other two officers out of work, now would we, grand jury?

Her death had already sparked protests, much like George Floyd and so many other Black victims before her—and this latest set of events is sparking them even more, as well it should.

This is yet another in the seemingly endless parade of stories of Black people harmed by police—too often killed, in fact—but where there is no satisfactory resolution.

Yes, the city of Louisville indefinitely suspended “no-knock” warrants after the incident. So what? The warrant for Breonna Taylor had been changed to a “knock and announce” one before they invaded her home—that didn’t stop them from killing her. And if you’re asleep and someone knocks on the door when you aren’t expecting anyone and then crashes in, are you going to assume it’s the police? No, you will probably try to defend yourself, as Breonna’s partner Kenneth Walker did—himself being charged with first-degree assault and attempted murder of a police officer for doing what anyone would be rightly expected to do in a state with a “stand your ground law.” Police often don’t announce themselves in these cases, or do so in a way that no human could possibly respond in time. So, a change in what warrants are allowed and whether the cops have to knock won’t change anything. Police always spin tales after they do something shady.

But what I really want to talk about is not so much my disgust at the really predictable outcome of no real accountability for the police—though I have plenty of that boiling in me—but rather the settlement from the city and what it tells us about what police (and in a broader sense white America) really value when it comes to this kind of thing.

The city of Louisville agreed to pay $12 million to Breonna Taylor’s family and to reform police practices.

As far as the second part, police “reform” almost always amounts to nothing, or so little that it might as well be nothing. The profiling and the abuse stay around regardless. The practice of policing continues to be oppressive and violent and aimed mostly at Black and brown bodies. Defunding police so that they aren’t so massively overstaffed with gun-toting bullies and giving most of that money to services that really promote community wellness and safety is the only reform I want.

But let’s get to that first part: $12 million.

Some would say that’s a kind of justice, but it isn’t.

Police do not value Black lives. America mostly does not value Black lives. And this is proof of that. First off, you can’t put a value on a life anyway. It could be $12 billion and that’s still not gonna bring Breonna back or fill the void left by her death.

Many white people in particular would say that $12 million is a lot and that that shows they are willing to pay a price and that somehow that is valuing Black lives since they could have simply fought such a settlement tooth and nail if they really wanted to.

No. That $12 million wasn’t an expression of the value of Breonna’s life or the cost to her loved ones. It was an expression of the value of those police officers’ lives. It was an expression of the value of keeping a status quo of police as armed enforcers of their idea of law and order—which may have the backing of the law and may keep order the way they want, but it sure lacks fairness or justice.

You see, Louisville was willing to pay $12 million to make it seem like they care, so that they can let the two police officers still on the force continue to do their thing. And maybe the one that got fired gets to do his thing as a cop again one day. They paid blood money so that they can clean their conscience and get back to business as usual.

Just like so many police departments have done and will keep doing.

They will keep demanding big budgets to over-arm themselves and over-staff themselves while under-training officers and doing nothing to actually reduce crime or deal with the real root causes. They will keep raking in the money to pay the kinds of settlements like these that will sometimes be unavoidable.

They paid because they value and believe in the system that is there right now. They don’t want to substantially change it. They don’t value Black lives, including Breonna Taylor’s. They paid for the right to get a lot of people (mostly white ones) to be able to say with clean consciences that the city “did the right thing” and “all that it could do.” They paid to help get that support and buy-in from people who think money is enough and also maybe to get sympathy from their supporters who actively root for police to kick asses and kill Black people.

Breonna Taylor’s family can’t bring her back with $12 million, but the police and the city sure can buy a lot of goodwill and more time to keep harming Black people with it. And they’ll do it again when they need to.

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