Breonna Taylor did all the right things. As an essential worker, she clocked long hours as an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, risking exposure to COVID-19 to help those in need. Taylor, who went by the nickname Breezy, also spent quality time with her mom, little sister and boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, whenever she wasn’t working and dreamed of becoming a nurse someday. Unfortunately, she would never get to realize those dreams. Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police, just three months before her 27th birthday.
“She was so young,” says actor Kendrick Sampson, who has been protesting in the streets of Los Angeles for weeks demanding justice for Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. “I already felt extremely enraged but more than any other case, I was more angered by the death of Breonna Taylor. She was asleep in her bed and they already caught the suspect earlier in the day.”
I already felt extremely enraged but more than any other case, I was more angered by the death of Breonna Taylor.
Just after midnight on March 13 a group of plainclothes officers banged on Taylor and Walker’s door to serve a no-knock warrant to a suspected drug dealer, and eventually busted it down. Walker, who thought the men were intruders, fired his licensed firearm once. Three LMPD officers shot back — an estimated 20 times — hitting Taylor eight times and killing her.
Sampson, a Houston native who is best known for his role as Nathan on HBO’s hit series Insecure and Caleb on season two of ABC’s How To Get Away with Murder, is the cofounder of BLD PWR (pronounced build power), an organization that works with Black Lives Matter LA and encourages entertainers and athletes to wield their platforms for significant social change. He is also fed up with the types of police violence that ended Breonna Taylor’s life.
“There have been so many,” Sampson continues, rattling off a string of names of victims of police violence. “Sean Reed, transgender man Tony McDade, Atatiana Jefferson, and Sandra Bland. But Breonna’s case shows that all of that force that police used was excessive. They did not need those weapons. They didn’t need them. For what? If they were doing all of that, they didn’t care about the lives inside. What they cared about was securing the drugs no matter what. When we’re valuing drugs over lives, something is wrong.”
No drugs were found in Taylor and Walker’s apartment, and the couple did not have any prior convictions. The three officers involved in the raid were not wearing body cameras and are currently on paid administrative leave. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has been slow to respond to protestors’ demands that the officers be fired and criminally charged. But he did fire the city’s police chief, Steve Conrad, because it is a departmental violation not to use body cameras. Conrad was slated to retire at the end of June.
Sampson says protests around the world have worked as a catalyst for change and justice when it comes to cases like that of Taylor and Floyd, who died on March 25 after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Chauvin and the three other officers involved in Floyd’s death were fired and have been criminally charged.
While people have been pouring into the streets all across the country since video of Floyd’s death went viral, Sampson says his peers in Hollywood can do more to fight for justice and equality.
“Mike de la Rocha, Tia Oso and I co-founded BLD PWR to start building up a liberation culture because we realized how oppressive Hollywood is and how much they’re a part of the problem,” Sampson says. “Black folks are being killed in the streets by police and then brutalized for protesting, in part, because of the images Hollywood perpetuates in the stories we tell and the criminalization of black folks. We have been working to change that culture for a long time.”
For Sampson, this isn’t just about saying all the right things. He’s been participating in protests across Los Angeles and has put his body on the line. In fact, on March 30, he was hit several times with batons and was shot with rubber bullets during a demonstration in the city’s Fairfax District.
“Everyone was being peaceful and nothing warranted that sort of force,” the former star of The Vampire Diaries explains. “My friend has fractured bones in his skull. They brutalized us and every time they shoot you with rubber bullets, it takes several layers of skin off. They wanted to send that message.”
Still, that didn’t stop Sampson and others from flooding the streets again.
“The next day, we were out there again. And the day after that and the day after that and each day the crowds got bigger,” he says. “We are more afraid of being murdered in the streets than being brutalized while exercising our basic human right to protest.”
Days after the violent confrontation with officers, BLMLA and BLD PWR held a resistance-free demonstration in front of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house. And on June 7, Sampson’s friend and Insecure co-star, Issa Rae, as well as celebs like Michael B. Jordan, peacefully protested in Hollywood alongside him in a march that drew an estimated 100,000 people.
“The reason we got so many people out to protest and knew where to protest and designated clear actions and demands is because of the work that was done in advance every day,” Sampson says. “I’ve been yelling at Eric Garcetti for years. I’m appreciative that people are starting to recognize the movement more and my contributions but this wasn’t overnight. We’ve been putting in the work for years. This is the first time I got shot with rubber bullets but that brought attention to how the system is corrupt at its core.”
