Politics

The Breonna Taylor Fight Is Reshaping Kentucky Politics

A memorial for Breonna Taylor is seen in a park.
A crowd of protesters gathers near a Breonna Taylor memorial on Oct. 2 in Louisville, Kentucky. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott is the only Black woman in the state’s General Assembly. She’s close with her constituents, often marching with them and streaming their rallies on Instagram Live, and is keeping up a lonely fight for justice for Breonna Taylor weeks after the state’s attorney general announced he would not be bringing homicide charges against the cops who killed her. Her movement hasn’t been easy—she was even arrested once—but she’s not giving up, and she’s reshaping grassroots Kentucky politics in the process. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Scott about the continuing Breonna Taylor protests and how they’re playing out throughout the state. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Do you remember when you first heard Breonna Taylor’s story, and what you thought?

Attica Scott: At first I didn’t know her name, but I was in Frankfort, our state capital, during the legislative session and heard she was murdered the morning of Friday, March 13. I remember hearing something briefly on the news, and then I didn’t hear her name again until May. I remember that first night of protest, Thursday, May 28. The immediate narrative was one of violent protesters rather than violent police who haven’t been held accountable. I remember my daughter and I went out that next day because I knew, as an activist and organizer, that that narrative was not true. From that point on, I’ve been deeply engaged in fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor.

Did you feel like your colleagues back in the statehouse had an accurate idea of what was happening in Louisville?

I don’t think anyone did initially because the narrative was—as it often is—being pushed from the police perspective, from the perspective of the mayor, who was colluding with police to cover up her murder. I don’t think in the first few days that anyone really knew what was happening. Even people in Louisville weren’t coming downtown to see for themselves.

As a mom of Black children who ached for Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mom, but also as a responsible legislator, I knew I had to help educate my colleagues about what was actually happening.

You’re saying the mayor colluded with the police to cover things up? That’s a pretty big allegation. He’s a Democrat, right?

He sure is. But as a Black woman, I’ve been made clear for most, if not all, of my adult life that Democrats have failed Black people too. In this case, the mayor of Louisville has completely and utterly failed us in seeking justice for Breonna Taylor. At the very beginning he had a chance to do the right thing and fire the officers who killed her, to have them arrested and charged. He failed to do so. And every step along the way, he has pushed the police narrative. Even when I was arrested that next morning, he had the nerve to call me and say he had heard some things concerning my arrest. He wanted to hear my story. I shared it. Within an hour, he was with the acting interim police chief doubling down on the police’s narrative that we were trying to firebomb the library in my district.

Was there even evidence for that?

There was video footage of someone who appeared to be a man dressed in all black—you couldn’t see the person’s face—breaking a window at the library, which wasn’t broken when we walked past it. People could see that clearly on our Instagram livestream. And there was a flare that had been thrown through the window that immediately fizzled out. So even the library union put out a statement saying Rep. Scott would never do this, and how dare you charge her with these crimes? And besides the broken window, there was no damage in the library.

I’m just trying to think of the position you’re in. You’re part of the Democratic Party. You have someone within your party, a leader in your community, seeming to take the side against you. It must put you on the defensive.

I’m on the defensive all the time. And this whole movement has been traumatic on so many different levels. Hearing something new about this case almost every week makes it even more painful. On top of that, the violence we’ve experienced from police who are militarized and using their weapons against us—I am disgusted, I’m angry, I’m pissed off.

We should remind people exactly where the investigation into Breonna Taylor’s death stands. Daniel Cameron, the attorney general of Kentucky, was put in charge of investigating what happened. And he made this statement that a grand jury decided to disregard homicide charges and instead charge one officer with wanton endangerment. Then a grand jury member came forward and said that’s not so. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey with Cameron and this case?

That statement from the attorney general added yet another reminder of how all of these systems have colluded to not have justice for Taylor. They constantly lie, over and over again. And yet we as protesters are the ones who have far too often been demonized.

It is because of our sustained movement that what we are seeing now is happening—the grand jury’s speaking out happened because of this movement. We were lied to until footage came out. Our protest also includes policy advocacy, like Breonna’s Law for Kentucky. And our movement includes political activism. We’ve got folks ready to run for office in 2022 who before this movement had thought about serving in local, state or federal office.

Fifteen hours of recordings were released from the grand jury. What stood out from what you heard?

What stood out for me is when the jurors were told there was no time to actually hear all of the evidence that was available. There was a woman who said, we have time. That touched my heart because she used her agency as a grand juror to say, we came here to take the time to get justice.

That stood out to me too. I didn’t know the grand jury could speak back to the prosecutors the way it occasionally did.

