On Sept. 24, 1987, 16-year-old Michael Taylor Jr. was shot. He was in police custody at the time on the way to the juvenile detention center, having been arrested on suspicion of car theft. With his hands cuffed behind his back, the teen sustained a fatal bullet wound to his head, shot from close range.
The police and coroner ruled Taylor’s death a suicide, saying the teen had the gun hidden in his shoe. None of the officers on the scene had noticed the gun in their several searches.
Many members of the community took to the streets of Indianapolis in impassioned protest. A crowd of demonstrators marched on the steps of police headquarters, carrying a casket full of cash to be donated to Taylor’s family for the purpose of hiring a private investigator.
Nine years later, in 1996, an all-white jury in Hancock County ordered the city to pay Taylor’s family $4.3 million in damages during a civil suit. Bonnie Andrews, the forewoman of the six-person jury, told the Indianapolis Star after the verdict that Taylor “died as a result of being in the back of a police car, and it was not of his own hand.” A criminal trial has not been pursued, and the circumstances surrounding Taylor’s death have been the subject of scrutiny, curiosity and debate for three decades.
Today, people still wonder what really happened the day Michael Taylor died. The answer may never be revealed, but Taylor’s family and others who have grown to have a personal connection to the incident refuse to let the story fade into obscurity.
Recently, the Recorder spoke with some of these people to get their thoughts.
Marcus Taylor, 44, and his older brother Michael were as close as brothers could be. Last month, on the anniversary of Michael’s death, Taylor took to Facebook and posted the following: “Two Indianapolis police officers confess to the murder of Michael H. Taylor Jr.” The post, which has garnered more than 500 likes, 400 comments and 600 shares, was not the truth -— only a “dream” Taylor wishes was reality. He said the purpose was partially experimental, as he wanted to see how many people online would take something at face value without doing any research. And though unconventional, his approach succeeded in getting a number of people interested in his brother’s death again.
“We soon forget ... whatever is today’s news, tomorrow it’s gone. It’s 30 years later and we still don’t have justice,” he said.
Taylor recalls life with his brother as an interesting one full of adventures — and misadventures. The two grew up on the south side of Indianapolis in a blue-collar, working class neighborhood in a home with their mother and sister.
“He was like my father figure, he was the man of our house,” said Taylor. “I was the bad little boy, but my brother was always protecting me.
“A lot of things people don’t know about my brother, the year before (he died), he was in boy’s school, and the reason why he was in there is because he was protecting me. The newspapers tried to make it like he just cut this boy for no reason,” said Taylor, describing the time an older boy made threats and called him a racial slur before gathering a group of people to attack the brothers.
Taylor maintains that the violence from Michael’s hand was an act of self-defense. He went on to describe many other scenarios similar to this one. “That’s why over these years, the hurt and pain that I have … maybe if I was with him, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Taylor credited his love of sports and strong mentorship as the means by which he’s been able to progress in life since that tragic day in 1987. He also noted that his brother’s death sparked in him a sense of activism that has remained important in his life. The married father of two is working on a book about his brother’s life and is also forming a nonprofit organization.
“This is not just about my brother at this point; it’s not. I’m trying to save lives of our youth today and hopefully mend the relationships between the police and our community. If anybody had a right to be angry and hate police and be negative, it would be me and my family, but we don’t. We just want justice and for my brother’s death to not be in vain.”
“If it wasn’t for Siddeeq, we never would have went to trial,” Taylor said of Muhammad Siddeeq, an educator, activist and author of Black Lives Didn’t Matter When Indianapolis Police Murdered Michael Taylor & Lied.
Prior to moving to Indianapolis in 1981, Siddeeq was heavily involved in social justice causes in places as far away as Scotland and Indonesia, as well as in the U.S. In 2015, Siddeeq released his 617-page book, an account of the evidence he collected immediately following Taylor’s death. The day Taylor was shot, Siddeeq and his wife — who had a cable public access television show and radio show at the time — sprang into action.
“I went and checked out all the (recording) equipment and shot straight up to the juvenile center to capture everything while it was fresh, and then I went and interviewed every witness that would talk to me. Then I found out how to access all the files. I have as many files as the police department has,” he said.
After gathering all the information he could, Siddeeq began organizing it with the help of The People’s Inquest, a group he formed just for such reasons.
