As The Nation Chants Her Name, Breonna Taylor's Family Grieves A Life 'Robbed'

Jun 4, 2020
Originally published on June 5, 2020 1:53 pm

Before she was a hashtag or a headline, before protesters around the country chanted her name, Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old woman who played cards with her aunts and fell asleep watching movies with friends.

That changed on March 13, when police officers executing a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night killed her in her apartment in Louisville, Ky.

Now, as protesters around the country have taken up her name in their call for racial justice and an end to police violence, Taylor's friends and family remember the woman they knew and loved: someone who cared for others and loved singing, playing games, cooking and checking up on friends.

Before the early-morning raid in March, Taylor was a first responder who loved to sneak in a nap before her next shift. She would have turned 27 on Friday.

Known as "Bre" to her friends and family, Taylor moved from Michigan to Louisville when she was a teenager. Much of her large, tightknit, extended family moved around the same time.

One aunt, Bianca Austin, called Taylor her "mini me." An uncle, Tyrone Bell, called her "Breezy."

"She was cool, a cool cat," says another aunt, Tahasha Holloway.

The family regularly spent time together, and Taylor often proposed a round of her favorite card games, Phase 10 and Skip-Bo.

Bianca Austin (left) and Tahasha Holloway, both aunts to Taylor, stand outside Austin's home in Louisville, Ky. They're grateful that Taylor's name and story have become known nationwide. "But we don't want this at all," Austin said. "We want her back."
Becky Sullivan/NPR

The work schedule of an EMT could be grueling; it was especially so in early March as worries about the coronavirus spread.

But those who knew her say Taylor welcomed the opportunity to give back and to make a difference in someone's life.

Friends and family agree that Taylor was attracted to a career in health care because she cared about people. In a Facebook post Taylor made as her uncle recovered from a stroke last year, she wrote:

Working in health care is so rewarding. It makes me feel so happy when I know I've made a difference in someone else's life. I'm so appreciative of all the staff that has helped my uncle throughout this difficult time and those that will continue to make a difference in his life.

She attended Western High School in Louisville, where she met and befriended Erinicka Hunter and Shatanis Vaughn — they were, in their words, "the three amigos."

Like many 20-somethings, Hunter and Taylor drifted apart at times after high school. But Hunter remembers rekindling their friendship last year after she underwent brain surgery. She was recovering in the hospital when Taylor came to visit.

"I'm like, 'Why did we fall out? I don't understand.' And she was like, 'It doesn't matter, Nick. We together again. Don't worry about that. I love you. Just know that,' " Hunter remembers. "It's not right. We was robbed."

Taylor's name has become the foremost emblem of the protests against police violence in Louisville. Her face is painted and chalked throughout the city, including here at Jefferson Square Park in downtown Louisville.
Becky Sullivan/NPR

Taylor's death in March came as a shock to those who knew her.

She and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were at home in her apartment when a team of plainclothes Louisville police officers arrived to execute a no-knock warrant early March 13. According to her family's lawyers, the subject of the investigation was not Taylor, but a man she had dated previously who had once sent a package to her apartment.

When police broke into the apartment, Walker thought they were being robbed, Taylor's lawyers say. A licensed gun owner, he grabbed his weapon and shot an officer in the leg. The officers returned fire, shooting dozens of times, killing Taylor, according to a wrongful death lawsuit by the family. Police arrested Walker, and he was charged with attempted murder of a police officer. Those charges have since been dropped.

"Even in being a prosecutor, I'd never quite seen that many bullets in one apartment," says Lonita Baker, a personal-injury attorney representing Taylor's family. In addition to the lawsuit, the family is also seeking departmental policy changes on body cameras and no-knock warrants.

While sorting through Taylor's belongings, Erinicka Hunter came across this scrapbook page made by Taylor when the two friends were seniors in high school.
Becky Sullivan/NPR

The earliest news stories covering her death didn't mention her name at all, instead focusing on an injury to a police officer and referring to Taylor and Walker as "suspects."

Taylor's family said they felt anger when reading those early stories.

"I probably said more cuss words in that little time than I said throughout my whole life," says Bell, her uncle. "Angry is an understatement."

