Breonna Taylor Case Reverberate with Detroiters: 'It's Open Season on Black People
'Jae Bass, center, leads protesters through the streets of Harper Woods on Sept. 26, 2020. The marchers said they demanded justice and accountability in the death of Priscilla Slater, who died in a holding cell at the Harper Woods police lockup in June.
Detroit Free Press
The chants were impossible to ignore.
As protesters against racism and police brutality marched through a calm residential street in Harper Woods on Saturday evening, several residents peeked out their doors to investigate the commotion. Some raised a fist in support.
"Everybody, come out of their house and into the streets," the marchers chanted. Protesters with stacks of informational flyers handed them out to residents who stepped out as the protest passed by.
They demanded transparency in the case of Priscilla Slater, who died in a holding cell at the Harper Woods police lockup in June.
Protest organizers said secrecy in the case mirrored lingering questions surrounding the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March.
“What’s happening in Louisville is the same thing that’s happening right now around the corner from us," protest organizer Jae Bass said into a microphone before the march. "We’re here to finally get answers for the family of Priscilla Slater because just like the family of Breonna Taylor, they’re still waiting on justice.
Saturday’s demonstration underscored the range of emotions set off by the charges announced Wednesday in Breonna Taylor’s case: Three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment against Brett Hankison, who is accused of firing several bullets from outside Taylor’s apartment into a neighboring unit. Neither he nor two other Louisville officers who fired their weapons at Taylor’s apartment were charged with her death.
Feelings of rage, sorrow, pain and exasperation immediately took hold, and continue to linger, in Louisville, Detroit and beyond.
The grand jury’s decision has left a deep wound within Black communities across the country and among others who have mobilized against racial injustice and police brutality in recent months.
“Black people and Black women are viewed as less-than. That’s the only way you can explain this type of behavior. It hurts,” said Coleman Young II, the son of Detroit’s first Black mayor. “I felt that was a statement on how they viewed Black people.”
For Young and others who spoke to the Free Press about the charges, Taylor’s death is a horrific reminder of how unsafe it is to be Black in America.
“It feels like it’s open season on Black people and takes us back to a time that I just don’t want to go back to,” Young said.
Former Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Vonda Evans, who now practices law privately, said the charges announced this week raise questions about the old axiom that justice is blind.
“Justice was peeking on this one,” Evans said. “When I look at this and the outcries across the world because this young Black woman was murdered and no one is responsible … it’s definitely disheartening.”
Police shot Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, six times during an attempt to serve a no-knock search warrant of her South Louisville apartment as part of narcotics investigation.
“We know that those other officers fired their gun,” Evans said. “Because they can hide behind a shield, they’re allowed to go free.”
To be certain, the investigative tactics that led police to Taylor’s door in the middle of the night and the lack of charges for her killing are driving forces behind the outrage over her death.
Lydia Maciel of Detroit along with other protesters hold signs calling justice for Breonna Taylor outside of Detroit Public Safety Headquarters on Michigan Avenue in Detroit on Sept. 23, 2020.
But the reasons Taylor’s death has resonated are many. Apart from the circumstances of the case, the lack of charges against the officers who shot her was a maddening reminder that little has changed for Black Americans for several generations.
When she heard news of the charges, Venita Thompkins, who lives in Detroit's Virginia Park neighborhood, reflected on how her grandchildren will face the same dangers of living in America as her grandmother.
“In my lifetime, I realized nothing has changed,” Thompkins said. “Then I was reminded, it was no different in your grandmother’s lifetime.”
Thinking back to her grandmother, Thompkins recalled the advice she received about driving down I-75 into southern states: Don’t speed and keep a bucket in the car to avoid having to stop at restrooms in hostile locations.
The family of Breonna Taylor on Friday demanded that US authorities release grand jury transcripts showing why no police will face direct criminal charges over her death, which has once again galvanized protesters angry about racism and police brutality in America.
Taylor’s death and the lack of accountability brings a new reality. For Black people, safety from police violence is uncertain even in bed at home, Thompkins said.
“Now it’s our daughters. And she may be the most recent, because we have the unknown daughters,” Thompkins said. “The names and list can go on of lives that have been lost at the hands of police.”
The historical significance of this week’s grand jury announcement also rang for Frank Joyce, a longtime activist whose work in Detroit dates to the 1960s.
Systemic racism is more than just a slogan, he said. It includes a way of learning about history that omits certain events or fails to connect them in a meaningful way.
“There is something that is a component baked into what I call the white way of thinking that does not connect the dots and does not come to terms with how these practices carry over from generation to generation to generation,” Joyce said. “Part of what makes them difficult to change is misleading people about the difficulty and about how deeply entrenched these systems are and how far back they go.”
Joyce said he recently was going over old documents when he came across a complaint George Crockett Jr. filed with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission against then-Wayne County Prosecutor Samuel Olsen. The complaint, to which Joyce said he was a signatory, accused Olsen of discrimination because he had a history of exonerating white people accused of violence against Black people, Joyce said.
“Here we are in Louisville in 2020 addressing exactly the same disparities,” Joyce said. “We need to more deeply and more frequently ask the question why. What is it that creates generation after generation of protest without significant change in the policies that create the killings in the first place?”
In anticipation of this week’s grand jury announcement, the repetition of such injustices brought a sense of grim inevitability.
Judge Aliyah Sabree, of the 36th District Court, said the charges were disappointing but not surprising. Sabree said she found out about the charges from a group text message with other judges. When Sabree saw the charges, she asked to cancel a meeting she had with the judges scheduled for that afternoon.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaks during a press conference to announce a grand jury's decision to indict one of three Louisville Metro Police Department officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor on September 23, 2020, in Frankfort, Kentucky. Former Louisville Metro Police Officer Brett Hankison has been charged with wanton endangerment for shooting into neighboring apartments during the execution of a fatal raid on Taylor's apartment on March 13, 2020.
“Based off of what I was reading and what I was hearing, I think the charges should’ve been higher,” she said. “As a Black woman, it weights heavy on my heart.”
Sabree said she is hopeful younger generations can push for long-lasting change.
As the great-granddaughter of civil rights activist and former state Rep. Daisy Elliott, Sabree said she was raised to fight for change. She stressed the need for action beyond protests — beginning with exercising the right to vote.
“I’m optimistic, but it’s an everyday battle,” she said.
In Harper Woods, Tonya Anderson stepped out of her friend's house as the protest continued by.
Wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, she teared up as she described why the movement is important to her.
“My great-grandparents moved here in the '40s and I just feel like the same stuff they dealt with in the '40s, coming from West Virginia and Alabama, that we still shouldn’t be facing. I'm 43," Anderson said.
"It means a lot. It means that it’s different nationalities and races and ages," she said. "And that people are just tired and they just care.”
Joe Guillen has been covering the city of Detroit for the newspaper since 2013. Contact him at 313-222-6678 or email@example.com.