“In The People’s Inquest we had Muslims, Christians, white, Black, men, women, children ... everyone,” he said. The group had its first meeting at Flanner House and put the first notice for their meeting in the Indianapolis Recorder.
“We did a systematic evaluation of the materials. It was chronologically done, then we challenged it logically to say, ‘This is what (police) are saying, but this is what this is saying.’ We were able to logically show these inconsistencies in the evidence they had.”
Siddeeq said he tried to contact John Moss, one of the original attorneys for Nancy Taylor, the slain teen’s mother, initially with no luck. After some time, he was able to sit down with him and show him what his team had discovered.
“When John saw what I had, he almost flipped. He accepted it right away,” he said.
Siddeeq says, to him, Taylor’s death is “the worst crime that took place in the United States.”
“This is worse than Emmett Till. Till was kidnapped by rogue white racist citizens. Michael Taylor surrendered to the custody of official police representing the government ... Michael Taylor was assassinated, then the police chief lied, the mayor lied. ... I mean, these people got involved. They didn’t stand back.”
Siddeeq has been battling multiple myeloma since 2009 but has not let his health issues deter him. The American Public Health Association has invited him to conduct a talk on his book in November, and he will be holding a local event on Oct. 21 at Kheprw Institute.
“I plan to do a documentary on this thing. If I stay around long enough, God be willing,” he said. “I want to see to it that this injustice is put on front street.”
“I’m just a DJ; I have a music show. How do I engage these issues in this form that I have?” mused Kyle Long, writer and host of WFYI program “Cultural Manifesto.”
Long, who called suburban Hendricks County home back in 1987, said Taylor’s death was one of the first times he can recall seeing a glimpse of what life was like outside his environment.
“It was the first time I realized that people 10, 15, 20 minutes down the road from me were living a very different kind of life than I was living. That was the first time that kind of hit home for me,” he said.
“When the (Indianapolis Recorder) published the photo of (Taylor the day of the shooting), it was clear that he was wearing almost nothing, and the idea that he had a gun hidden in his shoe just seemed so improbable and it seemed like a lie, and even as a kid, I remember thinking the whole thing didn’t make any sense. It was the first time I probably ever thought about those issues.”
As an adult, Long’s cultural work has been influenced by his own deeper understandings of the historical and social implications of incidents like this one.
“I think it’s important that we understand the historical narrative that this is something that’s endemic and systemic. These are not isolated incidents; they are part of a system that’s broken,” he said.
Last week, Long invited members of Reggaenomix, an Indy-based reggae band, on his show to discuss the 30th anniversary of Taylor’s death, as well as their 1990 record “Who Killed Michael Taylor.”
“They went out on a limb to record this at the time. ... They took that risk and wrote that song, and I thought that was important,” he said. “This is a voice of protest from the community at that time; it’s a way for me to engage in these issues through the forms I have at my disposal.”
“Back then, being reggae people, we were socially conscious. … We were aware of the target that was on the backs of young Black males,” said John Loflin, a leading member of Reggaenomix. “We were aware of the Michael Taylor incident; everybody was. It was in the minds of people. ... They knew this young man did not shoot himself.”
Prior to recording “Who Killed…” the group had built a strong following around the city. “When I wrote it, I didn’t want to blame anyone necessarily; really, I guess what I was doing is (similar to hip-hop artist) J. Cole. His attitude is, it’s a system that creates this,” Loflin said.
Tim Johnson, a founding member of the band who now performs under the moniker Kwanzaa Pops, said he was shocked to learn they’d be on Long’s show. “I was surprised. … To me, that song was before its time, in a sense. For us to sing about an issue that was still in play, I feel like society wasn’t ready for it.”
Loflin continued: “We just had to do it. Everybody was afraid. There was a little apprehension, but we had to go forward. We wanted to try and do it well. It was really our role as artists to bring up the fact that homicide and suicide are the main reasons young Black men die and … the pain, if that’s the right term, from knowing that that happened … and that the powers that be got away with it.”
Loflin still performs the song as a spoken word piece around town on rare occasions. “I went to Kafe Kuumba last Thursday to do it. So, I try to keep it in people’s minds,” he said. “It’s still heartbreaking.”