Before Protesters Chanted Her Name On The Streets, Breonna Taylor Was "Making Things Happen" For Herself
“I’ve always heard Tamir Rice’s story, Trayvon Martin’s story, Mike Brown’s story, and a list of other people’s stories. But to have to add my niece to this... I still can’t fathom it.”
At 26 years old, Breonna Taylor was beginning to see her hard work pay off. She was working to improve her credit score so she could buy a house next year, and she wanted to start a family with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. An emergency room technician, she was planning to go back to school to get a degree in nursing. One month before three Louisville police officers burst through the front door of her home and killed her, she had bought a car, a Dodge Charger.
“She was really striving,” her aunt, Bianca Austin, told BuzzFeed News. “She set goals for herself and she was accomplished in those goals, before she was murdered.”
Taylor was a young woman who loved life and the people around her, especially her family. She was bubbly and outgoing, but she knew when to be assertive. She loved cars and wanted to start an all-girls car group, her sister, Shanntellee McElwee, told BuzzFeed News. They weren’t close growing up, but the sisters built a relationship as adults, and McElwee was excited that Taylor made it to her baby shower for her firstborn.
“Breonna was so sweet with a great sense of humor,” McElwee said. “She lit up every room she was in.”
Austin called Taylor a “girly girl” who liked to wear makeup and get her hair done. And her style, McElwee said, was “always on point.”
Three months after police killed her in her own home, Taylor’s name has become a rallying cry against systemic racism and injustice, one of the many in the long list of unarmed Black people whom police have killed over the years. But the outrage over her death only trickled in after Ahmaud Arbery, who was out jogging in his neighborhood in Georgia, was killed by two white men, and George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers. Some even argued she was an “afterthought.”
When Floyd’s death in late May sparked nationwide protests and a reckoning over institutional racism against Black people, Taylor’s name joined the chorus of chants at the protests. Since then, calls for the three Louisville Metro officers to be fired and charged for killing Taylor have grown, and the attention on Taylor's case has intensified. A number of celebrities, including Beyoncé, who wrote an open letter to the Kentucky attorney general, have publicly demanded that the three officers be held accountable for their conduct that night. Millions of people have signed and circulated petitions calling for justice for Taylor, and posts saying “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” have flooded social media. Many also honored her memory on June 5, the day she would have turned 27 years old. And two months after she was killed, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear asked the state attorney general to investigate Taylor’s shooting.
But after all this time, Taylor’s family is still waiting for authorities to answer their most fundamental questions about how the series of events that night came to be, and why, even while processing their grief and shock at losing Taylor so suddenly.
Taylor grew up around women who worked in healthcare — her mom, Tamika Palmer, and her aunts Tahasha Holloway and Austin — and having watched them “take care of people,” as Austin said, it was something she wanted to emulate since she was a child. Holloway recalled asking Taylor years ago what she wanted to do when she got older, "and she was like, 'I want to be like y'all.'"
She became a certified EMT, a job she loved and she felt came naturally to her, but the long hours and the work took a toll. She later got a job as a technician at two different emergency rooms. And Taylor was ready to pursue a nursing degree as early as this fall, but was worried about getting into debt. Austin and Holloway said they encouraged her to follow her dream of becoming a nurse, and reassured her that the benefit of going back to school outweighed the debt, especially since there was no shortage of demand for nurses.
At 26, Taylor had already nailed “the perfect balance of being able to enjoy her life and understand the value of working and making things happen within your life,” Holloway said.
It was at this point in her life, as she was aiming high and on her way up, that three plainclothes Louisville officers executing a “no-knock” search warrant in a narcotics raid broke down the door to her apartment and killed her in the early hours of March 13. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were startled awake by the pounding on the door from what the couple thought was an attempt at a break-in. The officers burst through the door, and Walker said he shot once into the darkness before the officers opened fire on the couple.
The police shot Taylor at least eight times. Lonita Baker, an attorney representing Taylor's family, told NPR that in her career, she had “never quite seen that many bullets in one apartment.”
In a gut-wrenching recording of the 911 call obtained by the Courier-Journal, Walker, sounds audibly distressed as he relays the incident.
“I don’t know what is happening, somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend,” he says, crying. “Help, oh my God.”
After the 911 call, he rang Taylor's mom, Palmer. Palmer told ABC News that she found out about the shooting from that call and rushed to the apartment, where police outside told her Taylor was at the hospital. She waited at the hospital for two hours before she found out that Taylor wasn't even there. When she got back to the apartment, an officer told her Taylor was inside.
"They never even said she had died," Holloway, Taylor's aunt, told BuzzFeed News. "My sister said, 'Well, where's my daughter? Where's Breonna?' And they said, 'Oh, she's still in the house.' And that was that."
None of the three officers, Jon Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, and Brett Hankison, wore body cameras during the incident, a practice LMPD spokesperson Jessica Halladay said is common for plainclothes narcotics officers.
But the family didn't even know the police were involved with the shooting until hours later, Holloway said.
