“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal.’” — Martin Luther King Jr.
In other words, what is legal is not necessarily what is right.
With that in mind, I find myself struggling to imagine what justice for Breonna Taylor would have looked like. After all, the refusal by a grand jury to indict the Louisville police officers who killed her in March during a bungled midnight drug raid is likely defensible on narrow legal grounds. When someone shoots at you, as Taylor’s boyfriend did, firing a single shot at what he thought were home invaders, you have the right to shoot back.
But narrow legalities do not address, much less resolve, the sense of visceral wrong that has made Taylor’s death a cause celebre from the streets of our cities to the stratosphere of renown occupied by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James and George Clooney. They don’t confront the apparent failure of police to adequately identify themselves before breaching the door. They don’t tell us why there was no ambulance on scene, as is standard procedure. They don’t explain why officers allowed Taylor to lie mortally wounded for at least five minutes without rendering first aid. They don’t help us process the fact that this 26-year-old African American woman was not safe from police overreach in her own home.
Most of all, narrow legalities do not give us what we so desperately need and so seldom receive when police kill unarmed African Americans. Meaning accountability, the assurance that someone will answer for this.
In place of that, cities offer money. Breonna Taylor’s family settled a civil suit for $12 million. But what is $12 million? Which of your children would you lose for $12 million?
There’s always a payout, and it always feels more like a cop out, a consolation prize in lieu of accountability. As expressions of deep regret go, it falls well short.
We shot a 12-year-old boy for playing with a toy gun in a public park? Oops. Here’s $6 million.
We shot a man who was only reaching for his driver’s license? Oops. Here’s $3.8 million.
We shot a teenager who was walking away? Oops. Here’s $5 million.
We broke down Breonna Taylor’s door in the mistaken belief she was running a drug house, and shot her to death in her own hallway? Oops. Will you take a check?
As it turns out, the only indictment the grand jury approved was against an officer who fired blindly into the apartment, his bullets going through the wall into the unit next door. So police must answer for putting holes in a wall, but not a woman. I wish I were shocked.
Unfortunately, the cost of evading these reckonings will ultimately not be measured in dollars and cents. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson speaks of governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That consent, however, presupposes that government is answerable to the needs and demands of its people. A government which fails that standard threatens its own legitimacy.
That’s where we are. It’s the message of this year of discontent, of the armies of disaffected Americans marching in the streets: They are withdrawing their consent. A government ignores that at its own peril.
Meantime, this young woman’s family is $12 million richer and yet, irretrievably broken. She should still be here, period point blank. And there is no good reason she isn’t. I do not know what justice for Breonna Taylor would have looked like.
But I know it sure as hell wouldn’t look like this.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.
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