Austin, her aunt, says she believes that, along with the burgeoning coronavirus outbreak, that this early narrative of Taylor as a "suspect" is why the family had difficulty finding funeral service providers.

Marissa Pantoja, 23, made this protest sign as a tribute to Taylor. "I think the biggest thing that hit home was that she was an essential worker," Pantoja says. "I want to make sure her name is never forgotten."
Becky Sullivan/NPR

Now, two months later, most of the nation knows Taylor's story. Thousands of protesters across the country demonstrating against police violence chant her name along with George Floyd's. In Louisville, Taylor takes center stage literally – with a mural of her smiling face drawn in chalk in downtown's Jefferson Square Park.

The family says it lifts them up to know her story is being heard — but also makes it harder to grieve.

"Every time I see her, or someone says her name, I cry. I break down," says Vaughn, Taylor's high school friend. "They really supporting you [Taylor] now. Everybody knows your story. You're going to be heard finally."

Austin says Taylor's family is "grateful that her name is where she should be."

"But we don't want this at all," she continues. "We want her back. I would rather just go back in time."

For what would have been Taylor's 27th birthday, friends and family have planned a public celebration of her life Saturday in downtown Louisville. They plan to release balloons and butterflies, and they are expecting a large crowd.

"I'm praying to God," Austin says. "We need real change in America. I've got to still raise a little black boy here in the world we live in. ... Nobody's safe. If this can happen to Breonna, it can happen to anybody."

Taylor's friend Hunter says, "She always said that she would be a legend. I just never imagined it would be like this."

Sarah Handel edited the audio story. Maureen Pao edited the Web story.

Correction: 6/04/20

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Breonna Taylor's boyfriend as Kenneth Taylor. His name is Kenneth Walker.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO (HOST): Before she was a hashtag or a headline, before protesters around the country chanted say her name, Breonna Taylor was someone who played cards with her aunts and fell asleep watching movies with friends. In March, police officers executing a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night killed her in her own apartment.

Now we're going to look at who Breonna Taylor was before she became a symbol of police violence by talking with some of the people who knew her best.

BIANCA AUSTIN (AUNT OF BREONNA TAYLOR): That's my little Mini Me.

SHAPIRO: Your little Mini Me? Is that what you call her? (Laughter).

AUSTIN: I said Tamika had her but that she was all mine.

TAHASHA HOLLOWAY (AUNT OF BREONNA TAYLOR): Aw.

SHAPIRO: Breonna's aunt, Bianca Austin, invited us to her home, along with another aunt, Tahasha Holloway, and an uncle, Tyrone Bell.

TYRONE BELL (UNCLE OF BREONNA TAYLOR): I called her Breezy (ph).

HOLLOWAY: He called her Breezy.

AUSTIN: Breezy (laughter).

HOLLOWAY: She's cool. She's a cool cat.

SHAPIRO: And we also visited two of her best friends since high school - Erinicka Hunter and Shatanis Vaughn.

SHATANIS VAUGHN (FRIEND OF BREONNA TAYLOR): We met Breonna sophomore year.

ERINICKA HUNTER (FRIEND OF BREONNA TAYLOR): Well, I met Breonna through you.

VAUGHN: Yeah. So...

HUNTER: She introduced us.

VAUGHN: So was it me, then her. And we've been inseparable ever since.

HUNTER: Yeah, three amigos (laughter).

VAUGHN: That's what we called ourselves, the three amigos, literally.

SHAPIRO: And collectively, her friends and family gave us the unvarnished picture of Breonna.

AUSTIN: The laugh - her laugh and her voice. She's got, like, this, baby, whiney kind of voice. Like, she's like...

HOLLOWAY: Oh, my goodness.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLLOWAY: You all don't know. You all don't understand. Like - (laughter).

AUSTIN: So you definitely know, like, when we mock her, like, you'll know who it was if you knew her.

SHAPIRO: Breonna Taylor loved old music from the '80s and '90s, card games with family.

HOLLOWAY: Let's play some Phase 10 and listen to some music.

SHAPIRO: OK, what was her favorite game?

