No cops were charged with Breonna Taylor’s death. This is how the system was designed.

People across the country are outraged that no police officers were charged with killing Breonna Taylor — but many couldn’t be shocked. Those who felt blindsided by the grand jury’s decision haven’t been paying attention. This year alone, the cries of protesters have made it very clear: You cannot reform a system that is working the way it was designed to.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron underscored this reality when he delivered the news on Wednesday: “My job, as the special prosecutor in this case, was to put emotions aside and investigate the facts to determine if criminal violations of state law resulted in the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life.”

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announces the grand jury’s decision in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor on September 23.
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In those words, Cameron suggested that the law itself places Taylor’s life below the “duty” of the police officers who entered her property on March 13. The law makes it clear that because the officers were defending themselves, it was justified for Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly to fire his weapon into a Black woman’s apartment six times, while detective Myles Cosgrove simultaneously shot his weapon a whopping 16 times, unleashing the fatal shot that would end Taylor’s life. The police were justified in their actions because the law, and those sworn to uphold the law, made it so.

While a criminal indictment in the killing of Taylor might have felt like victory for some, she should not have been killed in the first place. The only justice would be Breonna Taylor still being alive.

Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, poses for a portrait in front of a mural of her daughter at Jefferson Square park on September 21.
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For Breonna’s family, and for a society that claims it wants to do better by Black lives, questions linger: How many years behind bars would have been sufficient retribution for Taylor’s life? What would the arrest of Brett Hankison, Mattingly, and Cosgrove really mean for the hundreds of other cops who have taken the lives of other Black people just this year? What would it mean for the families of the victims whose names haven’t risen to national prominence? These are questions America is grappling with as we consider what is justice in a criminal system that has been systemically cruel to Black lives.

Breonna Taylor became a meme this year. It was impossible to scroll through social media without seeing an image pegged to the words “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” People plastered her name on T-shirts and counted the days since she had been shot dead. Meanwhile, Tamika Palmer, her mother, traveled around the country to speak on the sanctity of Black lives, and protesters urged lawmakers to defund the Louisville Police Department. People tried to hold all of these interests: The system, working as designed, needs to be dismantled while simultaneously bringing justice for a young Black woman.

Arrests may have seemed like a concrete action, but many knew deep down inside they weren’t coming. There was no way to get justice for Breonna because she was already dead.

That people took to the streets once more Wednesday from Washington, DC, to Louisville to Portland also seemed inevitable. Protests largely remained nonviolent: In New York, people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in solidarity and gathered outside the Barclays Center chanting, “What’s her name? Breonna Taylor! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!”

In Louisville, where tensions have been high for months awaiting the attorney general’s announcement, hundreds of protesters were arrested and two police officers were shot, sustaining non-life-threatening injuries. Around the country, the mood was anger, sadness, and frustration. That people made space to cry into one another’s arms, chant, “Say Her Name!” and hold up signs calling for ways to rethink policing might be one small glimmer that we’re on our way to thinking bigger.

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