But one thing is clear: The nation is paying close attention to what unfolds in this case. And that is because of the activism of Black women. Black women have taken the lead in finding alternate routes to obtain justice and achieve systemic change due to the inability of the criminal “justice” system to administer punishment in cases of police shootings.
Black women, including Taylor’s mother and sister, along with a network of writers and activists, built on this tradition of activism to bring national attention to the Taylor case. Despite the recent grand jury decision, Black female activists will continue to be at the forefront of a national movement to bring about tangible changes in American policing.
During the 20th century, Black female activists brought significant attention to the problem of police violence, often focusing specifically on the vulnerability of Black women. In a 1930 newspaper article, Madame Stephanie St. Clair — dubbed the “Numbers Queen” of Harlem — openly condemned the actions of corrupt police officers “who are supposed to be the protection of the people. ”
In November 1945, police officers shot and killed 14-year-old Harlem resident Wilbert Cohen. They claimed the teenager had been caught peeping through a window on East 119th Street. In the aftermath of the shooting, Cohen’s mother played an active role in raising awareness about the senseless act of police violence that took her son’s life. Black radical activist Audley “Queen Mother” Moore supported her efforts and at Cohen’s funeral publicly demanded justice for his family and police accountability in the city. Through these women’s efforts, the case garnered widespread coverage in the Black press and was cited in the 1951 United Nations petition “We Charge Genocide,” which more than 100 Black activists and intellectuals signed.
During the Civil Rights era, Black women were at the forefront of political movements against state-sanctioned violence. In 1955, Mamie Till Bradley, mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, emerged as one of the leading voices demanding justice after her son was brutally murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Till had been falsely accused of whistling at a White woman while purchasing candy from a local store.
In the aftermath of his lynching — at the hands of the White woman’s husband and her brother — Till’s mother relied on visual protest to force the public to face the violence of white supremacy. She insisted on an open casket at his funeral because she “wanted the whole world to see” and went on to lead a nationwide speaking campaign to denounce the persistent acts of violence against African Americans.
Activist Fannie Lou Hamer carried on this work during the 1960s, boldly denouncing state-sanctioned violence and emphasizing the unique experiences of Black women. In her speech at the 1964 Democratic convention, Hamer decried the racist violence Black people faced on a daily basis in the Jim Crow South and shared details of her own painful personal experience with police violence.
During the 1980s, Mary Bumpurs and Veronica Perry, two Black women in New York City, led a grass-roots initiative to combat police violence in Black communities. In 1984, New York City police shot and killed Mary’s 66-year-old mother, Eleanor Bumpurs, as she resisted eviction from her Bronx apartment. A year later, in June 1985, a plainclothes police officer shot and killed Veronica’s 17-year-old son Edmund Perry. In the aftermath of their relatives’ deaths, Bumpurs and Perry joined forces to transform their grief into political action. They delivered speeches, organized events and recruited other Black women to join them.
Carrie Stewart — the mother of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who was killed by New York City police in 1983 — and Annie Brannon, whose 15-year-old son Randolph Evans was killed by the NYPD in 1976, joined this campaign following a memorial service for their sons. During this same period, Black female activists in the city organized to demand justice following the 1987 fatal police beating of 28-year-old Jamaican immigrant Yvonne Smallwood and the 1991 police shooting of 41-year-old Bronx resident Mary Mitchell.
For decades, these Black women and others have pioneered innovative strategies to organize and bring national attention to the systemic problem of police violence. And today, Black female activists continue to lead the fight. The activism of the Black Lives Matter founders — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — has electrified the nation. Since 2013, they have inspired thousands to join the movement to end state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism. Relatives of victims of police violence, including Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, have amplified this work.
In the case of Breonna Taylor, it was her mother, Tamika Palmer, who sued the officers, initiating a series of events that ultimately catapulted the case to the national spotlight. As protests unfolded on the streets of Louisville in May, Taylor’s sister, Ju’Niyah Palmer, took to social media to call for peace and unity. In the following weeks, Cate Young, a Black writer, launched a massive digital campaign, #BirthdayForBreonna, as a call to action on June 5 — what would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday. Young encouraged supporters on social media to send birthday cards to Daniel Cameron — the Kentucky attorney general — demanding he file charges against the officers.
These efforts yielded some significant results. Within two weeks of the digital campaign, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously passed Breonna’s Law to outlaw “no-knock” warrants and require the use of body cameras during searches. In addition, the Louisville Metro Police Department fired one of the three officers involved in the shooting.
In June, Until Freedom, an organization led by civil rights activist Tamika Mallory, orchestrated a #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor rally in Frankfort, Ky., drawing more than 500 people. Mallory’s efforts, and those of Tamika Palmer and Young, are just the latest in a long line of Black women in the United States who have led political movements to challenge state-sanctioned violence. Like the members of the Taylor family, many of these women have experienced the pain of losing a relative to police violence, followed by the failure of the criminal “justice” system.
Together, the nationwide efforts of Black women — as writers, organizers and activists — have shaped a national movement against state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism. The unfortunate outcome of the Breonna Taylor case shows just how much more work needs to be done. However, Black women will continue to lead the way forward, organizing against racial injustice and demanding radical changes in American policing.