On May 20, 2015—almost five years ago to the day—the African American Policy Forum hosted #SayHerName: A Vigil in Memory of Black Women and Girls Killed by the Police, so that families from across the country could come together in a powerful show of solidarity to uplift the stories of their late loved ones. They were the family members of Alberta Spruill, Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Kyam Livingston, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, and Tanisha Anderson. We said their names.
While the hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery has become a well-known tragedy, many have yet to hear the story of Breonna Taylor—a Black woman who was killed when plainclothes policemen mistakenly raided her home and shot her eight times. Taylor was a certified emergency medical technician who spent many of her last hours in high-risk service to others. The risk she did not survive—the one that broke through her door spraying bullets—was the all-too-common one facing Black women: a killing at the hands of white cops and a posthumous descent into public anonymity.
These two deaths—one in broad daylight at the hands of callous vigilantes, the other in the dead of night at the hands of hyped-up cops—together represent what is widely understood within the African American community: that pre-Covid, mid-Covid, and post-Covid, we are continually subject to death by law-enforcement fiat. The specter of our sudden, senseless, and crudely rationalized demises is so directly correlated with the simple status of being Black that we have taken to naming innocent activity as an apparent capital crime. Arbery’s offense was jogging while Black; Taylor’s was sheltering in her own home while Black.
These deaths are modern embodiments of racial terror dating back to a time we like to think is long past: the reign of white impunity rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. In these times, there were no rules, laws, or expectations against Black life being taken.