Twitter did justice to Breonna Taylor. But can a joke make changes?


Rapper Lil Nas X tweeted his 4.9 million followers on Sunday, which started out as a tease.

“Yeah, I’m gay,” started the tweet. Then it took a sharp left turn.

“G- arrest,

“A- Breonna Taylor’s

“Y- murderers. “

The response was not favorable. The responses called the tweet disrespectful and stressed that Taylor’s death was not a meme.

Lil Nas X deleted it, then tweeted an explanation: “I want the guys to know that if I do a meme with something, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care, my sequel generally reacts the most when the humor is involved. it’s my most effective way to raise awareness. I understand the game, and I’m learning. ”

He was hardly alone in using memes to draw attention to the life and death of Breonna Taylor. In recent weeks, what began as an increasing number of simple pleas on his behalf has undergone a metamorphosis. Now calls to arrest those involved in his death often start with a false meme which is a catchy but completely independent statement and suddenly turns into a call for justice. Not everyone is happy with the memory of these calls.

Breonna Taylor at a graduation ceremony in Louisville, Ky.Courtesy of Breonna Taylor / AFP family – Getty Images

Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman and EMT, was sleeping in her apartment with her boyfriend when she was killed in the early hours of March 13 by three plainclothes officers from the Louisville Metro police who were executing a “no- knock “” search warrant in a drug case, according to a trial for wrongful death brought by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer.

Taylor’s boyfriend, believing the officers to be intruders and using a licensed handgun, shot the officers, who retaliated, killing Taylor. No drugs were found in the raid, and neither Taylor nor her boyfriend had a criminal history.

The man the police were looking for under the warrant was already in police custody at the time of the raid. The police received a warrant for Taylor’s address because they believed a suspect in the drug investigation had received packages there.

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As protests against police brutality and racism escalated in the United States after the police murder of George Floyd, calls for justice for Taylor began to increase, both on the street and online. Floyd, who was black, died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white officer knelt on the neck.

At first, tweets on Taylor’s behalf insisted that the police involved in his death be arrested. (The police have since been placed on administrative assignment pending the outcome of the investigation.) Then the calls began to turn.

“It’s my birthday, so stop the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” tweeted Ned Fulmer, an actor in the YouTube series “The Try Guys”.

“Re Carne Asada Fries: After careful consideration, we have come to the conclusion that the Kentucky Attorney General should charge and arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” added another. Tweeter from L.A. Taco lit.

Although some criticize the calls to justice that have been remembered as trivializing his death, communications experts and activists are divided on whether the popular protest undermines the gravity of Taylor’s murder or helps keep him under the eyes of the public.

“It’s a communication tool that I think works with people who are not as familiar with these cases, these names, certainly with someone like Breonna Taylor, and it’s a pretty interesting way, to communicate with people who might not be aware of it, “said Meredith D. Clark, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

A man holds a photograph of Breonna Taylor for his birthday as he kneels with other protesters on Atlantic Avenue during a solidarity rally for George Floyd on Atlantic Avenue June 5, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York.Frank Franklin II / AP

Clark said there are a number of dialects in the language of resistance and protest – that in other words, there is no specific way to demand change.

And, added Clark, memes can also advance social movements.

“The powerful thing about Internet memes is that people can take them and add or transform them so that they make sense for the online communities of which they are a part,” said Clark. “We see things like Black Lives Matter, which is basically a meme on the Internet … and now we have this whole culturally resonant phrase that people know what it means when they hear it. “

Clark was referring to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which was born from a Facebook post by Alicia Garza in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. The phrase quickly jumped beyond the Internet, as memes move smoothly between online and offline spaces.

But while they clearly state their purpose, protest memes that use diversions twist the kind of protest in a way that is not comfortable for everyone.

“People can react senselessly, and it’s hard to know what the true identity of those behind these things is,” said Seft Hunter, director of the Black-led organization for community change, a national organization working to empower marginalized and low-income people, especially people of color. For Hunter, some of the memes around Breonna Taylor seem to trivialize “the severity of the loss of her life and the trauma that her partner and family are feeling at this point. “

The memes that force a double take didn’t start with Breonna Taylor. In 2019, teens and young adults used hijackings to draw attention to causes they were passionate about, such as launching TikToks by talking about makeup tips before moving on to information about the plight of Uighur Muslims in China. Most recently, media studies professor Clark noticed that protest-style clickable bait appeared on Twitter, where someone was tweeting something salacious in order to get someone to click on the thread. Once the thread is open, the only tweets that appear link to research and charities to help spread awareness. Clark said he saw similar tactics dating back to 2016.

Hunter said he felt the memes that took shape around the calls for justice hurt the seriousness of Taylor’s death.

“We need people to say his name, and we need people to know the reason and the circumstances under which his life was taken,” he said, adding that he was still worried about “just trivialize and relate “to workouts and things like that”, which could “draw attention to the seriousness of the problem. ”

But Hunter has recognized the frequency of police violence against blacks and the large number of noteworthy cases, it can be difficult to capture and hold the attention of the public around the death of a person.

“Part of the way activists who work in this movement operate is to create something they know will go viral,” said Allissa V. Richardson, author of “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism ”. She notes that creative methods of keeping victims’ movements and names in the public consciousness, which can sometimes take the form of viral memes, have been a cornerstone of the Black Lives Matter movement since its inception. This means that memes are more complex and layered than you might think when first viewed.

For Richardson, the memes surrounding Taylor’s death are not trivializations, but rather what she called a sophisticated effort by activists to play the Twitter algorithm and keep Taylor’s name in the public consciousness and not not let her be buried under the news of other people who have been victims. police brutality. It is also another way of drawing attention to black women who have been victims of police violence and whose cases do not always receive the level of national attention such as the death of black men.

A protester holds a painting of Breonna Taylor at a protest near the Seattle East Precinct Police Department on June 7, 2020 in Seattle.David Ryder / Getty Images

“To make it fashionable and to even raise awareness of it and to go beyond men – that’s why we have a whole parallel movement” Say its name “,” said Richardson. So that she can break through the algorithm that will protect her under the name of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery at the moment, she would have to be put in almost absurd situations to be seen. “

“You can trick people into thinking they are going to be watching one of these happy things, but, bam, all of a sudden, you are faced with the name of Breonna Taylor again,” she said. . very clandestine way to get the message out. “

There may be those who tweet about Taylor for less pure reasons, those who just tweet Taylor’s name in order to get likes and retweets, said Richardson. But even that does not undermine the broader goal of keeping Taylor’s name and calls for justice first.

“I think even influence peddlers are helping the cause right now,” said Richardson. They “help to raise her name, because otherwise she would be buried under men”.

“When his name disappears from mainstream media and mainstream news,” she added, “it is imperative that he stay alive in these digital spaces. “


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