On Friday this was Breonna Taylor’s family. Months after Taylor was killed by Louisville police officers executing a failed warrant in the middle of the night, and two days after a Kentucky grand jury refused to charge police officers for her death, Her family and friends were standing in a park downtown. They held hands and wore masks that read “Breonna Taylor” amid a makeshift memorial to Taylor, a paramedic who had hoped to buy her own house.
Maybe the grief, maybe the public of it all, was too much for Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother. She didn’t say a word and stood there in tears. Her own mask read “Black Queen”, a reference to what she lovingly calls her daughter. Instead, Palmer asked Taylor’s aunt, Bianca Austin, to read what she’d said about her sadness – and her anger.
“When I talk about it, I’m seen as an angry black woman,” Austin read. “But do you know that, I do am an angry black woman. … But angry because our black women keep dying from cops … They can take the dog out of the fight. But you can’t take the fight from the dog. “
Taylor’s family has joined what the father of Jacob Blake, another 2020 shooting victim, calls a “fraternity” all too familiar in American life: the families of black Americans who were killed by the police or were killed by self-appointed guards.
That would be that Familys by Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Michelle Cusseaux, Jordan Davis, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Daniel Prude, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Aura Rosser, Alton Sterling…. In pursuit of justice, they become reluctant activists, forced to become instant public relations and advocacy experts – and part of a long history in which black trauma is intrinsically entangled with political movements.
“There is a long history of unjust killings of African Americans that puts family members in an almost impossible situation,” said Omar Wasow, a political science professor at Princeton University who studies protest movements.
And there is kinship in this story. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement’s greatest icon, was assassinated by a white man who decided King had gone too far and left a family whose activism and lives are still marked by trauma to this day. On the day that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced the grand jury’s decision, Bernice King, his youngest daughter, admitted the Taylors had just joined that legacy. “Pray for Breonna’s mother and family,” she tweeted, “because they knew and loved her before her name became a hashtag.”
Of course, the tragedy has also made other families public. The parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre or the Parkland shootings also faced grief while standing under the lights of instant, unwanted glory. But families like Taylor have another burden to bear in America after apartheid: They are expected to run a race, counter character assassinations of loved ones by media to exonerate the police, and advocate for peace Protests. They all mourn at the same time.
“The families of these victims are urged to seek justice and demand peace in the same ragged moment,” said Cornell Brooks, former NAACP president who worked for the families of police shot victims Michael Brown, Philando Castile and Jamar Clark.
Brooks, now a professor at Harvard Kennedy School, says, “It’s regular, routine, and obscene.”
The decision of the Kentucky Grand Jury On the 145th anniversary of the acquittal of Emmett Till’s white killers, the 14-year-old Chicago boy was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling a white woman. His mother Mamie is known to insist on an open coffin at her son’s funeral and used her tragedy to start the civil rights movement.
Mamie Till and other civil rights activists such as US Congressman John Lewis used the “redeeming suffering” model to dramatize injustice. “Neither parent would ever choose this,” Wasow said. “But she was very concerned about how to turn her suffering into something that could serve a greater good.”
Social media and the ubiquity of smartphones with cameras now mean that these moments of state violence are being documented, making it easier to dramatize the injustice without opening a coffin for the world to see.
Some family members go further, using their suffering – and anger – to launch political careers. Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, the Georgia teenager who was killed by a white man for playing loud music in a parking lot, channeled her grief into gun control activism. She is now a Democrat serving in the US Congress. In August, Trayvon became Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton almost lost one race for a seat on the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners.
On Thursday Fulton tweeted, “#BreonnaTaylor could have been you, your daughter, your sister, your cousin or your girlfriend. @Home sleep comfortably in your own bed, let that marinate.”
But for many families, the trauma of losing a family member so publicly while an iPhone testifies means both a physical and an emotional toll – perhaps more difficult because it was a fight they never looked for. Martin Luther King Jr. was groomed for the limelight from a young age. But it wasn’t his children. Malcolm X, the son of a man murdered for his fiery sermons, knew the risks: “I live like a man who is already dead.” But his children didn’t, and so did his grandson, also known as Malcolm Not.
The weight of loss and the resulting pressures are quite a second arc of tragedy in black political history. Malcolm X’s daughter, Qubilah Shabazz, who was 4 when she saw her father murdered, was accused of hiring a killer to kill Louis Farrakhan, whom she believed was responsible for his death . (The charges were later dropped.) Their son Malcolm was 12 years old when he started a fire that killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz. And he was 28 when he was found beaten to death in Mexico City In 2013.
What does the inherited trauma do to the mind, body, soul? The daughter of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was killed by police in a stranglehold, became an activist after his death. just to die of a heart attack at the age of 27 in 2016.
Some seek solace in the idea that the death of loved ones … meant something. Sitting on the shoulders of a family friend at a protest earlier this year, George Floyd’s daughter smiled as she said, “Dad changed the world. ”
Papa could change the world, but he won’t put it in again at night.
My own family also shared their trauma stories. Like when my maternal grandfather, a doctor in Jim Crow Atlanta, went home after a long night in the hospital. Tired. And there was a white policeman waiting for him who would like to mess with him. Only because. Because he could. Every time my grandfather turned the corner of the street home, the policeman was there, waiting. He would pull the black doctor over because he could.
Until one night my grandfather, a very decent southern gentleman, decided that he could no longer. So Grandfather got out of the car and dealt this racist cop a fair blow.
He was happy. The policeman didn’t kill him. He simply took him to jail, where he spent the night before a sympathetic judge who heard his story let him go. The privilege of his job and his reputation protected him, of course. Up to a point.
When I was a student, the office manager at my school Akua Njeriwas the widow of Fred Hampton, a brilliant and charismatic leader of the Black Panther. Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was 21 years old when he was shot dead by Chicago police while lying in bed with a very pregnant Njeri by his side. Their son Fred Jr. was born just weeks after his father was executed.
And as a student activist at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, my husband was beaten by police more than once during protests. A colleague remembers the time when an undercover police officer held a gun to her husband’s head in a case of false identity. You already know why. He “agreed with the description”: black man with afro and denim jacket – which, she said, described practically every young black man in the late 1970s.
At the press conference for Breonna Taylor’s family, her lawyer Benjamin Crump gave the names of those who turned to Taylor’s family in sad solidarity: Sandra Bland’s family. Tray from Martin’s family. Michael Brown’s family. Botham Jean’s mother. George Floyd’s family.
Jacob Blake Sr., whose son Jacob Jr. was shot multiple times in the back by a Kenosha, Wisc. Police officer in August and partially paralyzed him, told the crowd he drove eight hours to assist Taylor’s relatives. “I knew I had to be here and stand next to my brotherhood,” said Blake. “We did not choose this brotherhood. This brotherhood chose us.
“I knew this family needed some energy and I said,” I’m coming. I’m coming. “Because we won’t lie down anymore. You can’t stop the revolution.”