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How the war on drugs killed Breonna Taylor

July 23, 2020
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For decades, the war on drugs has blistered American lives, leaving a legacy of denigration and disaster.

Often, we manage to adapt and absorb the pain it leaves behind while working to dismantle unjust laws and institutions, comforting ourselves and others who are disturbed by the very same issues. Other times the harm becomes so great it creates a wound that stops us in our tracks. One such moment occurred with the killing of Breonna Taylor earlier this year in Louisville, Kentucky.

At 26 years old, Breonna Taylor had already figured out how she could lift her community and those around her. As an emergency medical technician, she dedicated her time and life to others’ safety and well-being.

Her life was cut short just before 1:00 am on March 13, when three other public servants, Officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankinson, and Myles Cosgrove, executed a no-knock warrant and fired more than 20 rounds into her home. Eight of those bullets struck her body, and no medical assistance was provided by the police officers who so jarringly awoke her and her boyfriend that night.

And while her death occurred over 100 days ago, the wound remains fresh today because she continues to receive no justice. The men who killed her walk free, and two maintain their jobs as police officers – even after they displayed such disregard for the loss of an innocent.

But this is how the war on drugs works, and how it will continue to work until the United States deems otherwise. As we fight and wait for that day, Breonna Taylor’s death forces us to stop and face the hard truth. It is not just about the war on drugs as a strategy, but also about its tactics, and the people who suffer due to its enforcers’ carelessness and brutality.

How police gained entry into Breonna Taylor’s home

Police car on street at night

The Louisville Police investigation that lead to Taylor’s death centered around two men suspected of selling drugs roughly 10 miles away from her home. Breonna’s address was included in the investigation under suspicion that her ex-boyfriend received drugs and stored cash there.

The warrant was a so-called no-knock warrant, which gave police permission to enter Taylor’s apartment without warning and without identifying themselves as police.

In the middle of the night, Taylor and her current boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were awoken by a loud banging at the door. The police officers claim they identified themselves as law enforcement though Walker said he heard no such identifying claim. He only knew, he later said, that someone was breaking down the front door in the dark of night.

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Defending himself, Taylor, and their home, Walker fired his legally licensed firearm, invoking protection from Kentucky’s “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” law. These measures mean a person who uses a gun in self-defense—against, say, midnight intruders breaking into their home—is not liable for criminal or civil charges.

The shot fired by Walker struck one of the unannounced men in the leg, and the police fired back, striking Breonna Taylor in the hallway of the home. Taylor was killed, and Walker was unhurt but arrested. Even after the gunfire, he appeared unaware that the men firing at him and his girlfriend were police officers. He had the presence of mind to call 911 and tell a dispatcher that “somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.”

Addressing systemic issues with Taylor’s death

photo of an arrest warrant

The police found no drugs in Breonna Taylor’s apartment. And though Walker was initially charged with the attempted murder of a police officer, prosecutors later dropped the charge. As it turns out, the suspect, Breonna’s ex-boyfriend, was already in custody when the officers executed the warrant.

Without any previous drug convictions or related incidents on Taylor or Walker’s records, this warrant and its mishandling were both aggressive and unprofessional. The Louisville Metro Chief of Police has since stated publicly that no-knock warrants are usually executed by SWAT, making the events of March 13 seem more askew. Since the fatal night that Taylor died, the Louisville city council has banned the use of no-knock warrants with a new ordinance called Breonna’s Law. And while this regional progress is meaningful, there is much to do to realize it on a national scale.

With more than $1 trillion spent on classist and racist tactics like these since 1971, no-knock warrants are just one tactic in an overflowing toolkit used to carry out the war on drugs.

Additionally, Breonna’s family has filed a lawsuit against the Louisville Metro Police, claiming that the pressure to raid her home was compounded (or even originated) from gentrification efforts in west Louisville, alleging a Place-Based Investigations team was targeting Taylor’s neighborhood. While it has yet to be proven by the court of law, what is true is that gentrification continues to be a powerful weapon in the war on drugs.

The police report of the incident isn’t merely sparse and lacking detail—it contains outright fabrications. It lists Breonna Taylor’s injuries as “none.” The report claims police used no force to enter the apartment, when in fact, they used a battering ram to break open the door. The discrepancies aren’t mistakes, but intentional erasure of the facts.

Knowing what we do, we must take it as evidence that Breonna’s death wasn’t just coincidental, but an example of systemic racism.

A shock to the conscience

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

The officers who killed Breonna Taylor have faced almost no consequences for their reckless actions. After a long public outcry, Louisville officer Brett Hankinson was fired from the department effective June 23, 2020. Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove remain on the job. None of the three have been arrested or charged for killing an innocent woman while she slept.

But this is how the war on drugs works: Accuse, arrest, kill, and cover up. Excuse it all by tarnishing the victims as “drug dealers”—even dedicated public servants like Breonna Taylor.

The war on drugs rests in part on the widespread assumption that police are telling the truth, but case after case after case, we can see that’s simply not true. They are assuming guilt before innocence, delivering punishment before protection, and ruining lives. In the case of Breonna Taylor, the lies and the behavior are too blatant to ignore or explain away.

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America’s war on drugs has been racist for a century

The United States has complex problems layered with systemic racism, mishandling of funds, sexism, and injustice. Breonna Taylor’s case is just one example of many. The war on drugs is one of many strategies used to enforce antiquated laws and make space for police brutality. But it’s important to not gloss over her murder just because she’s not alone.

There are so many more names and stories—George Floyd, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown—and each one has a story as compelling as Breonna Taylor’s. She paid the ultimate price for doing nothing more than sleeping in her home in the middle of a pandemic between shifts as a public servant, saving lives.

Help get justice for Breonna Taylor

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

What can you do to help? Plenty. Work to change unjust drug laws, of course. But there are several other actions you can take to bring more visibility—and perhaps justice—to Breonna Taylor’s case, including:

  • Sign the petition demanding the officers involved be arrested and charged and for Congress to pass legislation that federally bans “no-knock” warrants.
  • Tag @GovAndyBeshear, @djaycameron, @danielcameronag, @repjohnyarmuth, @RandPaul, and @senatemajldr demanding #JusticeforBreonnaTaylor or call them at the numbers listed here.
  • Avoid the memefication of Breonna Taylor’s death and hold serious discussions about her death and in her memory.

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Janessa Bailey

Janessa was born and raised in the Midwest, and serves as Leafly's current culture editor. She has a background in content, activism, and African-American Studies.

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