Photos of Breonna Taylor shown at a March 19 memorial vigil in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Sam Upshaw, Jr./Courier-Journal; used with permission.

Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and covering Black deaths

May 20, 2020
Photos of Breonna Taylor shown at a March 19 memorial vigil in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Sam Upshaw, Jr./Courier-Journal; used with permission.

On March 13, as much of the country began to shut down in response to the coronavirus crisis, Breonna Taylor—a 26-year-old Black woman, an emergency medical technician from Louisville, Kentucky—was asleep at home with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Around 12:30 in the morning, Taylor and Walker were abruptly awakened. It sounded like a break-in. Police officers from the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department had arrived on her doorstep in plain clothes and, according to lawyers representing the Taylor family, entered the home without knocking or saying who they were. (Officers insist that they announced their presence; statements from neighbors contradict those claims.) The police broke down the front door with a battering ram. Walker, a licensed firearm owner, believing the home was under siege, reportedly drew his weapon in self-defense. He fired a single shot, hitting an officer in the leg. The officers returned fire, shooting more than twenty rounds into the home. Bullets ricocheted in the dark, a quiet night suddenly ablaze. 

Walker called Taylor’s mother. He told her that someone was breaking in. In the background, she heard screams. Then Walker said, “I think they shot Breonna.” Taylor was hit eight times and died at the scene. Walker was arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder. The officers had apparently been executing a no-knock search warrant; they thought a suspect involved in a narcotics investigation was receiving mail and storing cash at Taylor’s home. Later, lawyers discovered that the suspect, Jamarcus Glover, had already been located by police at the time of Taylor’s death. On April 27, the Taylor family filed a lawsuit against the department. 

But it would be weeks before Breonna Taylor’s name entered the national consciousness. At the time, social media was exploding in belated grief and rage over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed twenty-five-year-old Black man who was shot dead in February while out for a run in Brunswick, a town on the coast of Georgia. He was pursued by Gregory McMichael—64, a retired police officer who had lost his power of arrest in 2006 for failure to complete training—and his son, Travis, 34. The pair had seen Arbery, who was a regular runner, pass by; they armed themselves with a shotgun and a revolver, believing him to be a suspect in a series of local break-ins. They followed him in a white truck and shot him dead in the street. The men walked free for more than two months—until May 5, when a video of the altercation emerged. It was viewed online more than four million times. The country, which had been preoccupied with the coronavirus, now lit up in outrage over Arbery’s death. Two days after the video went viral, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested the McMichaels and charged them with murder and aggravated assault. 

It was perhaps the first time since COVID-19 arrived in the United States that an unrelated story rose to national prominence. Taylor’s name, however, went largely unspoken. The journalism industry—already unstable, already desperate for the attention of readers—was now serving a changed world; it made its choice about which stories, which lives, deserved focus. In doing so, it did what it often does: erase Black women from the narrative of America’s stubborn history of police violence and vigilante murder against people with skin like Taylor’s.

All too often, Black people’s lives become pawns in a war of attention and scarce resources. In recent years, coverage has come and gone. There was a sharp uptick in February 2012, after a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was killed by a white man named George Zimmerman. In the years that followed, the names of Black men and women, girls and boys murdered by police filled the pages of newspapers and hung, heavily, on the tongues of Black people who asked that the world recognize their reality. Tamir Rice, age twelve, was killed on a playground in Cleveland. Atatiana Jefferson was killed by Ft. Worth police who had been sent to her home on a wellness check. Walter Scott was shot dead during a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina, while his back was turned to officers. Eric Garner was strangled to death by police in Staten Island, New York. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a seven-year-old, was shot in the head by police while asleep in her bed in Detroit. Yvette Smith was killed by police she summoned to a home in Bastrop County, Texas, for help settling a dispute between two men. Laquan McDonald was shot from behind by police in Chicago. Mike Brown, who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, became the face of a new civil rights movement. Sandra Bland. Oscar Grant. Alton Sterling. Freddie Gray. The list goes on.

As these stories circulated on social media, the press took notice. Outlets devoted significant resources to covering violence against Black Americans. New beats and major reporting initiatives emerged. The Guardian tracked instances of fatal police shootings from 2015 to 2016; the Washington Post launched a similar project that has continued to track shootings into 2020. In virtually every instance, however, the stories that received the most attention were those that came with a sensational, horrible video. Arbery’s murder, for example, only took hold in the national press after footage depicting his death was uploaded; in Taylor’s case, by contrast, there is no video, and her death has received relatively less coverage. Over the years, journalists have had difficult conversations about the ethics of publishing videos of killings; the videos draw focus to cases—and clicks to websites—but they are also used as a way to spark apathetic white and other non-Black people to action, at the expense of subjecting Black people to the trauma of witnessing violence against their communities. Black people have never needed video footage to be convinced of a problem. And the same news organizations disseminating images of Black people being murdered have not, to large extent, committed to other coverage that’s in the service of saving Black lives.

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Often, it has been difficult for Black people to control journalistic narratives about our own lives and deaths. The Black press has done an effective job documenting cases of violence against Black people, even when the names of victims don’t rise to national prominence. But as newsrooms have integrated, the reach of the Black press has diminished; the stories they publish are seen by a decreasing number of readers. The dominant storylines are the ones that shock people on social media; eventually, the general public moves on and the consequences of trauma inflicted on Black people retreats back to the corners where it has always been.

We are a nation with much to worry about. The coronavirus now dictates much of American life, and it is doing so along predictable lines of race and class. Newsrooms are being decimated. Amid this upheaval, as an absence of reporting resources leaves us to rely on reactive social-media outcries, journalists cannot be left as the arbiters of whose lives matter. Twitter is not an adequate assignment editor. If we treat it that way, Black and other people of color will continue to suffer lethal consequences.

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.