After more than 100 days of protests and two separate investigations into the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, a grand jury on Wednesday failed to bring charges against the two officers who killed Taylor in her sleep. One former Louisville police detective was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment for firing bullets into the home of Taylor’s neighbours, leaving many people angry that private property could be deemed more important than Taylor’s life.
“It's a national embarrassment that Breonna Taylor's neighbors' walls have received more justice than she has,” one person wrote on Twitter. Others continued to demand accountability, with calls to both arrest the officers and “dismantle the system that killed Breonna Taylor.” And these demands for justice and police abolition spread nationwide, as people took the streets in cities across the country in loving grief and rage in response to a criminal justice system that killed Taylor and then allowed her killers to walk free.
But as we collectively grieve, and simultaneously call for actions like defunding or abolishing the police, there is an inherent struggle to define what justice even looks like right now. For many people who want justice for Taylor, Wednesday's non-indictment was both frustrating and confusing. Calls to charge and also imprison the officers who killed Taylor might even feel like they are betraying a flawed notion that we could ever find justice through the carceral system. But when that’s the only world we have ever known — one that disappears people behind prison walls in the name of justice — it also makes sense that anyone might resort back to that as a possible solution.
Still, there is a tension that exists when we call for both abolition, as well as a carceral solution to police killings. This is because, in the world we dream of building, these two things cannot exist simultaneously. The police state is one designed and operated by the ruling class, and historically has never served Black people and people or colour, or the working class.
For these reasons, even though police violence has gained national attention in recent years, it remains incredibly hard to hold individual officers accountable for misconduct. In many cases, they’re allowed back to work: Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd in May had at least 18 complaints filed against him since joining the police force in 2001, most of which never resulted in disciplinary action.
In the five years since the Ferguson uprisings, police have fatally shot more than 5,000 people, according to data recorded by The Washington Post. Likewise, 99 percent of police killings between 2013 and 2019 have not resulted in formal charges brought against the officers. And since 2005, only 110 police officers have been prosecuted in on-duty shootings, with convictions in only 42 cases and usually on lesser charges, like reckless discharge of a firearm or involuntary manslaughter.
And even in the rare event that police are held accountable through the courts, that justice isn’t necessarily reparative, and instead only serves to uphold the same system we want to abolish. The few officers who do end up behind bars are meant to prove that the criminal justice system can work. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and time again, that’s not the reality.
But this doesn't — and shouldn't — mean that communities who have been harmed by this system are not allowed to want to seek justice within it. People are allowed to demand that the officers who killed Taylor and other Black people be prosecuted and imprisoned — full stop. Those same people are allowed to fight for abolition.
In this time of mass reckoning, we are allowed to sit with these contradictions: Justice may never come through the prison industrial complex, whose very existence was founded on violence against the most marginalised. But it's also the only type of accountability many people know how to demand right now.
So, where do we go from here? Abolitionists explain that it's not necessarily about what you are demanding in this moment, but what you are fighting for long term. “Focusing on arrests leaves the whole system intact,” write abolitionist organisers Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie for Essence. “We want to direct our energies toward collective strategies that are more likely to be successful in delivering healing and transformation, and to prevent future harms.”
We can create justice on our own terms, and it might look like mass movements for liberation, continued calls to defund and abolish policing, and the redistribution of resources to education, healthcare, and community initiatives. In a year, it might evolve, and look completely different again.
But the discomfort of wanting change is the very first step to seeking real justice. Whatever the world may look like, we will create it by tearing down the walls of white supremacy brick by brick, and the wanting to never chant the names of lives lost, ever again.