American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2020
Volume 
48
Issue 
4

Eight Bullets, Eight Minutes - What Breonna Taylor and George Floyd Had in Common

Nikki Jones, Professor of African American Studies and faculty affiliate with the Center for the Study of Law and Society, University of California, Berkeley

Nikki Jones

George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. His body was buried in Houston, TX, in a plot next to his deceased mother. Thousands of people attended the homegoing celebration that preceded his burial, including the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, victims of police violence whose names will be forever fixed to the rise of Black Lives Matter. The Black Lives Matter movement was ignited after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and exploded a year later after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
 

Along the procession route for Floyd’s funeral and outside the cemetery, activists chanted the phrase, “Say His Name.” The chant and the #SayHisName hashtags that trended on social media following George Floyd’s murder borrow from the rise of another contemporary movement against police violence: #SayHerName. Launched by Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum in 2014, #SayHerName gained ground in the summer of 2015 after Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas jail. Bland was incarcerated in the jail after a police officer escalated an already suspect traffic stop by threatening to “light [Bland] up” with a taser and dragging her out of her car on the side of a Texas road.

The #SayHisName hashtag is intended to elevate and perhaps even sanctify the life and memory of George Floyd — calling on us to remember more of him than the last eight minutes of his life captured on video and digitally catapulted across the globe. Yet, as Black feminists have argued, the pronoun change also has the consequence, intended or otherwise, of subjugating and erasing the experiences of Black women with police violence.

The seemingly simple transmutation of the #SayHerName hashtag returns us once again to an unfinished Black feminist project, one that was articulated over 40 years ago in a statement from the Combahee River Collective and has animated my research on Black gender ideologies, policing, and violence: how do we talk about the experiences of Black women and Black men (cis, trans, and gender non-conforming) with police violence without privileging the suffering of Black men and silencing the voices of Black women?

One response to this decades-old question is to talk about these experiences at the same time — to make space in calls for justice for multiple, gender-inclusive stories, as #SayHerName encourages us to do. Some activists and protestors have done this, for example, by insisting that the life and death of Breonna Taylor accompany current protests against police violence and structural racism. Saying the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the same time resists the tendency to subjugate the experiences of Black women, but, as I argue in my recent book, it is important to do more than say her name too. As I’ve discovered in my own work, which builds on the work of Patricia Hill Collins and other Black feminist scholars, we learn much more from speaking and thinking about these experiences as both distinctly gendered and structurally similar. Doing so allows for a more expansive understanding of the harms done by police violence and what it would mean to build a world that liberates all Black people from the persistent threat of state violence.

No Safe Space

Breonna Taylor’s killing is a powerful illustration of Black women’s lack of protection from police violence. Her case is also a powerful illustration of the substantial power that Supreme Court precedent provides to the police. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician in Louisville, KY, was killed by police officers in her home. The officers who invaded her home had acquired a no-knock warrant. No-knock warrants allow officers to invade a residence unannounced, often using a battering ram to burst through a person’s front door, as they did the night they killed Breonna Taylor. Taylor was shot at least eight times by police after they invaded her apartment.

As Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend shared in the aftermath of Taylor’s killing, such invasions are terrifying and disorienting. The “surprise attack” nature of the intrusions are intentional, meant to prevent a person from destroying evidence or from readying a retaliatory attack against police — neither of which were happening on the night officers killed Taylor. Taylor had no criminal record and no drugs were found in her home. The spontaneous eruption of force that accompanies no-knock warrants leaves little room for anything but coerced compliance and turns any move on the part of a civilian — a simple question or a startled reaction — into an act of resistance, which only invites more violence from officers.

In cases like the killing of Breonna Taylor, it is the officers, not civilians, who are protected by recent Supreme Court rulings on fourth amendment cases. Since Taylor’s killing, it has been reported that the original no-knock contained factual mistakes. Yet, the law often protects officers who make “good faith” mistakes.

In a scathing dissent to a 2016 Supreme Court ruling in Utah vs. Streiff, justice Sonia Sotomayor warned of the threat posed to the American public by the court’s persistent erosion of fourth amendment protections, especially in light of glaring racial disparities in all phases of the criminal justice system: “[This case] says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.” That cataloguing, as we’ve seen in Breonna Taylor’s case, can be performed by a judge issuing a warrant, an officer executing a warrant, or a coroner cataloguing the lethal consequence of a warrant.

