Breonna Taylor and the U.S. Legal Justice System

Breonna Taylor Cover of Oprah Magazine
September 2020 Cover of the Oprah Magazine
Written by Guy Nave

Yes, the “justice system” failed Breonna Taylor, but not because it’s “broken”

I once again find myself frustrated, disappointed, weary, and exhausted by the fact police officers involved in the murder of another innocent black person are not being held accountable for their murder.

After more than six months awaiting justice for the murder of Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky grand jury decided not to bring charges against any Louisville police officer for the murder of Breonna Taylor. The only indictment brought was against one officer for “wanton endangerment in the first degree” for firing bullets into a neighboring apartment. No one, however, was indicted for the murder of Breonna Taylor.

While many bemoan what is often described as a “broken” legal system, it is abundantly clear that the system is not “broken.” The system does exactly what it has been designed to do.

Policing in the United States has racist roots. Historically, innocent black people have been disproportionately victimized by a “policing system” designed from its inception to protect and enrich “whiteness” by victimizing and terrorizing “free” and “freed” (i.e. formerly enslaved) black people. This violent and oppressive racialized policing has continued through American history to this day.

What the case of Breonna Taylor also makes abundantly clear is that while black people can be innocent of having committed any crime, the murder of  innocent black people by police can easily be justified as “legal.

Yes, it is legal for police in the U.S. to murder innocent people. The so-called justice system in the U.S. encourages police violence and is designed to ensure such acts of violence (especially when perpetrated against black and brown people) virtually always qualify as being “legal.” This is illustrated by the fact that U.S. police officers freely kill civilians at much higher rates than other countries.

Again, this is not because the system is “broken.” The system does what it was (and is) designed to do. The statement released from the NAACP is correct in its assertion that “The justice system failed Breonna Taylor and, as such, failed us.”

The system did not fail Breonna Taylor, however, because it is “broken.” An attorney for one of  the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s murder issued a statement immediately following the grand jury’s announcement not to indict his client, saying the verdict shows the “system worked.”

Yes, the system did work. It did exactly what it is designed to do.

A member of the Kentucky grand jury that chose not to indict any of the officers involved in the murder of Breonna Taylor has revealed that the Kentucky Attorney General never asked the grand jury to consider homicide charges against the police responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor. The only charge the Attorney General recommended to the grand jury was “wanton endangerment.”

By only recommending the grand jury consider charges of wanton endangerment, the Kentucky Attorney General virtually guaranteed that the grand jury would not indict any of the police officers for the murder of Breonna Taylor.

Police violence against black people is not random

Despite the common assertion made by many people, acts of police violence against black people in the United States are not simply random acts of violence committed by a “few bad apples.” Instead, U.S. police violence directed against black and brown people (often in predominantly black and brown communities) represents intentional and deliberate “systemic violence.”

Police violence against black people is systemic not because “all police officers are bad” but because police violence has long been and continues to be authorized and protected by institutional practices and a legal system that permits and exonerates police officers who engage in legalized controlling and killing of black people.

While I remain frustrated that a Kentucky grand jury brought no charges against the Louisville police officers responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor, the recent revelation that the grand jury was never asked to consider homicide charges confirms that the failure of justice for Breonna Taylor is not because the system is “broken.” It is because the system was designed to fail Breonna Taylor and is designed to fail certain people.

If Americans truly want a legal system that holds police accountable for murdering innocent people, then Americans are going to have to demand a new legal system.

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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