Jaylen Brown peered at a TV and saw the National Guard tanks rolling down the streets of Louisville. Hours before reading the grand jury indictment in the Breonna Taylor case, Louisville officials were already fitting barriers around the city and businesses were boarding up windows anticipating what several NBA players knew would happen. It was a precursor to an already reeling community that devastating news and the inevitable unrest that follows was on the horizon.
It reminded me of what I saw in Peabody, MA in June. Before anything happened, a small city’s population of 50,000 called for its police to revoke a 1st Amendment right to protest in solidarity with larger cities across the country after the murder of George Floyd. Windows were boarded up. Law enforcement was on the ready. When history repeats itself, it does so without consideration of scale and size.
Nobody could know the outcome of Game 4 between the Celtics and Heat, but as every television news station beamed Kentucky Attorney General David Cameron stepping to the podium and announce no police officers would face homicide charges for Breonna Taylor’s death, the fallout of that decision was inescapable. Detective Myles Cosgrove, who an FBI report found fired the fatal shot at Taylor, walked free without charges, while Detective Brett Hankinson received a charge for recklessly firing into an adjacent apartment.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Jaylen Brown said after Game 4, pausing periodically. “I think this society, the way it was built, the intention was never to protect and serve people of color initially. So when they were gearing up for what was about to happen, I knew that the wrong decision was probably being made.
It doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise me at all. Until we dismantle or change this system that we have, it’s going to have victims like Breonna Taylor and others that fall victim to oppression. It was tough getting emotionally ready for the game.”
For Jaylen Brown and Black America, outrage over injustice has been exhausted by the dread of inevitability. Professional athletes are keenly aware that how they prepare for a game, a season, and a career will directly impact their outcomes. That’s a lesson that we as a country have never fully embraced when it comes to racial and social equality.
At times, blatant racism is easy to recognize. Color barriers were broken during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Schools were desegregated, voting rights restored, but racism’s pervasiveness has limited us from just simply wanting to understand the Black experience and listening.
Did they resist? What are the legal facts? They should’ve done this. They shouldn’t have done this. They deserved it.
The 13th Amendment itself is seeded in criminal language and it’s that dehumanization that’s not only ingrained in the justice system, but in the minds of those that it’s meant to serve.
That criminalization in Breonna Taylor’s case specifically justified her death despite her breaking no law. As Cameron announced the grand jury decision, he read Kentucky’s homicide statute (“the taking of life by another”) then excluded Taylor from its protection. The police, they found, were justified in taking her life.
This isn’t just a failure of the justice system. When resources are pulled and extracted from minority neighborhoods, safety nets slashed, and education depleted, there’s a direct correlation to higher rates of crime. Subsequently, that crime becomes justification for higher law enforcement budgets and at times, violent interactions between police and the citizens they were sworn to protect. It’s a vicious cycle.
There’s an economic cost, too. America believes crime should be met with more jails, more prosecution, and more guns. When it leads to death, every citizen loses. The City of Louisville settled for $12 million in Taylor’s death, a year after ABC News reported police misconduct claims cost American cities at least $300 million, against officers like Hankinson with multiple complaints against them.
“I think all of us don’t understand it. It’s not justice,” Erik Spoelstra said before Game 4. “The $12 million looks like such a ridiculously empty payoff.”
Louisville has scrambled to make the situation right. The city council banned no-knock warrants, even though AG Cameron said the police knocked at Taylor’s apartment. Judge Olu Stevens dropped charges against Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend who was initially charged for attempted murder. For what it’s worth, Walker’s statement that he thought the situation was a home invasion was not heard by that grand jury. AG Cameron called the situation a tragedy, calling for a committee to review warrant policy.
Over the last three months in the NBA bubble, Brown has been among the most outspoken players on sweeping social reform rather than this ineffective incrementalism.
“(Incrementalism) keeps stringing you along to make you feel like something’s going to happen, something’s going to happen,” he said last month. “People were dying in 2014, and it’s 2020 and people are still dying the same way. They keep saying ‘reform, reform, reform’ and ain’t nothing being reformed.”
For Jimmy Butler, Taylor’s death reflects his intentions of not wearing anything on the back of his jersey; the NBA denied his request. Breonna Taylor was treated as a “nobody,” (an idea Marc Lamont Hill has written extensively about). “I’m not different than anyone else,” Butler said. “If you didn’t know my name, that could be me. It still could be me even when people do know my name.”
Everyone should care about racism. Racism caused a futile war on drugs that still left America in an opioid crisis. It brought police to a house ten miles from Taylor for a drug investigation, tracing her car and packages back to the apartment — one where the law apparently only protected her neighbors and not her.
Collateral damage spread like wild fire in that room, an officer laid shot, 20 rounds fired back and for what? The losses are easily identifiable: medical, civil, and emotional tolls for family and friends involved and most importantly, a human life.
“We lost a beautiful woman in Breonna that has no say in what’s going on right now,” LeBron James said. “We want justice, no matter how long it takes even though it’s been so many days, so many hours, so many minutes for her family, for her community. I got a daughter of mine at home and a wife and my mom, and so many predominantly black women in my life. To think about if they weren’t here the next day, or think if they were gunned down, it would be something I would never be able to forgive myself or forgive whoever did it.”