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Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, announced Wednesday that one police officer would be charged, not in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, but with endangering her neighbors with reckless gunfire. “If we simply act on emotion or outrage, there is no justice. Mob justice is not justice,” Mr. Cameron said, in an apparent attempt to explain the lack of more serious charges relating to the 26-year-old’s killing. “Justice sought by violence is not justice. It just becomes revenge.”
Mr. Cameron’s use of the term “mob justice” to characterize protests by African-Americans who want officers who kill Black people with seeming impunity held responsible for their actions is curious phrasing, particularly from an attorney general from a Southern state.
Mob justice was literally used by Kentucky and other Southern states for decades to rule over Black people. Lynching and other racial terror tactics were deployed frequently, often with the help of the criminal justice system. Authorities were known to hand Black people to mobs who turned violence and spectacle into regional events. The news of an impending lynching would bring Southern white families to town squares on foot and by wagon. They arrived with picnic lunches and cameras to watch live examples of the devaluation of Black citizenship and the snuffing out of life.
According to Ben Tobin of the Louisville Courier-Journal, “between 1877 and 1934, lynchings of at least 186 African Americans took place in KY.” This was mob justice. This represented repeated failures of the criminal justice system. This was a willful shunning of the nation’s basic principles.
All Ms. Taylor’s family wanted, and all many of the protesters wanted, is for the Constitution and the mechanism of justice to work for them the way it works for others. Mr. Cameron, who is Black, should know that to suggest that protesters are nothing but a mob dehumanizes the people calling for justice and respect. And it reminds African-Americans of the way we’re so often unfairly portrayed as perpetrators of crime, and so rarely seen as victims.
Police officers who kill citizens are rarely convicted. But in this tragic situation, in which the woman killed was not only unarmed but asleep in the moments before a police officer took her life, we hoped that for once, justice would be on our side. This is yet another disappointing reminder that it’s not.
These efforts take a cumulative toll. Young African-Americans consuming a regular diet of Black death are learning to not trust their government. It’s painful to realize that kneeling for the national anthem can cost a football player like Colin Kaepernick his career, but a police officer firing a deadly shot into an innocent young woman’s home late at night will face no consequences. Black people will try to make sense of this, try to rebuild whatever expectation of safety we can muster, and tap into coping mechanisms that are now so familiar. Preparing for moments like this feels like a futile job that can never really soften the actual experience.
In recent years various media outlets have invited people to share stories about when they first realized they were Black. Often, the realizations came from some negative experience with racial prejudice: The time a white childhood friend couldn’t invite them to a sleepover, or when a favorite high school teacher told them affirmative action would get them into a great college. We’ve frequently read and heard about the talks Black parents have with their children, explaining how racism can make people misconstrue their behavior, and about how teens must learn the etiquette of negotiating racial animus. Don’t talk back. Look down. Say yes ma’am and yes sir.
But what can prepare a person for the proper response to heavily armed cops in their home in the middle of the night? How could we have prepared Breonna Taylor? The answer is, we couldn’t have. What could have prepared her family for the failure to hold the police officers in this case accountable? Nothing.
I have always known I was Black. I was raised in a segregated community, attended a racially segregated church, was bused across town to schools with more resources, watched “Roots” and “Eyes on the Prize” with my family and recited Margaret Walker poems in Black History Month programs. I was bathed in blackness from birth. I also knew fairly early on that not everyone viewed blackness through the same lens, and that I would be on the receiving end of racial hostility. I felt prepared for this eventuality. But when I was standing on High Street in front of Ohio State’s campus and someone from a car full of white boys yelled a racial slur at me in broad daylight, with lots of people watching but not even acknowledging what happened, I learned there is never enough preparation. Not for the pugilistic ways that white supremacy can render you an afterthought of American democracy.
That experience has stayed with me for over 20 years. The realization that no police officer will face consequences for killing Breonna Taylor will stay with me, too.
It’s not that the failure to indict a police officer for killing Ms. Taylor was unpredictable. It’s that the emotional and political exhaustion surrounding the news was predictable. This is what inspires the rage and despair that Mr. Cameron cruelly and ahistorically dismissed as “mob justice.” This is what forces Black people to push for this nation to be better stewards of its ideal, while recalibrating our expectations time and time again.