34. Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: Who Killed Breonna Taylor? (with Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards)

34. Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: Who Killed Breonna Taylor? (with Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards)

With Guests:

This week, we get right to business with our guest—an extraordinary activist, social commentator and professor of criminal justice:

Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards, an expert on criminal justice; associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion; and professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville. She is a national board member for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and serves on the executive committee of the ACLU of Kentucky.

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In this Episode:

This week, we’re giving listeners a new way to listen to Dr. Michele Goodwin’s reporting, rebelling and truth-telling: 15 Minutes of Feminism, where we give a serious take on an important issue featuring a single guest (okay, fine—maybe two from time to time.) In these jam-packed, bite-sized episodes, you can expect voices from the center of the story—people you should know, those who roll up their sleeves and change the world. These are guests who have things to do, places to be, and something important to say. (Next week, we’ll be back with our regular programming!)

In this inaugural episode, we center Breonna Taylor: We say her name, revisit her story and reflect on what comes next.

Have a topic you’d like us to delve into, a guest recommendationor just want to say hi? Drop us a line at [email protected]

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Transcript:

Michele Goodwin  00:11

Welcome to “On the Issues”: “15 Minutes of Feminism with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. This week we add to our podcast platform “15 Minutes of Feminism,” where we will give a serious take on an important issue featuring a single guest—Okay, maybe two guests from time to time. On this show, we hear from voices at the center of the story: people you should know, those who roll up their sleeves and change the world. These are guests who have things to do, places to be, and something important to say. Next week, we’ll be back with our regular programming. 

Today, we center on Breonna Taylor: we say her name and revisit her story and what comes next. And we get right to business with Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards. She is an Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and professor for the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisville. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she also directs the College of Arts and Sciences social change minor. 

So grateful to be joined by Dr. Cherie Dawson Edwards for this new platform that we’re launching. And I want to start off with a question that might seem a little bit obvious, but I know you’ll give me some real nuance to it. And that is to think about who’s responsible for the death of Breonna Taylor, who killed Breonna Taylor?

Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards 01:39

You know, in Louisville, the first response, the first gut response would be that the police killed Breonna Taylor, that their ability to obtain a no-knock warrant for a situation like hers where there wasn’t any real evidence of violence and criminality. But there were some assumptions about someone that she was friends with or had previously dated. And so in Louisville it feels like the police did it, because they were able to enter her home in the middle of the night while she was asleep. 

Breonna Taylor: No Officers Criminally Responsible for Death
(@ajplus / Twitter)

But you know, from my perspective, if I’m really honest, I think we all did. That we failed Breonna Taylor, and I want to speak from Louisville, because I’m from Louisville. And I haven’t always lived here, but I’m from here, I teach criminal justice. I teach social change and social justice. I’m a community engaged scholar. And the culmination of events that occurred in Louisville last year are kind of a culmination of the work that I’ve been doing for 20 years as an academic, and trying to get people to understand how all these things, all these dynamics, not just the justice system, but the culture of our city, and people’s inability to care about things until it hits home or hits them. 

And so it was frustrating for me, because I’ve been trying to talk about these issues. And there are lots of people that listen. But the beauty of it is that people realize that we are all complicit if we don’t understand FOP contracts and unions and all the details and all the things that kept us from finding out information, or kept us as a city from getting justice for Breonna. I think we’re all complicit because we allow policing to continue the way that it always has. And it wasn’t until—I mean, there have been plenty of grassroots folks in Louisville that have been pushing against police abuse and violence for decades. But it took this to happen for a cross section of the city to wake up and say, Wait, this is not okay. And so they passed the ordinance in 17 days that banned no knock warrants, after it all came out.

Michele Goodwin  04:06

Well, that’s pretty shocking when you think about it, because it took just barely two weeks to do that after she died, after she was killed. But one didn’t see that beforehand. It strikes me that there’s something else about her case, too, which is that it’s a woman, could you speak to how society pays attention or doesn’t pay attention to police harms that affect women’s lives?

Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards  04:37

Yeah, I mean, I, and I’ll center this around Breonna Taylor and Black women in particular. It’s just been very hurtful and harmful to see. I mean, nobody should ever read comments on these articles. But every now and then I get sucked into doing that, because I want to know what other people are thinking. And then I read these horrible things that, you know, she shouldn’t have been dating a drug dealer, and she shouldn’t have been doing this and she shouldn’t have been. And she wasn’t in her bed. And she was—all of these narratives that just were not true in this case. And she wasn’t dating a drug dealer, but if she were, did that still mean that she should have lost her life? 