HOLLOWAY: Skip-Bo or Phase 10.

AUSTIN: Skip-Bo and Phase 10.

SHAPIRO: And singing.

HOLLOWAY: (Unintelligible) Oh, she's going to sing that to the top of her lungs, like...

SHAPIRO: Oh, so she liked to sing?

AUSTIN: She liked to.

(LAUGHTER)

VAUGHN: She liked to. She couldn't.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Her friends told us the same thing about her cooking. She loved to do it, but...

HUNTER: She couldn't cook.

SHAPIRO: She couldn't cook? She...

HUNTER: No.

VAUGHN: Yes, she could cook.

HUNTER: She could fry food.

VAUGHN: That's cooking.

HUNTER: Oh, see? She can't cook either.

VAUGHN: I can cook a little bit. Her favorite food was chicken.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

VAUGHN: She fried some good chicken.

HUNTER: Yeah, she did fry some chicken.

VAUGHN: But that's it.

SHAPIRO: Like I said, this is the unvarnished picture. A lot of Breonna Taylor's extended family moved from Michigan to Kentucky - a few at a time over the years. She came to Louisville as a teenager and fit right in.

AUSTIN: Breonna loved it.

HOLLOWAY: Loved it here. Oh, she absolutely...

AUSTIN: To this day, she loved it in Louisville, Ky., yes.

HOLLOWAY: She absolutely loved it here - like, everything about it.

SHAPIRO: When did you first know that she wanted to go into medical work and help people?

VAUGHN: I think...

AUSTIN: She's always had a caring heart. It was just in her nature to just take care of people.

BELL: I got this Facebook post that she made for me last year when I had a stroke. And I don't know, it just, like, I saved it and everything. Like, it just really...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What does it say?

BELL: ...Touched me. But she said working in health care is so rewarding. It makes me feel so happy when I know I've made a difference in someone else's life. I'm so appreciative of all the staff that has helped my uncle throughout this difficult time and those that will continue to make a difference in his life. Keep pushing, T-Bill (ph). You got this, Unc. With that attitude and determination, I'm positive you will recover in no time. We love you. And it's just...

SHAPIRO: That says so much about her.

BELL: Right. It do. It says a lot about her. Like, and that's her. Like, that's her all the way.

SHAPIRO: Last year her friend Erinika Hunter had brain surgery. She and Breonna had drifted apart at that point, and Breonna showed up at the hospital to reminisce with her about old times.

HUNTER: And - oh, gosh, this is hard. And I'm like, well, why did we fall out? I don't understand. She was like, it doesn't matter, Ni (ph). We together again, you know? Don't worry about that. I love you. Just know that we're here. You here.

VAUGHN: Yep. That's the type of person she was.

HUNTER: But she's not here. She's not here at all. And it's not right. I feel like we was robbed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Neighbors near PRP say they woke up to chaos, sounds of breaking glass, gunshots and sirens.

SHAPIRO: Today, we know the outlines of how Breonna Taylor died. Police doing a narcotics investigation burst into her apartment in the middle of the night with a no-knock warrant. Her boyfriend Kenneth Walker thought someone was breaking in and shot an officer in the leg. Police shot up the apartment, killing Breonna. They arrested her boyfriend. There was no body cam footage. Kenneth has since been released and the charges against him dropped.

When all that first happened in mid-March, the initial news reports told only one side of the story, referring to Breonna Taylor and Kenneth Walker only as suspects. This was from the local NBC affiliate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Video of a deadly exchange of gunfire that happened between officers and suspects early this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: One suspect is dead. An officer is recovering after...

SHAPIRO: And when her family saw those stories...

AUSTIN: I was angry. I was so angry. Oh, my gosh.

HOLLOWAY: It still pisses me off. Just - suspect? Like, seriously? Unbelievable.

BELL: When I read that article, I probably said more cuss words in that little time then I said throughout my whole life (laughter). Like, angry is an understatement. Like, that is an understatement.

SHAPIRO: They think this first narrative of Breonna as a suspect could be one reason, on top of COVID-19, that most of the mortuaries they called refused to take her.

