America kicked in her door

Kentucky State Representative Charles Booker on the death and life of Breonna Taylor

Breonna Taylor was murdered in her own home in a police raid befitting the invasion of a small country. And yesterday, six months after that murder, a grand jury in Jefferson County, Kentucky, charged one of the officers involved on three counts of “wanton endangerment.” Wanton endangerment.

Not long before that news, I spoke to Charles Booker, a Kentucky state representative, a former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, and a family friend of Breonna Taylor. He reflected on the meaning of the arc of her life and death and on his new project trying to draw “forgotten” Black Americans and “forgotten” white Americans into political coalition. In his trademark way, he even managed to reach for some hope. Yesterday, after the charges, or lack of them, were announced, he said:

Justice failed us today, but our resolve as a Commonwealth is unwavering. Together, we will do the work. Together, we will honor Breonna Taylor.

I am standing for our home, our lives, and our future.

Say her name.

The arc of her life

ANAND: Since Breonna Taylor's murder, there has been a great deal of reporting, particularly a New York Times piece by Rukmini Callimachi that dug into her life and the systemic problems in our society that bore on her life. Being from her community, you probably know even more. What have you learned about her life and death? And what do you think it tells us about the state of America in 2020?

CHARLES: The powerful thing about Breonna, in her life and her death, is that she is telling the story of structural inequity, the story of generational poverty, of criminalization. The arc of her life shows her overcoming adversity as a young Black lady trying to advance her career in the face of folks who don't want to give her a chance because of where she's from, her name's pronunciation, whom she's related to. It showed the dynamic of lack of investment in communities, and the criminalization of communities that ultimately led to a justice system trying to crack down, to the benefit of development in cities. All of this led to her door being kicked in. 

I think you need stories like this to help shine the light more broadly. Breonna Taylor was good friends with my family. Being able to see her as a human being that was doing the best she could, connected to people that felt like they didn't have any options. And then, facing the brunt of the justice system that saw her as a deadly weapon before seeing her as a human being. All of that is on full display. And it happened in her home. 

I think that has created this atmosphere that allows more people to see themselves in this, and therefore be outraged by it. Communities in Eastern Kentucky that are 99 percent white are yelling Breonna Taylor's name because they can see themselves connected to it. That is a new opportunity for us to build a coalition that can solve some of these deep-rooted problems. But we're still dealing with the grief, and we're still mourning. We're still carrying that trauma, because we know that tomorrow, Breonna could be my daughter. And I think because of that, we have a sense of urgency, something like I haven't seen in my lifetime. 

ANAND: In June, you spoke at a Black Lives Matter protest in Estill County, which is more than 90 percent white. There's a lot of fear right now that this moment of the revolutionary summer will pass, and it'll be back to where we always are. But there are also these moments of optimism. You have people asking, Are we heading into a new Reconstruction? Is there an anti-racist majority for the first time in American history? I wonder where you land on the question of how special this moment is. How much has Black Lives Matter achieved in terms of changing the politics of this country? 

CHARLES: I am overwhelmed with hope. I think when you're in these types of moments, and I define this as one of those moments where you can see history -- herstory, their story, our story -- you can see it taking shape in real-time, it gives us the chance to fall further behind if we don't acknowledge the potential now in all of this pain being put front and center.

But we could also really shake up the system because I think people are in a position to receive and understand that change is needed. And if we honor it, this can be the moment where we do win a Medicare for All, and where we grapple with reparations and not leave it on the fringes of our conversations. 

It's been more than 100 days since the news broke about Breonna Taylor. And people have not gone home yet. The Derby happened recently, and thousands of people were marching. Many of us don't want things to go back to the way things are, because that still means that our doors are being kicked in and we're being thrown out on the streets, we're not affording our rents and we're not affording our prescriptions.

ANAND: After losing the U.S. Senate primary to Amy McGrath, in July you launched an organization called Hood to the Holler. What struck me was just the phrase itself -- the “hood” speaking of mostly Black and brown urban communities in your state, the “holler” referring to rural, mostly white places. It feels so countercultural in this moment, because it acknowledges that we live differently from one another and that we are different and that we live in different places and that we are separated from each other in many ways, and yet that there's the possibility of common purpose. Can you unpack that phrase to me, and how it speaks to what you're trying to build? 

CHARLES: “Hood to the Holler” was a rallying cry during my run for U.S. Senate. It was a powerful declaration of these communities that, in large measure, are separate and distinct. And although they do have a lot of differences, there are so many common bonds. These places are, in many respects, the forgotten places.

ANAND: There is so much messaging out there trying to tell the proverbial hood and the proverbial holler that each is the other’s problem. How do you tell a story that goes the other way?

CHARLES: Everywhere I went, I went there as a young Black man from the hood. I told my story as a young Black man from the hood. But I also listened to their stories.

We didn't play into the typical political narrative that folks like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump would want us to grapple with. We talked about healthcare from the standpoint of rationing insulin and not being able to afford prescriptions and losing loved ones. When you can humanize these issues, put a face and a story on it, it's easier to build coalitions. So that's essentially what Hood to the Holler is going to do.

ANAND: I understand the possibility of such a coalition when it's healthcare that is top of mind for people. That a poor white person in Kentucky and a person of color from an inner-city neighborhood may find common cause in rich and powerful people making sure they don't have healthcare.

But when you have a large group of white people in this country who have been convinced that the changing demographics of the country, the turning of the tables, the ascendancy of people of color -- that this is the threat to their livelihood, their way of life, their culture, how do you speak to them?

CHARLES: One of the most powerful things that we can't minimize is the value of showing up. A big part of the work is showing up and providing another narrative. Just letting people know another narrative exists. This is the work of giving people the chance to choose a different story and choose a different endpoint in their politics. When you speak to issues from a very personal place, it's really hard to refute it.

Yeah, healthcare is very obvious. But when you dig into, for instance, the declining coal industry, we don't have coal jobs in the hood where I'm from, but we definitely have had industries leave, and we've been abandoned. In talking to that trauma and those real experiences, you're able to build connections across these divides.

Charles Booker is a state representative from Kentucky and a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. He is the founder of the new political organization Hood to the Holler.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


Photo: Agustin Paullier/Getty