DALLAS (AP) — When a black motorist was fatally shot last year by a Minnesota police officer, the killing hit home for Shetamia Taylor, then 38 and a mother of four sons in suburban Dallas.
Philando Castile had been killed outside St. Paul, near where Taylor, who is also black, spent her teens and 20s and where her 15-year-old son still lived with his dad. She decided to take her children to a protest march in downtown Dallas the following night.
As the demonstration was ending on July 7, 2016, a sniper opened fire amid the protesters, killing five law enforcement officers. One of the bullets struck Taylor, shattering her right shinbone, and officers quickly shielded her from more incoming rounds.
A year later, her wound has largely healed, but the trauma inflicted on Taylor’s family still lingers. She hopes her experience as a black woman whose life was saved by police at a Black Lives Matter protest helps bridge the racial gap that separates many police officers and black Americans.
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“A lot of officers are carrying this fear like, ‘They’re going to try to kill me.’ And young black men are like, ‘They ain’t going to do nothing but shoot me anyway.’ We’ve got to try to listen and understand,” Taylor said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
On the evening of the protest, the crowd swelled to an estimated 1,500 people, and some were openly carrying legal firearms. Demonstrators walked peacefully through the streets near El Centro College, with Dallas officers watching over the event. As twilight fell, the first shot rang out.
Police Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, a white former semi-pro football player, turned to Taylor. “He’s got a gun! Run!” she recalled him saying.
But as she turned, she felt a sharp, hot pain. She tackled her son Andrew, stretching out her 6-foot-frame to shield him. Officers quickly formed a wall around them as bullets flew and ricocheted off the wall of a parking garage. Taylor watched Ahrens get shot and his 300-pound body collapse in the street. He died later in the hospital.
Andrew, covered in his mother’s blood, pleaded with police: “Don’t let my mom die! Get my mom out of here!”
“And I’m telling him, ‘Calm down. I’m all right,’ not knowing how much blood I had lost,” Taylor said.
Her three other sons had scattered. It was hours before she knew whether they were alive or dead. Just before entering surgery, Andrew told her his brothers were safe.
“Oh, the praise I gave,” said Taylor, a Southern Baptist. “I was really loud: ‘Glory to God! Thank you, Jesus!'”
But as she gave thanks, she could see two officers embracing nearby as one told the other, “Ren didn’t make it,” referring to Corporal Ahrens. “And I’m torn between my jubilation and their pain from an officer, a brother’s life being taken.”
Four days later, Taylor left the hospital in a wheelchair, her right shinbone held together with a metal plate and a dozen screws. For three months, she was confined to the first floor of the family’s duplex in suburban Garland.
Unable to work and without medical insurance, Taylor’s three sisters created a GoFundMe page. After fees, she netted about $10,000 for house and car payments. A federal fund for crime victims covered some of her hospital bills. She still owes about $5,500 for physical rehab and psychiatric care.
As she healed, she kept her kids “on lockdown.”
“I told my 12-year-old son, ‘No, you can’t go outside.’ It wasn’t right, but the somebody’s-out-to-get-me feeling was so intense,” she said.
Taylor met weekly with a therapist, but fear still kept her awake at night.
“I started seeing myself drinking more, just to get to sleep,” she said. “I don’t really go anywhere like I used to. I have a problem with crowds. I feel you can’t trust them. I hate that.”
Kavion Washington, 19, Taylor’s eldest son and an incoming sophomore at the University of Arkansas, initially felt galvanized by the shooting. But just being in downtown Dallas made him tense and anxious.
“Activism,” he said, “just wasn’t feasible.”
One day in October, Taylor drove alone to the corner where she thought she and her children might die. She studied the side of the parking garage and the sidewalk scarred by bullets.
“I’m standing there by myself, leaning on my cane, and I’m just bawling,” she said.
Taylor returned to work as a supervisor in a furniture warehouse in late November, against her doctor’s recommendations that she stay home until January.
Nearly a year after Castile was killed, the officer who shot him was acquitted by a Minnesota jury, causing Taylor to again question whether the U.S. justice system cares about black Americans like her.
“That was a devastating verdict for the African-American community, it really was,” she said in her living room, surrounded by a wall of portraits of her and her husband with well-wishers, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe and Jill Biden and George and Laura Bush.
The photographs also include a blurry snapshot of her sitting on a curb, a Dallas officer standing between her and the powerful rifle carried by the sniper, Micah Johnson, a black Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He was killed by police hours after the attack.
On panel discussions, in conversations with police officers and family members, and in a book she’s written and hopes to publish, Taylor hopes to convey the experience that has helped her to see both sides in the debate about killings by police and the fear of being killed by police.
“Somewhere is that middle ground,” she said. “And if I can help bring my community and the police community to it, I’m going to do it, because I’m a mother of four young black men, and I want them to thrive in life.”