The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At ‘Sisters Friday,' Louisville activists aim to raise awareness of Breonna Taylor’s death

Protesters gather around a memorial for Breonna Taylor on what would have been her 27th birthday on Friday in Louisville. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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LOUISVILLE — Jefferson Square Park, the patch of green space across from City Hall, looked much the same as it had for the previous eight days on what would have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday.

Just as there had been for more than a week since protests began over the fatal police shooting of Taylor, a black emergency medical technician who was killed in March, there were cases of water and snacks distributed throughout the plaza. There were signs, some that read “Happy Birthday Breonna” while others sported anti-police slogans. And there was a diverse crowd milling about, growing by the hour even as midday temperatures crept toward 90 degrees. There was only one notable departure from what has become the norm in downtown Louisville.

“Welcome to ‘Sisters Friday,'” organizer Marissa Whittenberg, who is white, said into a microphone at the center of the park. “You guys are important too!”

Friday was the first day that demonstrations at Jefferson Square Park had taken on an unofficial theme. On “Sisters Friday,” a name devised by a group of community activists, both men and women, who have been the vocal centers of most of the week’s protests, women were repeatedly encouraged to speak in front of the gathering crowd.

They have been leading chants and sharing stories at protests downtown. But on Friday, both the women who stepped to the mic and the community organizers on the ground appreciated the explicit invitation to speak.

The effort to highlight women on Friday was in part a move to highlight Taylor’s case, which has not gained the same resonance as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while he was in police custody, despite Taylor’s death coming weeks before Floyd’s. The relative lack of national awareness of Taylor’s death follows a familiar pattern — black women often occupy the role of the distressed family member; less often are their stories as victims driving widespread conversation or sparking broad protest movements.

“The roles that black women are cast in the public eye around police violence is as the grieving mother, the grieving sister, the grieving wife, daughter, etc.,” said Andrea Ritchie, the author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.” “That is true. Black women and family members are the backbone of anti-police-violence movements in demanding justice … but also, in that context, they experience police violence that they don’t talk about, or that isn’t heard when they do talk about it.”

Black women throughout the country face the crush of both gender and racial discrimination, a double whammy that is as present in issues of policing as it is in the workforce or with access to health care, experts say.

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, black women are 17 percent more likely to be pulled over at a traffic stop than white women. A study from Washington University in St. Louis’s Fatal Interactions with Police research project showed that black women are the only demographic in which a majority of its members are unarmed when killed — 57.2 percent.

“Black women are often unintended casualties of bad policing. And they are, unfortunately, shouldering that burden alone when it comes to police violence and brutality among women,” said Odis Johnson, one of the authors of the Washington University study. “This is not the case for white women, this is not the case for Asian women, it’s less so the case for Latinas, but it definitely is the case for African American women.”

But their deaths don’t tend to garner as much attention — so much so that the African American Policy Forum started the movement “Say Her Name” in 2015.

The type of violence black women face isn’t always the familiar scenario, one that is now capturing black men’s death on video. Ahmaud Arbery was chased down by white vigilantes in Georgia, the final moments of his life captured in a cellphone video; George Floyd died with a white police officer’s knee pressed down on his neck, also caught on video. In Taylor’s case, she was asleep when police entered her home after midnight in a drug raid, and they killed her inside the place she lived.

“It’s a question of how the narrative around what constitutes police violence is constructed, right? And that narrative is constructed around these experiences of black men who are not trans or not gay, in public spaces, and it looks like physical violence or shooting or stop-and-frisk,” Ritchie said. “One, that completely erases the fact that black women, trans, gender-nonconforming people and queer people also experience physical violence, shooting, stop-and-frisk in public in the same ways that men do, but also that we experience it lying in bed sleeping in our homes.”

For some of the women who have been organizing at protests in Louisville, her case having slipped into obscurity stings because of the community work they do. Women have played a foundational role in civil rights movements stretching back decades. Perhaps the best-known current example is the Black Lives Matter movement, which three women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — founded in 2013.

In Louisville, haphazard demonstrations have given way to organized protests with women at the helm. Medical tents, tables offering materials to write Taylor birthday cards and coolers packed with Gatorade are now part of the daily scenery in Jefferson Square Park, with women sitting at every station.

Tia Edison, an organizer with the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, thought the spotlight the novel coronavirus pandemic has put on social inequalities in the country might help shine a light on the work black women have been doing for civil rights.

On Friday, before Edison arrived at the demonstration, the Labor Department announced that unemployment rates have seen a surprising decrease in May — but not for black people. While white unemployment fell to 12.4 percent, black unemployment rose, to 16.8 percent.

“At the end of the day, at the bottom, we are right here, organizing,” said Edison, who is black. “Somebody’s child just got killed, we’re the ones who make sure they get food for the week. You’re seeing all the women organizers. I don’t understand how the pandemic has shown so much, highlighting inequalities, showing essential workers and how important they are. We’re essential workers. We don’t have to be sitting at these tables.”

“Sisters Friday” shared the stage with other special moments throughout the day. Health-care workers marched to the plaza around 2 p.m., holding a banner that read “White Coats for Black Lives,” to honor Taylor’s work in health care. Later, Taylor’s mother spoke to the crowd in honor of her daughter’s birthday.

Dana Wooten, who is black and Navajo, spent the morning running around the park stocking coolers and helping direct other organizers. She didn’t think she would have time to address the crowd, but she was content listening to other women speak.

“It’s important for women, especially black women, because when we work these events and do stuff, I see a lot of — it’s the black women who are making things happen,” Wooten said. “But when it comes to their defense, we feel like it’s almost overshadowed. Say her name, too. Include her too. It’s like we have to demand that Breonna get the same amount of attention as other people. But I know this city. We’re determined to fight. We’re going to be here as long as we can.”