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How Breonna Taylor's Police Killing Changed Louisville

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police officers a year ago tomorrow. Officers were serving what's called a no-knock search warrant when they burst into her apartment in the middle of the night. The 26-year-old ER technician and her boyfriend were inside. Taylor's boyfriend fired once at officers, believing them to be intruders. When officers returned fire, Breonna Taylor was shot five times and killed. Her killing has forever changed the city of Louisville and the people who live there, especially Black girls and young women.

Jess Clark of member station WFPL has more.

JESS CLARK, BYLINE: It was Breonna Taylor's Twitter account that first struck Skylar Wooden. Wooden was a junior at Central High School in Louisville then. After hearing about Taylor's death, she found her tweets and started scrolling.

SKYLAR WOODEN: I just feel like we know so many Breonnas, like, just the, like, music she listened to, the way she interacted with people. It was just all so reminiscent of the people who I was walking the halls with every day.

NABOU DIALLO: She was a normal person. I kept saying, like, I could have passed her as I was walking down the street.

CLARK: That's Nabou Diallo. She and Wooden are friends and classmates. When Taylor was killed in March, local media didn't pay much attention. Diallo didn't find out until May on social media when news broke of another high-profile police killing in Minneapolis.

DIALLO: As soon as I'm reading about what happened to her and the stuff about George Floyd is on the news, it was just a lot coming at once.

CLARK: Wooden started thinking back.

WOODEN: With Breonna Taylor, it instantly made me, like, replay every interaction I've ever had with the police in Louisville.

CLARK: Career days, festivals - police march in the Kentucky Derby parade. Now Wooden was asking herself, had she waved at one of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor?

WOODEN: It changed how - the whole narrative of, like, police are supposed to protect us and serve us. I definitely just don't feel that anymore. I know as a kid, I was always quick to, like, dial 911 the second I saw anything suspicious. And my family would be like, Skylar, you got to stop. You - I never understood why it was, like, such a problem. And now I, like, get it.

CLARK: For Diallo, it was different. She says she was already nervous around police before Breonna Taylor's death. But the killing made her more afraid. In June, after days of mass protests against the police department, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer put the city under a curfew. But Diallo's dad works into the evening.

DIALLO: So he had to come pick us up. And on our way home, we got pulled over. And I was, like, shaking the whole time.

CLARK: Diallo says the officer was polite. He told them it was past curfew and they had to go home. But she was terrified knowing what happened to Taylor, who police shot and killed in her apartment.

DIALLO: It just makes me feel like no matter what I do - like, even if I'm in the comfort of my own house, I'm just minding my business, like, I'm not safe from being killed.

CLARK: One thing that makes Breonna Taylor's death so disturbing to Black teenage girls and young women in Louisville is that it forces them to grapple with the idea that their future is uncertain. Breonna Taylor had a scrapbook in high school. On one page, she wrote that she wanted to be the first in her family to graduate on time. And she did it. She got a good job. She was saving up for a house. She did the things society says will propel young Black women into the American dream. But it didn't save her.

JOLEEN GIMA: She didn't see this coming, you know, her way. She didn't see her death happening.

CLARK: That's Joleen Gima, a junior at Doss High School in Louisville. Gima is super involved at school. She's the president of the Doss Black Student Union and wants to go to Howard University. Like Breonna Taylor, she has plans.

GIMA: Going to college, making sure that I make it to Howard - and it's so scary because these goals that I set for myself, I don't know if I'll be able to reach them.

CLARK: For Gima, the other scary part is the lack of justice the legal system delivered to Breonna Taylor. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron recommended charges against just one officer for shooting not into Taylor's apartment, but a neighbor's, a white family. Gima was in a virtual social studies class when her teacher told them the news.

GIMA: I asked, you know, is there a way that it could be reversed? Is there a way that they could take that back? - because that's not it. That's not it.

CLARK: The case has inspired Gima to think about a career in law to make the justice system more just. Gima will be a senior next year. Wooden is finishing her senior year. She wants to be a filmmaker and tell stories about the Black experience. And she's looking at a university in Florida.

WOODEN: I just need a break from, like, the tensions in Louisville.

CLARK: Wooden is saving up for college working at a hamburger joint.

WOODEN: Every time an officer comes in, it's just, like - I don't know. It's just this weird, like, energy.

CLARK: For Diallo, Wooden's friend at Central High School, Breonna Taylor's death reignited her drive to fight racism after a couple of years of feeling worn out. Hearing about killing after killing had started to make her feel tired and then numb. Breonna Taylor was so close to home, she couldn't ignore it.

DIALLO: It kind of rerouted my focus. It kind of made me passionate to talk about that stuff again.

CLARK: Diallo is also a senior now and hopes to attend Fisk University in Nashville next year. Like Gima, she's considering a career in law or maybe teaching. For some students, Breonna's Taylor's death has sparked an internal search for healing, for preservation of spirit.

Kyonia Dow provides mental health services for Doss High School. She helps many Black high schoolers through the emotions and fear associated with Taylor's killing.

KYONIA DOW: For one of those students, their goal was to be comfortable being in the world.

CLARK: Dow says, this isn't something that will happen in one school year. But she's helping the student get a strong start.

DOW: Will this be a struggle? Will something else happen that might push you two steps back where you've come one step forward? You know what I'm saying? Yes. But it's about providing those tools to you so you're able to push through it.

CLARK: Dow is working on this herself. She's Black and the exact same age Breonna Taylor would be today if she were still alive - 27. One thing Dow says her students seek out is action.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

CLARK: Wooden says protesting gave her a sense of hope. She and Diallo went to a Juneteenth protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) From day to day...

WOODEN: It was a celebration. And even though it was, like, sadness, we were all still, like, community and very strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) His power.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: His power, y'all.

(CHEERING)

CLARK: Protests have become smaller and less frequent since last summer. Diallo worries people are losing interest in the movement for Black lives. She doesn't want it to be a fad. And she wants people to remember what happened to Breonna Taylor.

DIALLO: It was a life. Like, she's not a symbol. Like, she was a person.

CLARK: And now, Diallo says, that person is gone.

For NPR News, I'm Jess Clark in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH, THE ILLSTRUMENTALIST'S "SIRIUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.