Using the word tragedy to describe Breonna Taylor’s killing is an insult to her memory. When Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced last week that only one of the police officers involved in Taylor’s death would face criminal charges, he called the Louisville resident’s fate a “tragedy under any circumstances.” This description sounded as if the bullets that killed her in her own apartment had mysteriously fallen from the sky and hadn’t actually come from the guns of Louisville police.
In March, officers executed a “no knock” search warrant at Taylor’s apartment while she and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were asleep. In Cameron’s account, Walker mistook police for intruders and fired his gun, officers returned fire amid the confusion, and Taylor was shot to death. In the end, the legal system in Kentucky decided that the officers’ right to defend themselves trumped Taylor’s right to live—even though their own actions had created the danger. Perhaps the word tragedy might suffice if Black people weren’t so frequently the victims of police violence.
One reason Taylor’s case is so painful is that whenever a Black person is killed by someone acting in the name of law enforcement, many Americans—including, in some cases, commentators who are Black—grasp for explanations to excuse those most responsible. Among those rationalizing Taylor’s death were the former pro-basketball players Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, who discussed the case Thursday on TNT’s popular show Inside the NBA. “A homicide occurred, and we’re sorry a homicide did occur, but if you have a warrant signed by a judge, you are doing your job,” O’Neal said, referring to the officers who came to Taylor’s home. “And if someone fires at you, I would imagine that you would fire back.”