"The police made it sound like somebody other than them did something. They asked like, ‘Did they have enemies?’ 'Did Breonna have enemies?'" she recalled. "It seemed to me like they were out there looking for that person instead of being truthful and saying that they were the ones doing this. It was almost like a cover-up immediately."
The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mattingly, Cosgrove, and Hankison, alleging their “unlawful conduct” had “caused the death of a young, beautiful human being who was also an essential front-line medical professional in this community.”
Taylor's death happened around the time states began issuing stay-at-home orders over the coronavirus pandemic. Austin said planning a funeral service for Taylor was hard, since businesses were shutting down and officials had barred large gatherings.
Taylor’s memorial service “was one of the last” that was allowed in Louisville, Austin said, “and we barely got the chance to do that.”
Austin said the support her family has received in the last few weeks is “overwhelming” and “surreal," especially since they had struggled to bring attention to the case in the first few months after Taylor’s was killed.
“Those two months of silence was very, very hard,” she said. “And it’s still hard. But now that we got support, it does ease the pain a little bit.”
But the family's frustration over the lack of transparency from police — which Holloway described as "absurd” and “disgusting" — and some Kentucky politicians' limp efforts to help the family seek justice, is clear.
Holloway pointed to Amy McGrath, a candidate in the Democratic primary running to face off against Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in November.
"Amy McGrath refused to even acknowledge Breonna. She chooses to describe her murder like she wasn’t murdered," Holloway said. "She’ll talk about George Floyd's murder and injustice, but she doesn’t mention anything that’s happened here in Louisville."
McGrath has called for the investigation into Taylor’s killing to be “quick, thorough and transparent” and said her family “deserves answers,” but has also faced backlash for the lack of attention she’s paid to Taylor’s case compared to her most immediate competitor, Charles Booker, who was teargassed while marching alongside protesters demonstrating against police brutality.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said in response to a debate question about why she did not join the protests last month. “So we also have to look at, is that the place to be right now.”
She later attended a vigil for Taylor. McGrath’s campaign spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that she sent a note to Taylor’s family a few weeks ago, but Holloway reiterated that the candidate has not been vocal about “anything happening in Louisville,” including about Taylor’s case.
Austin also said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer called Palmer to send his condolences before her sister went on The View to talk about Taylor. But Austin said she didn’t “think he was genuine.”
Earlier in June, Louisville lawmakers passed Breonna's Law, banning no-knock police raids and requiring officers to have their body cameras turned on while the warrant is being served. And Joshua Jaynes, the detective who applied for five no-knock search warrants, including the one for Taylor's apartment, has been placed on administrative reassignment.
Austin said she doesn't want to take away from these "little victories," but they want "everyone involved to be held accountable," starting with the firings and prosecution of all three police officers from that night.
The police chief officially fired Hankison on Tuesday — more than three months after Taylor was killed — excoriating him in a termination letter and saying a police investigation found the detective had committed 14 "extreme" violations.
But Holloway said the family isn’t satisfied with just Hankison’s firing.
“Until all those officers are fired, charged, and prosecuted, this is a bunch of bullshit, period,” Holloway said.
Taylor’s death has left a chasm in their family unit that they're still struggling to come to terms with, even for Holloway, who has been up close with death in her line of work.
"It’s not that you’re not sad about it, but you understand why. With this, we don't have an understanding for it. I can’t wrap my mind around it," she said. "Even talking about her in past tense is a hard thing for me."
Walker, who Austin said she considers her nephew, was charged with attempted murder after the shot he fired allegedly injured an officer, but the charges were dismissed over a lack of evidence.
Taylor and Walker had been together for years, and they were considering starting a family. Even when they were going through a hiccup in their relationship, they spent time together as friends.
"Kenny, from the moment they was just friends, he was like, 'This is my wife, we're getting married,'" Holloway said. "They couldn't not be around each other. They were best friends."
Austin said Walker has “a lot of recovering to do.”
"I just feel like he’s going to carry Breonna's death with him around forever. It’s always that — What could I have done to prevent this? It’s always a What if? or Should I have?" she said. "In our eyes he did what he’s supposed to — if somebody’s breaking in, you need to protect yourselves. He did what he needed to do."
It's been especially heartbreaking for the family to see how their younger ones have been dealing with Taylor’s death. Austin said her son, who turned 7 years old just days after Taylor was killed, wanted to be a police officer when he grew up. He doesn't feel that way now.
"He looks at these officers, like, Was you there that night my cousin got killed? Did you help kill my cousin?" she said.
After years of hearing about police killing unarmed Black people and seeing the long list of people on “Say Her Name” campaigns online, Holloway said it’s unreal to her that Taylor is now on that list.
“I’ve always heard Tamir Rice’s story, Trayvon Martin’s story, Mike Brown’s story, and a list of other people’s stories,” she said. “But to have to add my niece to this... I still can’t fathom it.
“She was such a good human being. Like, a good — a good — human being,” Holloway said. “You know how you say, you have to cherish those types of people, because we don’t really know how long they are going to be allowed to be in our lives? We had Breonna for 26 years.”