The killing of Breonna Taylor cautions against calls for police reform and instead directs our attention to what legal scholar Paul Butler has described as the “superpowers” the Supreme Court has granted to police officers: the powers to detain, arrest, incarcerate, and kill. These superpowers have been reinforced by the highest law in the land even as the devastating racial disparities of mass incarceration have been made more evident by activists, scholars, and policymakers, which leads Butler to conclude, as others have as well, that police reform will always ultimately fail because much of what the police do is constitutional. This does not mean that the Louisville city council vote to ban no-knock warrants is meaningless. There are approximately 20,000 no-knock warrants executed per year in the United States. These bans can potentially save some lives. Yet, Taylor’s killing reminds us that it is not one type of police action that is responsible for the threat to Black people’s lives — the threat is much more substantial and comprehensive than such one-off reforms suggest.

“Please don’t shoot me, Mr. Officer”

The killing of George Floyd also tells us something about unchecked police power and the limits of reform. As has been widely reported, prior to George Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis had been the site of intensive police reform efforts. Yet, these reforms were not enough to save George Floyd’s life. George Floyd’s murder, and the perceived failure of reforms, ignited protest against racism and police violence, yet the kindling had been assembled years prior to Floyd’s death.

Reporting in the wake of Floyd’s murder revealed that officers use force against Black residents in Minneapolis at 7 times the rate of white residents. Officers routinely rely on aggression, violence, and exploitation in their dealings with residents of the Third District, where George Floyd died with Derrick Chauvin’s knee on his neck. The Minneapolis Star Tribune documented multiple abuses from court records and police reports: “One officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, leaving his jaw in pieces. Officers beat and pistol-whipped a suspect in a parking lot on suspicion of low-level drug charges. Others harassed residents of a south Minneapolis housing project as they headed to work and allowed prostitution suspects to touch their genitals for several minutes before arresting them in vice stings.”

A comment from Abigail Cerra, a commissioner for Minneapolis’ Police Conduct Oversight Commission and former public defender, reveals that the most extreme forms of bodily invasion that Sotomayor warned against in her dissent were routine in Minneapolis: “Clients were constantly getting anal searches. Not at the hospital. At the Third Precinct.” The commissioner’s disclosure, along with the circumstances of Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s deaths, makes clear that the threat of bodily invasion is not restricted by binary gender categories. This shared vulnerability to bodily invasion turns Black people across the gender spectrum into criminally catalogued bodies that can be accessed, penetrated, and controlled at will and without recourse.

Body camera footage reveals that George Floyd could not escape this vulnerability, either. As was reported in the New York Times: “Throughout the video, [Floyd] never appeared to present a physical threat to the officers, and even after he was handcuffed and searched for weapons, the officers seemed to be more concerned with controlling his body than saving his life, the footage showed.”

A court-released transcript of the fatal encounter also reveals the futility of Floyd’s efforts to save himself. Long before his appeal to his deceased mother for help, Floyd’s actions revealed a man who is familiar with the regular routine of policing, as well as haunted by previous encounters with police violence, both direct and vicarious.

Floyd’s first words to officers after they approach his car are deferential and apologetic: “Hey, man. I’m sorry.” He repeats his apology after being directed by the officer to remain in the car, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” And quickly tries to disabuse the officer of the presumption that he is a wrongdoer: “I didn’t do nothing.” These types of pleas, especially when uttered by Black men, often have the opposite reactions on officers. Just under two minutes into the encounter, Floyd tries to contextualize his actions for the officers. “I got shot,” he says, before apologizing once again. “Last time I got shot, it was the same thing,” he explains, after the officer has directed him to put his hands on the top of his head. Floyd would go on to ask the officer to “please don’t shoot me” five times over the next minute-and-a-half (according to the time stamps on the transcript). In the end, Floyd was not able to escape the tragic fate that he saw clearly during the earliest moments of his encounter with Minneapolis police.

A Shared Struggle

We should honor those who have been killed by the police by saying their names. We should also honor their lives by allowing each killing to teach us something more about the depth of the problem at hand and the world that needs to be built.

Asleep in her bedroom at night, Breonna Taylor had no time to plead with officers for her life. On a Minneapolis street in the daylight hours, George Floyd pled for his life until his final breath. As Black feminist scholars and Black, queer women leading protests against police violence remind us, Breonna Taylor’s story matters as much as George Floyd’s. We should #SayHerName. It is important to highlight what is distinctly gendered about police violence, as well as those experiences that are shared. Talking and thinking about the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the same time reveals how expansive the power of policing is and what little protection from police violence exists for Black people.

Breonna Taylor and George Floyd shared a vulnerability to bodily invasion at the hands—and knee—of the police. Breonna Taylor was killed by eight bullets. George Floyd had the breath choked out of him over eight minutes. Acknowledging their shared vulnerability to state violence allows Black people across the gender spectrum to organize as allies, not subordinates, and to build up a world that is truly liberating for us all.