AUSTIN: You know, that was part of the reason, like, people were turning us away. Like, you know, we're calling these churches and, you know, mortuaries. And they're like, is this the young lady - this is the incident, you know, that they - and I'm like, you know, yes. And - oh, we'll get back with you and stuff like that. It was just - it was unbelievable.

HOLLOWAY: And they didn't even know her name.

SHAPIRO: Attorney Lonita Baker has been representing the family since even before Breonna Taylor's funeral. She's a personal injury lawyer who used to work as a prosecutor. The family hired her to file a suit against the police, and they're also pushing for policy changes around body cams and no-knock warrants. She went to Breonna's apartment as soon as she was allowed to.

LONITA BAKER (LAWYER): Even in being a prosecutor, I had never quite seen that many bullets in one apartment. To know and to see that bullets went through neighboring apartments as well, afterwards in talking to Kenny, when he told me where he was - and he was laying on the floor right next to Breonna - it's only a supreme being that - a supreme reason that he's still alive and able to talk to us about it. And I do think that that reason is that we needed someone to tell us the story of what happened so that we can get the change that is needed.

SHAPIRO: So when protesters today say her name, Breonna's family and friends say they feel lifted up. At the same time, they have complicated feelings about the person they love becoming a larger-than-life figure in death.

Is it weird to share your best friend with millions of people you've never met?

HUNTER: Yes.

VAUGHN: Yes. It makes me jealous a little bit.

HUNTER: Like, you don't even know her.

VAUGHN: Seriously. Like...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HUNTER: But it's wonderful. It's a blessing all in the same. Like, thank you for, you know, acknowledging her and, you know, and loving her just off of what you think. But I actually knew her, you know?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Let's make that clear.

HUNTER: And she blessed my life. You don't know.

SHAPIRO: Breonna's aunts and uncle are still wrapping their heads around the fact that their niece, who they have known her whole life, is now a symbol - a hashtag.

HOLLOWAY: Never would think that her name would be added to a list...

AUSTIN: Or hashtag.

HOLLOWAY: ...Or hashtag. Or, you know, now you write and say her name. You just think, like, how? Like, why is she even part of this? How does this happen?

AUSTIN: And in a sense, we're grateful that her name is where she should be. You know, unfortunately in this situation, but, you know, we don't want this at all. We want her back. Like, I'd rather just go back in time. Like, just crazy.

SHAPIRO: Do you think something good will come of this?

AUSTIN: I hope so. I'm praying to God. I said, we need real change in America because it's scary. Like, I got to still raise a little black boy here in this world we live in. Anybody - nobody's safe. If this can happen to Breonna, it can happen to anybody.

SHAPIRO: Erinicka Hunter was going through Breonna's things after her death and found something she hadn't seen in years - a scrapbook page that Breonna made in high school memorializing their friendship.

HUNTER: This is our senior page from our scrapbook.

SHAPIRO: It's the two of you in, like, a bunch of different photos together. And then what does it say here in the corner?

HUNTER: Erinicka is like the sister the same age as me that I've always wanted. She is the one who is always there right beside me when I need her.

SHAPIRO: Erinicka sets the page and the tiny urn with some of Breonna's ashes next to each other on her kitchen table.

HUNTER: Yeah, those are her ashes. I know people think I'm so weird because, like, sometimes when I need a drink, I sit down, prop it up just like this. And I talk to her. I talk to her ashes.

SHAPIRO: Across town, there's another image of Breonna. It's a portrait drawn in chalk at the center of the protest in downtown Louisville. People gather in a circle around it, chanting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Say her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Breonna Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Say her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Breonna Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Say her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Breonna Taylor.

HUNTER: She always said this she would be a legend. I just never imagined that it would be like this.

SHAPIRO: Is that true? She said that?

HUNTER: Yeah. I'm going to be one of the greats. I'm going to be a legend. You all are going to remember me (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow would have been Breonna Taylor's 27th birthday. Her family and friends are going to get together for a barbecue. And then on Saturday, hundreds of people, maybe thousands, will gather for a larger birthday celebration here in Louisville, releasing balloons and butterflies in memory of the woman they never met.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "A BLESSING")

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