A longtime activist, Sampson also says it shouldn’t take senseless deaths to get people’s attention.
“It shouldn’t take a George Floyd or a Breonna Taylor to show the mainstream how they brutalize us in the street for our grief and our trauma,” he says. “I’m grateful to have this platform but that’s not the activism. That’s me being proactive and showing everyone the brutality that I know is at the core of over-policing.”
The death of Floyd, who was also a Houston native, hit closer to home for Sampson. “He could’ve been any member of my family,” he says. “I have a really large family – six brothers and sisters, 22 nephews and nieces. A lot of my relatives are Mexican, a lot of them are black and a lot of them are white. I have racists in my family and liberals. I’ve got the full gamut but I know who is more in danger.”
“I always say I’ll be damned if one of my brothers or sisters or nephews or nieces gets caught up in this mess and brutalized or shot and killed or choked,” he adds. “And ironically enough, I’m the one who got shot seven times with rubber bullets. I’d rather it be me than them.”
Strangely enough, Sampson sees the LAPD’s initial overreaction to protestors as a sign that better days are coming.
“The protest became aggressive and super violent because our movement is working and the police wanted to make an example out of us,” he says. “George Floyd’s murder was a lynching. The system is a bad tree with bad fruit, like Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’ says. This is still happening. George Floyd didn’t die from a bullet wound. He died because the system encourages brutality.”
But police aren’t the only threat when it comes to participating in a march or protest. The ever-looming presence of COVID-19 could be just as deadly. Despite this, Sampson says showing up is the best way to apply pressure and defund the police.
“We had to get out there. It came to a point where we felt like we were dying anyway,” Sampson explains. “For the most part, people were wearing their masks. But I can’t lie. You see me on the video. I take my mask off. And I do my best to put it on when I can but there are thousands of people. A mask can only do so much.”
Michael B. Jordan, Kendrick Sampson and others participate in the Hollywood talent agencies march to support Black Lives Matter protests on June 06, 2020.RICH FURYGETTY IMAGES
Globally, protesters are taking to the street to also make their voices heard and Sampson is inspired.
“All over the world, we are fed up,” he says. “Racism doesn’t self-quarantine. Sexism does not self-quarantine. Homophobia and transphobia don’t self-quarantine. These problems didn’t go away because of COVID. They just got worse. People are frustrated. We’re in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and the worst health crisis in 100 years.”
Sampson continues, “These are triggers and people, companies and governmental systems are showing their true colors. We’re not getting the relief we need. It’s an attack on our mental health,” he says. “Black people are at home watching as we disproportionately die from COVID, we’re being disproportionately affected economically and the cops are killing us in the street when we finally leave the house. We’re criminalized for wearing masks. We’re criminalized for not wearing our masks. Enough is enough.”
While many have wondered how long the large-scale protests will continue, Sampson urges people to keep showing up — in whatever way they can — to truly change the system.
We have so much more work to do. We have to keep showing up in the streets.
“We have so much more work to do. We have to keep showing up in the streets. We have to keep hashtagging. And we need to pressure Hollywood to make a bold move and get these police officers off of our sets and events and pull away from these police corruption stories that we glorify on the big and small screens,” he says, heeding the call of his fellow activists who have criticized the media’s complicity in pushing “copaganda” (pro-police propaganda).
“There are so many ways that we invest in police departments and we need to stop that from happening,” says Sampson. “If they really valued Black lives, they wouldn’t subject us to so much brutality. As artists, we don’t want to pull up to work and realize we are part of the problem. We need more black creatives and more of us in high places.”
But for Sampson, who has a family full of musicians and studied music and theater at a young age, his art is also his passion. He’s excited about what’s happening on Insecure as season 4 comes to a close and urges fans in the #NathanHive to not count his character out just yet.
He’s also costarring in the new film Miss Juneteenth. Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, the indie film will hit select theaters and On-Demand June 19. In it Sampson plays Ronnie, the estranged husband of Turquoise Jones, a former beauty queen played by the talented Nicole Beharie, who helps their teenage daughter Kai prepare for the Miss Juneteenth pageant.
Given his commitment to liberation, it’s only fitting that Sampson would costar in this film. Juneteenth is a celebration that marks the day — June 19, 1865 — in which Union Soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform the last of the country’s enslaved black people that they were actually free, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“This is definitely a full circle moment for me,” Sampson says about the film. “Juneteenth is my favorite holiday.”
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic, editor, and entertainment journalist. Follow her on Twitter @mekeishamadto.