PORTLAND, Maine — A simmering nationwide racial justice movement was reawakened Wednesday after a Kentucky grand jury failed to indict three police officers for murder for the March 13 death of Breonna Taylor.
The ruling reinvigorated the fight for racial justice in Louisville and dozens of other U.S. cities, as thousands took to the streets in protest. Roughly 50 people gathered near the police precinct in Portland Wednesday, where several rallies convened earlier this summer as part of a national civil rights uprising sparked by the police killings of Taylor and George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died of asphyxiation after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes.
In Portland, advocates plan to convene again Saturday afternoon, the latest in an ongoing series of rallies held by a loosely organized set of citizens opposing racism and police violence — sometimes rallying under the Black Lives Matter banner — since late May.
“Breonna Taylor should be alive today,” said Alison Beyea, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Every decision — from a judge’s decision to issue a no-knock warrant to the Kentucky Attorney General’s decision not to charge any of the police officers with a crime directly related to Breonna Taylor’s death — has illustrated how the legal system recklessly disregards Black lives and the safety of Black communities.”
Taylor, a 26-year-old Black ER tech worker, was asleep in her Louisville apartment when three officers entered in a botched no-knock warrant raid at 12:40 a.m. Officer Brett Hankison, a detective at the time, reportedly fired into the sliding glass patio door and window of Taylor’s apartment, both of which were covered with blinds, in violation of a department policy that requires officers to have a line of sight. Hankison was charged with three felony counts of wanton endangerment for firing rounds into the walls of the apartment building, but was not charged for shooting Taylor. Six Louisville police officers at the scene are reportedly under internal investigation, and two were cleared of wrongdoing by the grand jury.
Ali Ali, an activist and policy assistant with the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service, said the verdict in Taylor’s case was “difficult” and reflected “a level of white supremacy.”
It’s as though “the value of a person of color’s life is less,” Ali said.
Ali linked the incident to a failed “War on Drugs” that has resulted in broad overcriminalization of nonviolent drug crimes that have targeted Black Americans, resulting in mass incarceration rates that are unparalleled by any other country.
To Ali, “drugs are the underlying reason” why Taylor was killed, and the objective to find the perpetrators with drugs is why the officers were not charged for her death.
The three officers entered Taylor’s home using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation. After being awakened by loud banging at the door, breaking it off its hinges, Taylor’s boyfriend reportedly fired a warning shot, mistaking police for intruders. The warrant used to search her home was connected to a suspect who did not live there, and who police had reportedly already located. No drugs were found inside Taylor’s home. The use of no-knock warrants has since been banned by Louisville’s Metro Council.
The decision in Taylor’s case called attention once again to a legal loophole known as “qualified immunity,” a doctrine which shields police officers from civil lawsuits when operating in gray areas, including those that involve police wrongdoing and violations of constitutional rights.
Beyea called the loophole “unacceptable,” and said it sets an unreasonably low standard for justifying use of force. She described it as “one reason police are emboldened to use excessive force without fear of repercussions.”
“Qualified immunity essentially allows police officers to kill Black people with impunity. Abolishing qualified immunity is part of the move to divest from police and invest in communities,” Beyea said.
Qualified immunity is a relatively new legal doctrine. It has roots in the Civil Rights Act of 1871 — also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act — which offered a legal recourse to hold police officers accountable when they participated in racial violence.
Roughly 100 years later, the Supreme Court introduced the doctrine of qualified immunity to limit that recourse. In 1961, police officers in Mississippi arrested several Black clergy and charged them with “breaching the peace” for using a segregated bus stop, an action that was later ruled unconstitutional. The 1967 case Pierson v. Ray instituted the doctrine of qualified immunity to shield the police from legal recourse, arguing that police should not be punished for acting in good faith in what they determined to be a legal gray area.
Hankinson was fired by the Louisville Metro Police Department, who said he displayed “an extreme indifference to the value of human life” in firing 10 rounds in Taylor’s apartment. The two other officers were placed on administrative leave.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency there this week, citing the potential for “civil unrest” following the grand jury decision. Fischer has ordered a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. through Friday. Protests surged through Louisville Wednesday night, and a 26-year-old man was arrested for shooting two police officers. Both officers are reportedly “doing well” and are expected to recover from injuries.
The movement for racial justice in Maine has moved on several fronts. Rallies here have gathered anywhere from a few dozen to more than 2,000 people since May. A recent protest scheduled for early September was canceled after organizers were targeted with an overwhelming number of threats of violence, vigilantism and racist comments, some coming from elected officials.
Among policy reforms, one group of anti-racist activists has called for the elimination of the city manager position, an effort which requires amending the city charter, which citizens voted to reopen in a referendum vote this summer.
The movement has gained other wins too. The Portland school board voted to remove police officers from two of its public high schools this summer, citing research from USM’s Muskie School that found Black and other students of color were several times more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts. City councilors voted to ban the use of facial recognition software in Portland, citing research that found its surveillance technology disproportionately misidentified Black, indigenous and other people of color.
“The national uprising is giving energy and ideas to the local levels,” said Ali, who was appointed by Mayor Kate Snyder to the city’s racial equity committee this month.
The ACLU worked to ban school resource officers and facial recognition software in Portland for more than a year, Beyea said, “but it took the power and organizing of BLM for our local officials to finally act.”
An independent racial equity committee was also convened by the city council to study police conduct in Portland, including reviewing police actions in quelling a protest during the late hours of June 1, when 22 were arrested for not dispersing.
Requests for comment from Portland Police Chief Frank Clark, Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck and two groups who have organized Black Lives Matter rallies in Portland were not returned Thursday.
While the aftershocks of the grand jury decision from Breonna Taylor’s case are still in motion, the nationwide movement has illustrated the need to reimagine institutions like Maine’s criminal justice system to prevent them from perpetuating racist outcomes, said Ryun Anderson, executive director of the Restorative Justice Institute.
“A system that protects police and kills and dehumanizes Black lives should not exist in any form, and this system always has had these two functions,” Anderson said.
“Black Lives Matter, and Mainers are having to ask ourselves if our anti-racism includes defunding police and investing in reparations and community resources. If it doesn’t, we have missed the point.”