Which tweets make you stop scrolling? Which Instagram stories make you click on the post and read through slides of information? What prompts you to click on a link and sign a petition? Is that different from what convinces you to donate for the same cause? As more and more people use social media to raise awareness about ongoing injustices and spread information about how to advocate for them, these are important questions to ask.
In a time when ‘headline stress disorder’ is a term that resonates with many, it is a challenge to sustain support for issues that have yet to be resolved but are no longer in the spotlight. Hashtags play a powerful role in this. To have a single hashtag used for a specific cause and ensure that it stays trending makes it difficult to ignore or forget. This is very clear in the movement to #SayHerName that calls for justice for the “Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence.” However, the struggle to keep Breonna Taylor’s name trending has taken a disturbing turn.
The punchline was a call to demand justice for Taylor.
Breonna Taylor, a Black American woman, was killed in her sleep by cops in a no-knock search on March 13. Even as the law banning no-knock search warrants, Breonna’s Law, was passed in Louisville in early June, there is still no justice for the individual herself. As the months went on, only one of the officers who killed Taylor, Brett Hankison, was fired. None of the three officers involved are facing any criminal charges.
Understandably, with time the outrage grew, as did the frustration with how #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor was losing its initial traction. On social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, many decided that the way to keep this trending was to package it in a more enticing way. This meant disguising it in the form of memes, celebrity gossip, and even how-to guides. The common theme was that the first, attention-grabbing sentence, was about something unrelated. The punchline was a call to demand justice for Taylor.
In my experience coming across these posts, the shock factor did affect me. It was jarring to think I was clicking on a meme that would make me laugh and instead be confronted with the sobering reality of the injustice done to Taylor. I could see the value in maintaining awareness about it in creative ways, but, at the same time, it didn’t feel right. It came off as trivializing both a Black woman’s life and her murder.
Cate Young, a Black American pop culture critic, discussed such troubled reactions in an interview. She states, “I think that whether or not they are effective for a small segment of the population should not override the fact that it is a disrespectful way to engage with her memory.” When I think about who these memes can effectively target, I think of people who actively choose not to engage with why Taylor’s murder was wrong, why her life matters, and why we need to call for justice.
As Young aptly puts it: “A meme takes nothing out of you.” The ones I’ve come across don’t include a link to any relevant petition or way to donate. Rather, after a brief quip about the infamous “entanglement,” showing some “sideboob,” or even the promise of gardening tips, there’s a call to “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” And that’s it. As Young points out, even if these efforts are well-intentioned in engaging people with the reality of the lack of justice for Taylor, they are not “necessarily… the best option” for advocacy.
In order for allies to better educate ourselves in supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, we cannot just rely on these posts. In spreading information about the injustice done to Taylor, its systematic nature, and how that remains unresolved, we must not disrespect the dignity of her life. Just as our allyship cannot be a trend that we follow briefly, we shouldn’t try to promote it as a trend for others to follow and then drop.
We shouldn’t try to promote allyship as a trend for people to follow and then drop.
This requires sitting in the discomfort that movements like #SayHerName evoke, refusing to let ourselves be complicit in facilitating anti-Black racism. It means confronting the fact that the cops who killed Taylor live in relative anonymity and their names must be included in the call for justice: Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove. It means acknowledging that more people have been arrested for protesting her murder than perpetrating it. It means continuously educating ourselves by engaging with the resources available to us, not just sharing them and calling it a day. In the case of Taylor’s murder, that especially means acknowledging new information we learn about the value of abolition and, consequently, questioning whether the arrest of these officers is really the kind of justice we want.
It may be difficult to consistently engage with information about how Black lives are currently treated and how we can be better allies to the BLM movement. It can make us feel powerless and potentially expose anti-Black racism that we didn’t realize we were enabling. But practicing strong allyship, and learning from the mistakes we make in that journey, is work that is worth doing. To quote Martin Luther King III, who wrote this version of a sentiment that has been widely shared: “If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how many people are tired of experiencing it.”