The killing of Breonna Taylor still reverberates in Kentucky politics

Will Taylor’s death weigh heavily on many voters in the county?

SOURCEThe 19th

The economy, abortion and education: They’re the big issues in the ads and debates in the Kentucky governor’s race, just as in other races around the country. 

But the contest between Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Black Republican, and incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear, who is White and the rare Democrat to lead a red state, is, for many, an inflection point in a years-long fight for racial justice. 

The March 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor forever changed Kentucky, particularly the city of Louisville and Jefferson County, the state’s most populous. Activists are still seeking justice for Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot by officers executing a no-knock raid of her Louisville apartment. That quest is activating Black voters who may not otherwise have been motivated by Beshear, they say. 

Cameron, as attorney general, chose not to prosecute the officers who fatally shot Taylor. Those who protested in its wake, and continue to push for justice to this day, aren’t forgetting. 

“The reality is, the movement won’t let us go,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, executive director of criminal justice and harm reduction advocacy group VOCAL-KY and a candidate for Louisville’s Metro Council. “The injustices that are built in our governments, our local governments, our local politics, our local everything are now being more exposed. It’s a time of awakening for some folks and action for some folks.”

Taylor’s killing also isn’t leaving the headlines: A federal civil rights trial for one of the officers who was charged in connection to her death is set to begin next week. 

Breonna Taylor's mother, Tamika Palmer, cries as she stands with her friend Tooshy Hamilton (left) and sister Stephanie Baskin during an unveiling of a Breonna Taylor painting.
Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, cries as she stands with her friend Tooshy Hamilton (left) and sister Stephanie Baskin during an unveiling of a Breonna Taylor painting at KULA Gallery in March 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Carla Wallace joined Parrish-Wright in 2020 during months of protests and attempts to seek justice for Taylor. She’s now dedicated to beating Cameron — and building long-lasting power — in 2023 and beyond.

“We were all in the streets together for months, for almost a year,” recalled Wallace, co-founder and member of the Louisville chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ).  

“When the decision [not to prosecute officers] came down, that was so horrible from the office of the person running for governor right now — even though we all know the so-called justice system does not bring justice — there was still just a tremendous rage and heartbreak around that decision.”

Activists hope that energy will help defeat Cameron. 

“Daniel Cameron could win if so many things line up, and Daniel Cameron chose privilege, and position and power over justice,” Parrish-Wright said. “And that is a problem. I would love to see a Black man be governor. But he lost that.”  

Here’s what has changed since the death of Taylor: In June 2020, Louisville banned no-knock warrants. As Congress stalled on police reform, the Kentucky state legislature passed Breonna’s Law, bipartisan legislation restricting no-knock warrants, though the bill didn’t go as far as some advocates wanted. One of the leading advocates behind the bill, then-ACLU lobbyist Keturah Herron, later won a seat in the state House representing West Louisville, making her the first openly LGBTQ+ person elected to the chamber. Advocates helped elect a slate of reform-minded judges in Jefferson County — and ousted the judge who signed off on the search warrant for Taylor’s apartment.  

Taylor was killed on March 13, 2020, when seven plainclothes Louisville Metropolitan Police Department (LMPD) officers came to her South Louisville apartment to execute a search warrant as part of a narcotics investigation focused on Taylor’s on-and-off-again ex-boyfriend. 

Whether or not they announced themselves as police is disputed. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who had a concealed-carry gun license, believed intruders were breaking in. He took out his gun and fired a warning shot that hit Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the leg. Officers then returned fire with a total of 32 shots. Taylor was shot six times and died at the scene. 

That summer, Taylor’s face became a fixture of Louisville’s Injustice Square, as activists called it, and spread around the world on social media posts, T-shirts and magazine covers. The refrain “say her name” both called for justice for Taylor and drew attention to violence against Black women in a year marked by large-scale protests over police killings of Black Americans.

But over three and a half years later, no officers have been convicted in Taylor’s death. Cameron’s office convened a grand jury in 2020 that charged former detective Brett Hankison with endangering Taylor’s neighbors when he fired 10 bullets into a patio door and a window, three of which entered an adjacent apartment where a pregnant woman and her 5-year-old child lived. A jury acquitted Hankison on the charges in early 2022.

Cameron’s office didn’t bring charges against any other officers. In September 2020, Cameron said he believed Mattingly and detective Myles Cosgrove, who fired the shot that killed Taylor, were “justified” in returning fire and that charges against them couldn’t stand beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. 

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron signs a campaign sign for a supporter.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron signs a campaign sign following his victory in the Republican primary for governor at an election night watch party in Louisville, Kentucky in May 2023. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

But in a highly unusual development, multiple former members of the grand jury came forward to criticize Cameron for not presenting the jury with the option of bringing manslaughter or homicide charges. They accused Cameron of misleading the public about what charges had been presented and using the jury “as a shield to deflect accountability and responsibility,” one juror said in a motion to have parts of the proceedings made public. Three jurors filed a petition with the state House to impeach him.

“They never gave us the opportunity to deliberate on anything but the charges for Hankison. That was it,” said one of the jurors, speaking anonymously to CBS News’ Gayle King. “There were several more charges that could have gone forward on all of those officers or at least the three shooters.”

In interviews on the campaign trail and in statements to the media, Cameron has called Taylor’s death “a tragedy” and defended his handling of the case, saying in 2022 he was “proud” of his office’s work. But that hasn’t done much to placate activists who are outraged by what they see as a lack of accountability and justice for Taylor’s death. 