I didn’t know it either. This entire movement has taught me so much. I also appreciate the fact that there were grand jurors who, even if they didn’t know whether they could question the prosecutors they did it anyway. I believe we all have a responsibility at every level to question, to challenge, and to not be afraid to do so.

Have you ever interacted with Daniel Cameron?

I’ve actually not interacted with him at all.

I wonder how quickly his involvement in the investigation into Breonna Taylor began to concern you.

Immediately. As soon as he appointed himself as the prosecutor, I knew we were in trouble. Someone who is in Mitch McConnell’s back pocket is not going to serve justice in a situation like this.

Why do you say he’s in Mitch McConnell’s back pocket?

He was McConnell’s candidate. He was appointed by McConnell to run for the seat, fully supported by McConnell throughout his campaign. McConnell was one of his special guests at his wedding this summer. Cameron has shown nothing but allegiance to McConnell.

Cameron seemed to be embracing the GOP’s “law and order” idea when he announced what was happening with the charges. He said: “Justice is not often easy. It does not fit the mold of public opinion. And it does not conform to shifting standards. It answers only to the facts and to the law.” I wonder what went through your mind when you heard him saying that.

My immediate thought was that he is obviously paying his communications person quite well to come up with language that uplifts his decision not to serve justice to Breonna Taylor or her family or her community and, at the same time, continue this demonization of people who are protesting. To relegate us only to emotion, to compare us to mob mentality, and to talk about facts when, in truth, he and his team did not give the truth and all of the options available to the grand jury.

Your bill Breonna’s Law would prevent no-knock warrants, like the one that led to her death, statewide. It was notable to me that only 11 other legislators have signed onto it. Why do you think that is?

We are perplexed because we have 100 members of the House, 38 of them Democrats. And yet we only have 11 legislative co-sponsors. Across the country, there have been Republicans who have said no-knock warrants should not exist. So the fact we don’t have Republicans who’ve signed on says something. I think it’s important to note that in the four years I’ve been in Frankfurt, I’ve never had one of my bills heard, even in committee for discussion only. For the past two years, not one member of the Black Legislative Caucus has had their bill heard in committee.

This is about race. This is about people who don’t feel comfortable having these conversations. Whenever we’d bring up issues of race related to a bill on the House floor, it would be immediately met with anger from white men for the most part. But then they could stand on the House floor and talk about hateful resolutions related to immigrants, calling them drug dealers and rapists, and that was OK. They’ve always had the chance to speak that hatred.

There are elections going on in Kentucky right now. I wonder if you see seeds of something shifting in the political landscape.

I see it shifting from the people’s perspective. Folks who’ve been organizing for justice have been holding so many of these candidates’ feet to the fire, regardless of their political party. They have not allowed anyone to run and feel like, “Well, because I’m a Democrat, you don’t have any other choice, you have to support me.” No. They’ve been looking these politicians in the eye and asking: What is your racial justice agenda? How are you supporting the movement for justice for Breonna Taylor?

Part of it is that you have so many young people in leadership who aren’t caught up into this narrative of voting “all blue everything.” They don’t believe that. What they are clear about is that Black lives matter. If Democrats aren’t going to center Black lives, they don’t deserve to be in office either. What I know for sure is that very few people are going to be able to win between now and Nov. 3 who have not shown that they are committed to the Movement for Black Lives.

I wonder what you think are the things that are stifling change. You’re talking about the people going to folks running for office and asking what their positions are. But you’re not talking about the Democratic Party itself responding in any kind of way.

That’s part of the weakness and failure of the party, and folks are calling that out and not supporting the party as an institution. I think that’s something that’s missing in so many of these political conversations. In 2022, we’re coming for all of your seats, school board, Metro Council, mayor, state seats—we’re coming for all of your seats because you failed us.

I’m already working with folks. Some are calling me their mentor. And others, I’m simply walking alongside elbow to elbow and sharing my experience. I’m glad to do so because some of these incumbents do have to go.

Do you think justice for Breonna Taylor is still possible?

I know that justice for Breonna Taylor is possible and it’s going to happen because of this movement. It’s not going to happen because suddenly some politician wakes up and says it’s time to do the right thing. It’s not going to happen because law enforcement will hold itself accountable. It’s going to happen because people push for it and they push onward and they continue to resist and show up. I just don’t know what that justice is going to look like.

What could it look like at this point?

I was on the phone with the attorney for Breonna Taylor’s family, and he was on his way to file the paperwork to request a new special prosecutor. That’s a first step. That’s concrete. That’s key.

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