So it’s kind of like this… I do some work with Black girls in schools, Black and brown girls in schools. And there’s this book by Venus Evans-Winters, and she talks about, in the literature, Black and brown girls and Black women are left out, whited out, blacked out or pathologized, right? And it’s like, we aren’t cared about enough for our names to be said, and that the whole point of Say Her Name is that you see us. When you see us, when your gaze is upon us, is it… Are we able to be victims? 

There’s another study that talks about how Black woman and Black girls need less nurturing and need less protection. And we, we don’t need those things. And I know that that’s wrapped up in this image of us. And that’s why people can’t see us as a victim of something or someone harmed or done wrong. And I think that that plays out in the way that society responds to us and how the police may treat and interact with us.

Michele Goodwin  06:27

Well, it’s interesting that you say that, because, in some ways, and I’d be really curious to get your opinion on this. And I’m just having way too much fun actually listening to you, quite honestly. So it seems that people really weren’t paying attention to Breonna Taylor until after the killing of George Floyd. Do you see it in that same way? It was as if suddenly, well now we can sort of go back and think about Breonna Taylor, but she was actually gunned down and murdered before George Floyd was lynched in the streets of Minneapolis. And then that struck a nerve around the world. And people began saying George Floyd’s name as they should have, but it seemed like she got swept into that and it almost maybe, but for George Floyd, would people have sustained attention about Breonna Taylor?

Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards 07:17

I don’t think that outside of our area, maybe they would have, because certainly the George Floyd killing was, there was a video, you saw it. Breonna Taylor’s, there was not that. And so while she was killed in March, I guess March 13 of 2020, it’s interesting because I have a lot of conversations with folks across the community. And we talk about like, when did you hear about Breonna Taylor. I heard about Breonna Taylor when it happened. And the information that came out in our local news was not true. And so we didn’t think that it happened the way that it happened until May. 

And so for us, it wasn’t just that George Floyd, that the George Floyd incident happened. It was the combination of, wait, we got all this information now about her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, being released from from jail after being held for two months and charged with trying attempted murder on a police officer when he was standing his ground or you know, he was protecting his home and didn’t know that it was the police. And we were like, wait, so as a city, we were like, that’s not the narrative we got in March. And so, lots of us knew what happened to Breonna Taylor, but we also had such a false narrative given by the police and the mayor and all the powers that be, and the Commonwealth attorney. And once they realized that, even some of them, the Commonwealth attorney realized, wait, this information that we got is not, this is not adding up. We cannot hold this man. Then we have to now look at what really happened to Breonna Taylor. Is that information true? 

And that’s how we in the city got to this point. So I think outside of our city absolutely, it seemed like I mean, I would even say Ahmaud Arbery, like I remember it was all like rapid succession, and then Rayshard Brooks, and it was like wait, all of these names, and so many more. But certainly George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s names were were spoken the loudest, I think, globally. And it’s just meant a whole lot to our city for people to remember to say her name.

Protestors at a Minneapolis march for Breonna Taylor, June 2020. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

Michele Goodwin  09:35

Well, it also makes me think about the fact that who gets to write history, and who gets to write the histories about Black women. Because as you say, she was killed. And there was a kind of narrative that was put in to police reports, which I’ve read, that were put into the news, that were just simply factually untrue. But it seems to me that there’s a longer arc of that, that’s not just Breonna Taylor, it seems to me that that’s actually the lives of Black women, largely in the United States.

Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards 10:09

Yeah, I agree.

Michele Goodwin  10:11

Yeah. Well, I guess Yeah, exactly. Well and you know, makes you think about, you know, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, right, you know, this sort of papering over that, how her bedroom at Monticello even became a bathroom to talk about papering over history. 

So as I wrap up, I want to think about your work. As you mentioned, it’s been 20 years since you’ve been doing this work. You’re an engaged academic, not only on the scholarly side, being a brilliant scholar writing in this space, but you’ve also maintained the importance of being engaged in the community, with your work, so that the two combined together. And I’m wondering, do you ever get discouraged? I mean, how hard is it being a Black woman covering what you do in a society where mass incarceration is real and it proliferates, where it’s Black and brown bodies that disproportionately happened to be policed, surveilled, arrested, charged, prosecuted, and incarcerated? And then trying to unpack this narrative, these narratives, and translate them for the broader world, for legislators, for students, for your colleagues? Does it get discouraging? What gives you hope?

Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards 11:25

So it is discouraging, often, and it’s exhausting, honestly. But what gives me hope is that I’m raising kids, particularly in this community that I’d like to change so much and make better for whatever legacy I leave beyond my kids, and that’s what gives me hope. But how all of my things intersect. So being a mom, a Black woman, a Black mom in this community, researching, teaching and engaging in criminal justice and social change, I get to tell my story. 

When I show up, I might show up as Dr. Dawson-Edwards or Associate Dean Dawson-Edwards, whatever people are calling me, but at the end of the day, I always remind people that I’m also a mother. And I have a kid in public school and I now have a kid in private school. And you know, our school system is very, we’re a racially segregated city. Our schools are super segregated. There’s obvious disproportionality related to the school to prison pipeline, we have issues everywhere. But certainly in Louisville, we have some interesting residential issues, residentially segregated issues

And so I tell the story, and I’ll tell it to you really quickly, and I don’t have a lot of time, but my son was in public school until last year, and he goes to a highly regarded private school now for his freshman year, in high school. The middle school that he went to was kind of a rougher middle school, but they had a Montessori magnet program, and AP, so he was a part of that. We picked that middle school, because I wanted him to see the world, that the world isn’t middle class, third generation college student, that it doesn’t look like that, right. So I put him in the private school just because it just was smaller, it was just a better fit for him. And the private school’s close to our house. And he, so this was like, maybe a month ago, he was like, me, and his two friends were gonna stay after school and between the basketball game, and they were gonna walk over, there’s like a shopping center, very nice upscale shopping center, across the street from the school. We’re gonna walk over there and go to like five guys and get a burger. 

And I was like, I don’t think that’s a great idea. You know, three 14-15 year olds, six foot tall, Black boys walking around the paddock shops, I don’t think that’s a great idea. And he was like, Well mom, we’ll have KCD everything—that’s what school he goes to—we’ll have KCD everything on, our hoodies, everything will say KCD on it, we’ll be fine. And I paused for the first time in the 14 years of his life, the 14 years that I’ve been a mom, and I thought, he’s probably right. They will know that he goes to, they will know that they go to the private school, and they will think that they are fine. And I said, Wow, this must be how white people get to raise their kids, that they don’t have to worry about how they show up and how they navigate interactions with adults, or how people are going to see them or judge them or perceive them in these predominantly white spaces. And I just was shocked that, how horrible is it that for 14 years I’ve been worried about my kid, worried worried worried, and the difference was that he goes to a fancy private school, and that I probably don’t have to worry about him as long as that happens. 

And so when I tell that story, I’ve told it a couple times. I was on a panel the other week with our new police chief, with the FOP President, and I told that story and I say you know, I get criminal justice. I get what the police are supposed to do. I get the what the police can also change. But I said, At the end of the day, I’m a mom. And you can’t tell me that my lived experiences and my truth is not the truth. And that, that recognition that for 14 years, I never knew what it was like for you all to raise white kids in this city. But I figured it out and I felt it. And I’m jealous. I shouldn’t have to live in this city worried about my children, I should be able to live in the city just like you do. And mic drop. Like, you can’t tell me that that’s not true. 

And so I navigate, what gives me hope is that, I’m a human, but I’m also an academic. So people respect the credentialing. But at the end of the day, if you can respect the credentialing, you better respect my credentials as a mom, because if you can trust my research, then you should be able to trust my truth.

Michele Goodwin  15:47

Oh, wow, what a powerful note to end on. I want to do this again. And I want to be able to do it in front of a broad audience on a stage for folks to be able to hear that because it gives chills, and it makes me think that the very legacies from hundreds of years ago in Kentucky remain, because that’s a story that lingers, right, that the inability to be able to have the confidence in a society that your child will be safe and comfortable. And yet to know that for kids that don’t look like your son, those parents never have to worry about that at all for doing something as simple as wanting to get a hamburger and a milkshake. 

So Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards, Dean, thank you so much for joining me and giving some really important insights on these issues.

Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards 16:44

Thank you for having me.

Michele Goodwin  16:46

Guests and listeners, that’s the rundown. I want to thank my guest, Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards for getting us right to the point and telling it like it is. And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the rundown of “15 Minutes of Feminism” with Michele Goodwin, with “On the Issues.” Join us again for our next episode, where we will roll up our sleeves and hear from guests changing the world. For more information about what we discussed today, head to Msmagazine.com. 

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This has been your host Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “15 Minutes of Feminism with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Mariah Lindsey. We thank Oliver Haug for research assistance and digital assistance. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen and music by Chris J. Lee, And the fabulous Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.