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'Couldn't possibly be silent': These women are carrying the torch for Breonna Taylor

In Kentucky, Black women stepped up to organize rallies, press officials and draft policy. But above all, they emphasized the message that Black women are not an afterthought
Tamika Palmer in Louisville, Ky., on March 8, 2021.
Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor's mother, in Louisville, Ky., on Monday.Andrew Cenci / for NBC News

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One year ago, Breonna Taylor, 26, an emergency room technician, was shot and killed in her home by Louisville Metro Police officers who were serving a "no-knock" search warrant.

The shooting provoked a national outcry. No charges were brought in direct connection with Taylor's death; still, she has become one of the few Black women whose deaths have been flashpoints in the racial justice movement. In Louisville, Black women stepped up to lead the fight, organizing rallies, applying pressure to officials and drafting legislation. But above all, they emphasized the message that Black women are not an afterthought.

"It has given a lot of women a voice who didn't realize they had one or didn't know how to use it," said Tamika Palmer, Taylor's mother. "To see so many women become part of something and stand up and not feel ashamed or powerless because they're women — that's a blessing, and Breonna would've loved to see it."

As demonstrations erupted across Louisville in late May, state Rep. Attica Scott, a Democrat and one of just two Black women in the Legislature, joined her constituents and marched through the streets demanding answers in Taylor's death and an end to aggressive policing.

Rep. Attica Scott in Louisville, Ky., on March 6.Andrew Cenci / for NBC News

"I have a responsibility to the people that I represent. ... I certainly will not leave my constituents without any elected official walking alongside them in this movement," Scott said.

Since May, she said, she has attended over 100 marches and rallies related to racial justice and Taylor. In September, Scott and her daughter Ashanti Scott were arrested while protesting the grand jury's decision.

Scott initially was charged with felony rioting, failure to disperse and unlawful assembly; the charges were dropped later. She said the arrest was traumatic, but she continued to show up at demonstrations to seek justice for Taylor.

Since last year, Scott has been pushing a statewide version of Breonna's Law, which, she said, is an effort to "answer the protesters' calls for police reform."

"I'm a mom of Black children, and I didn't want any other mother to experience the pain Tamika Palmer is feeling," Scott said. "I couldn't possibly be silent and let down my own children and community."

The bill would ban no-knock search warrants statewide and require officers to activate their body cameras when serving warrants. Police officers would also have to undergo mandatory drug and alcohol testing if they were involved in deadly incidents or discharged their firearms.

The Legislature is moving forward with a Republican-sponsored bill to limit no-knock search warrants to potentially violent cases, not Scott's version. Scott said she is working with her Republican colleagues to help "prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again."

"Kentucky still has a lot to reckon with" when it comes to the treatment of Black women, Scott said, adding that the state "needs to ask itself what are you doing for the lives of Black women to make sure they are safe."

Keturah Herron.Andrew Cenci / for NBC News

Keturah Herron, 40, a policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said she felt hopeless after she learned that Taylor was shot to death. While activists gathered to organize protests, Herron decided to take on the tool that allowed police to enter Taylor's apartment: no-knock search warrants.

Louisville police Lt. Ted Eidem said officers knocked several times and "announced their presence as police who were there with a search warrant." After they entered the premises, they were met by gunfire, Eidem said.

However, Kenneth Walker, Taylor's boyfriend, has said he did not hear police identify themselves and feared that someone was breaking in. He called 911, grabbed a gun and fired, striking an officer in the leg. He had a license to carry and kept firearms in the home. Taylor was unarmed.

Herron helped draft Louisville's Breonna's Law ordinance, and in June, the City Council unanimously passed a ban on no-knock search warrants. Shortly afterward, Mayor Greg Fischer signed the measure, which immediately took effect.

"It was the right thing for me to do, and it was the only thing for me to do," Herron said. "I am proud of this legislation, but I also feel sad that it had to be on the back of a Black woman that we were able to accomplish something."

Breonna's Law has inspired legislation and policy changes throughout the country. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill in June to end no-knock search warrants. In July, police departments in Indianapolis and Orlando, Florida, announced that they would ban such practices. In December, Breonna's Law was passed in Virginia, making it the first state to pass it since Taylor died.

"We as a society need to recognize and understand that women's voices are needed, and we must listen to women, specifically Black women," Herron said.

Hannah Drake.Andrew Cenci / for NBC News

Hannah Drake, 44, a poet and writer, refused to stay silent, and she has been fighting for Taylor since her death. Early on, Drake helped elevate Taylor's story by sharing information about the case on social media, but her concerns gained little traction.

"Breonna Taylor had two things working against her," Drake said: "She was Black, and she was a woman."

Drake said that once Taylor's case got national attention, it was "important for people to shout 'say her name' and attach her name to the movement," because Black women affected by police brutality are often overlooked.

Drake, a regular at the Louisville protests, was known for standing in front of large crowds, microphone in hand, reciting poems that empowered many and called out discrimination, bigotry and inequality in America. Over the summer, Drake said, she delivered her 2016 poem "Formation" at countless rallies.

"The poem describes the history of racism, police brutality and what has happened to Black people ... and at the end of the piece, I added the line 'this is for Breonna Taylor's assassination,' because that's what happened to her," she said.

Drake said she is proud of the progress the movement has made, but she warned that it would be "wrong to start patting ourselves on the back."

"The city has not looked at the trauma that Black people have felt. ... We have been tear-gassed and had assault rifles pointed at us in a city where we live and will likely die," Drake said. "This is not a time of celebration. This is a time of seriousness, because there was no justice."

After a year without her daughter, Palmer is still calling for accountability.

"A lot of people may think that it's been a year, so it should be a little easier, but that's not the case," Palmer said. "For me, every day is March 13."