“There are a lot of folks in the Black community who are empowered around this governor’s race not because this governor has done so much for Black communities, but because there needs to be consequences for Cameron, the decision that he brought down,” Wallace said. “There is a continuing feeling that hasn’t been justice for Breonna, and that fight continues.”

In a scathing 90-page report released in March, the federal Department of Justice said the “forcible and violent entry” into Taylor’s home “strikes at the heart of the constitutional protection against unreasonable government intrusion.” 

“Even the people who would never come down to Injustice Square agree that more could have been done in the Breonna Taylor case,” Parrish-Wright said. “That damning DOJ report solidified what we already knew. I think that could really hurt him at the polls.”

In addition to the civil investigation into the LMPD’s practices, federal prosecutors also brought federal civil rights charges against Hankison for excessive and unconstitutional use of force during the raid. Hankison pleaded not guilty, and his trial is set to begin Monday.

The DOJ, unlike Cameron, zeroed in on the botched planning and flawed affidavit that led police to Taylor’s apartment and brought charges against three officers who weren’t at the scene but were critical to the raid.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear holds bill SB4 after signing it into law at the Center for African American Heritage.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear holds bill SB4 after signing it into law at the Center for African American Heritage in April 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. SB4 places more restrictions on no-knock raids and limits police departments power to use them. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

A former LMPD detective, Kelly Goodlett, pleaded guilty in August 2022 to including false and misleading information on the affidavit used to obtain the warrant and conspiring with former detective Joshua Jaynes to cover it up after the fact. The DOJ also charged Jaynes and former Sgt. Kyle Meany with violating Taylor’s civil rights by falsifying information on the affidavit; both pleaded not guilty.  

The DOJ report found the LMPD “routinely” fails to show probable cause in its applications for search warrants and conducts searches based on invalid pretenses. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that, in the case that led to Taylor’s killing, Judge Mary Shaw approved all five search warrants Jaynes applied for in a span of 12 minutes.

“I don’t think Judge Mary Shaw woke up and said, ‘I’m going to sign Breonna’s life away,’ but that’s exactly what she did,” Parrish-Wright said. “And that had to be dealt with.”

Advocate groups led by Parrish-Wright and Wallace drove the charge by creating a multiracial coalition of voters supportive of bail reform and angry over Taylor’s killing. SURJ, which Wallace co-founded in 2009, mobilizes White voters in part by linking issues of economic and racial justice. 

SURJ leads with issues and not candidates. But Wallace saw a major opportunity with the number of local judges up for election in 2022. It was, she recalled, “low-hanging fruit waiting to be picked.” Her organization, as well as the Bail Project, where Parrish-Wright worked until 2022, teamed up to reshape the judiciary. Many Black voters, Wallace said, were “empowered” to unseat Shaw. 

Tracy Evette Davis, a defense attorney who had represented people charged during the 2020 protests, challenged Shaw and was endorsed by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. Parrish-Wright used a hashtag, #MaryShawStartedItAll, to draw attention to her role in the raid. SURJ focused on turning out the working-class White voters they’d previously organized behind bail reform. 

Davis narrowly defeated Shaw, 51 to 49 percent, in the general election. Shaw said in a statement that she was “disappointed” but “not surprised” by her election loss because of “false narratives” surrounding the warrant.

SURJ’s model worked in Jefferson County judicial races and in running the largest field program in the state opposing an anti-abortion constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2022. Now, Wallace and SURJ are focused on running up the score in White rural areas to ensure Beshear’s reelection. 

“In the last governor’s race, rural people were totally neglected,” Wallace said. “We won, but by 5,000 votes, which is something like less than one in each precinct in Kentucky, which is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable to squeeze by when we’re facing a Trump-supported  candidate.”

Wallace says that while the spirit of the 2020 uprisings is still alive, one of the “heartbreaks” for her was that they didn’t yield lasting, systemic policy changes. 

But Parrish-Wright sees change afoot. The makeup of the Metro Council will change due to vacancies and special elections, including the one she’s running in. She sees people in the community as more engaged, attending council meetings, challenging their elected leaders and asking questions. And advocates for racial justice and reform, she says, are finally in a proactive instead of reactive position after the work of the last three and a half years. 

People stand near an art installation depicting Breonna Taylor at an event commemorating what would have been Breonna Taylor’s 28th birthday.
People stand near an art installation depicting Breonna Taylor at an event commemorating what would have been Breonna Taylor’s 28th birthday, in June 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Parrish-Wright, who in 2022 came in second in the Democratic primary for Louisville mayor despite being far outspent by her opponents, looks poised to win a seat on Louisville’s Metro Council in November.

She plans to vote for Beshear — even though she is deeply critical of the decision he and Louisville officials made in the summer of 2020 to call in the National Guard to manage civil unrest. On June 1, 2020, a National Guard member shot and killed David McAtee, known in the community as YaYa, in his West Louisville barbecue shop. 

But she also believes that if Cameron is elected governor, “we will be rolling back the great gains we’ve had in social justice.”

Taylor’s death and Cameron’s actions, she said, are likely to weigh heavily on many voters in the county.

“It has made a difference,” Parrish-Wright said of Taylor’s death. “Cameron could win without winning Jefferson County. But Jefferson County has the potential to sway the race and push it in either direction. It is making an impact — you do not want bad press in Jefferson County.” 

But she doesn’t want to stop with Jefferson County, or this election year. 

“We haven’t reached the masses. We’ve still got work to do. I want to get to a point where I don’t recognize anybody in the room, and we’re not there,” Parrish-Wright said. “But I will tell you the participation and advocacy has increased a great deal. It was blood, sweat and tears during 2020 and beyond — and I am thankful that I was in a place to be there.”


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