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25 September 2020

Breonna Taylor, Donald Trump and determining justice in the US

There is such a thing as fairness. It's just that some people get to decide who sees it, and others never see it at all.  

By Emily Tamkin

Breonna Taylor was killed on 13 March 2020. Police officers broke down her door, entered her home and shot her to death. On Wednesday, 23 September, six months after Breonna’s death, a grand jury decided that none of the officers involved would be indicted for murder. One officer was indicted, but it was not for Taylor’s death, rather for “first-degree wanton endangerment” of her neighbours after shots he fired went into their apartments.

The announcement followed a summer of protests against police brutality and state-sponsored violence against black Americans sparked by the unlawful killing of George Floyd; a police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe. It also followed a summer of memes, tweets and images telling Breonna Taylor’s story. Her portrait even graced the cover of Vanity Fair.

After I learned of the verdict, I wondered how her mother felt, having watched her daughter’s face being shared by the media for months only to then hear that nobody would be held responsible for her death.

Protesters have since gone back to the streets, both in Louisville, Kentucky, where Taylor lived and died, and across the country. On Wednesday night, in Seattle, Washington, 13 demonstrators were arrested by the police. In Louisville, where the mayor had put in place a curfew beginning at 9pm for 72 hours, two officers were shot in the protests and suffered non-life threatening wounds.

A curfew can be justified as keeping people safe during a tense time, but it also curbs people’s constitutional right to assembly and to express anger with a system that is not working. Or perhaps it is more apt to say that it is anger with a system that is working as usual, considering that police forces in the United States are historically racist institutions.

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[See also: The history of America’s racist police, from slave patrols to present]

It was fitting, in a cruel way, that it was also on Wednesday that President Donald Trump, when asked if he would accept the result of the election, mused, “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very — there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation”. He was apparently speaking specifically about mail-in ballots, but those are still ballots, which deserve to be counted.

Also on Wednesday, the president said that he would like the Senate to confirm his nominee to the Supreme Court before the election in case the result needs to be decided by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court seat that is vacant is, of course, the one left open by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her dying wish was that her replacement is not put in place until after inauguration. Yet, senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who refused to give Barack Obama’s nominee a hearing in the last year of his administration, has said that, of course, they will fill the seat. Senators who previously said they wouldn’t fill the seat in an election year — like South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham and Iowa senator Chuck Grassley — now say that they’ll vote for Trump’s nominee.

Following Trump’s comments on electoral continuation, McConnell tweeted that “The winner of the 3 November election will be inaugurated on 20 January”. But who gets to vote? And whose votes get counted? And who decides which votes count if this goes to the courts? And why, given that the president is openly suggesting some votes not be counted, are the senators still going to rush to install his judicial pick?

“Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” Utah senator Mitt Romney said in the statement where he announced that he would vote for Trump’s pick. But that’s not quite right. There is such a thing as fairness. It’s just that some people get to decide who sees it, and others never see it at all.

[See also: The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg]