In the aftermath of Breonna Taylor’s murder at the hands of Louisville, Kentucky, police officers on March 13, we’ve witnessed two main reactions: Many have ignored or downplayed Taylor’s murder and have focused instead on George Floyd’s murder as they galvanize anger or support for protests against police brutality. Others have focused the conversation on how Taylor’s killers have yet to be charged or arrested, often contrasting Taylor’s situation with Floyd’s, whose killers were all charged with either murder or aiding and abetting a murder. While some have posted online, in all sincerity, about getting justice for Taylor, many others have made light of the situation and have turned the phrase “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” into various internet memes.
On June 11, Twitter user @undeefeated__ tweeted “My Name Is Junie B Jones And The B Stands For Breonna Taylor Killers Need To Be Locked The Fuck Up.” The tweet and the entire account has since been deleted, perhaps because of backlash by people expressing concern at the trivialization of her death. On June 14, Twitter user @indigomenace posted a series of four photos of a scantily clad Rihanna with the caption, “When did Rihanna get an ass tat?” Each photo zooms further in on Rihanna’s body and in the last photo, the words “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” have been Photoshopped onto the singer’s backside. Both tweets were retweeted tens of thousands of times, and both users put a Black Lives Matter petition in a thread underneath the original meme. While some might argue that these tweets were crafted with good intentions and have at least spread awareness of Taylor’s situation, the images disrespect Taylor’s memory and are indicative of how Black women who are victims of police brutality rarely get the respect they deserve, even in death.
Memes about Taylor are particularly disappointing given how the genre has failed Black women for years. Memes and gifs have long been an avenue for non-Black people on the internet to use “digital Blackface” or images of Black people to express emotions, and normally ones that are exaggerated. In a 2017 article for Teen Vogue, Lauren Michele Jackson, a professor at Northwestern University, addresses this, noting how popular memes and gifs of Black female celebrities, such as a gif of Beyoncé sipping tea or one of Viola Davis delivering top-tier side-eye, have long been among the most popular used on the internet. These memes play into the stereotype of overly emotional Black women. “Our culture frequently associates Black people with excessive behaviors, regardless of the behavior at hand; Black women will often be accused of yelling when we haven’t so much as raised our voice,” Jackson writes. Memes about Taylor merely make light of her situation, and call on a racist history of doing so.
Some argue that the memes about Taylor are not disrespectful, and are in fact helpful, as they are aiding in shedding light on her story and the fact that her killers have not been brought to justice. In 2019, Sage Lazzaro penned a VICE story titled “Memes Are Our Generation’s Protest Art” in which she claimed, “Simple to make and simpler to distribute, [memes] can communicate a stance or message at a glance and express the same feelings experts say are behind conventional protest art. There’s even an emerging genre within the landscape experts are calling ‘activist memes.’” In an activist meme, the creator takes a classic meme format and uses it to express a political opinion. While it’s true that memes and other online media can be an easy way to disseminate information, it’s dangerous to postulate that putting Taylor’s name on Rihanna’s ass can be considered activism.
In fact, the memeification of Taylor’s story has not only disrespected her legacy, but has driven public opinion further away from achieving justice: Most of the memes about Taylor have focused on arresting the police officers who killed her rather than insisting on pursuing the abolitionist practices that Black women have historically championed, proving once more that these memes are oversimplifying Taylor’s story and are not in her best interest. Given the complexity of memeing a marginalized person who has been murdered, reactions to Taylor-related memes have been extremely mixed—though many of the memes were retweeted thousands of times, the comments show varied reactions. “This is god damn brilliant,” one user commented on the @undeefeated__ post, while another user countered, “No it isn’t. It’s making a mockery out of someone’s death. Twitter needs to stop making memes out of Breonna Taylor’s name.” Many argued that while the memes are unconventional, they’re at least ensuring that more people learn about Taylor’s life and death, especially since her death hasn’t been as widely covered as Floyd’s death.
The fact still remains, however, that Taylor’s name needed to be Photoshopped onto a singer’s near-naked body in order to make an impression on some internet users (who may have otherwise ignored a petition or a plea for justice), while other names, such as Floyd’s, didn’t need to be subjected to such treatment. While Taylor’s name has been receiving controversial attention, this arguably disrespectful discourse is more time and energy than many other Black women who have been killed by the police have received in death. Taylor is one of many Black women, including Riah Milton and Dominique Fells, who have been killed in 2020, and whose murders have received significantly less attention than the murders of Black men. In 2014, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality,” and the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) created the hashtag #SayHerName to bring public awareness to the countless Black women who have been targets of law enforcement and whose memories are often made invisible by the media or their own communities.
One of the goals of the #SayHerName campaign is to highlight the difference between how the public views and mourns Black men who have been brutalized by police and Black women who have faced the same treatment. “The resurgent racial justice movement in the United States has developed a clear frame to understand the police killings of Black men and boys, theorizing the ways in which they are systematically criminalized and feared across disparate class backgrounds and irrespective of circumstance,” reads the AAPF’s Say Her Name: Resisting Against Police Brutality Against Black Women statement. “None of these killings of Black women, nor the lack of accountability for them, have been widely elevated as exemplars of the systemic police brutality that is currently the focal point of mass protest and policy reform efforts.” Though this statement was written five years ago, it still rings true, illustrating the longstanding issue of neglect toward Black women who experience police violence.
In a recent article for Time, Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper posed this continually unanswerable question: “Why does it remain so difficult for outrage over the killing of Black women to be the tipping point for national protests challenging state violence?” Cooper argues that while many Black women are killed by police out of the public eye, Black male death is more often captured on video, which makes outrage easier to access. However, Cooper continues, this explanation is still incomplete as several Black male deaths that captured America’s attention for months, including the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown Jr. weren’t videotaped, and yet both deaths caused massive protests on a national and global scale. The stories that are memorialized, the deaths that lead to justice, and the names that are remembered in the aftermath of police brutality belong almost entirely to Black men.
Often, it feels like Black women are fighting two wars: one against white supremacy and another against misogyny in their own communities. This tension is exemplified by the recent death of 19-year-old activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, who was found dead on June 15 in Tallahassee, Florida, after escaping an abusive home life and surviving sexual assault. On June 6, just days before officials found her body, Salau wrote a heartbreaking Twitter thread that revealed she had recently sought refuge in a church to “escape unjust living conditions” at home, and that she had been sexually assaulted by a Black man in his 40s, despite Salau telling him that she was a past victim of sexual abuse. Before he assaulted her, the man had offered her housing. Salau’s’s heartbreaking story illuminates the ways that Black women are not only the victims of police brutality, but are often put into unsafe situations by their own families or communities.
Salau’s tragic story also underscores the extremely complicated relationship that Black women have with policing and criminalization. According to the American Psychological Association, one in four Black girls will be the victim of sexual assault by age 18, and one in five Black women is a survivor of rape. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research further reports that more than 40 percent of Black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner over their lifetimes, a rate that is higher than white, Asian, and Latin American women. The report also states that more than 90 percent of Black female murder victims knew their killer, further illustrating the ways that Black women are too often failed and abused by their own communities. Despite this, Black women are not protected from such abuse by the police and in fact are often ignored—Salau, for example, tweeted that she told the police she had been sexually assaulted and was even wearing her abuser’s clothing with samples of his DNA, and yet the police didn’t investigate or try to charge the man who assaulted her.
To be a Black woman in the United States is to be unprotected by every person or force who’s supposedly meant to keep you safe. Though Black men undeniably receive the most media attention and national outrage when killed by the police, the fact remains that Black women and queer and trans Black people are infinitely less safe from both the horrors of police brutality and from violence within their own communities. Black queer and transgender people are at exceptionally high risk for state violence—Tony McDade, for example, was a transgender Black man who was killed by the police in Tallahassee on May 27; his story was barely mentioned in mainstream news. In 2019, Zora documented the lives of 19 transgender Black women who were killed in America, many of whom were killed by police, and almost all of whom were deadnamed and disrespected in the aftermath of their deaths.
As recently as last year, Layleen Polanco, a Black transgender woman incarcerated at Rikers, a prison in New York, died. Last week, video footage resurfaced illustrating that correctional officers at Rikers had knowledge that she was unconscious in her cell for hours before they checked in on her, and her friends and family believe that her death could’ve been prevented had they checked on Polanco earlier. These abuses illustrate how police violence encompasses more than murder: Black women and Black queer and trans people have to deal with police violence in a myriad of other ways; and still, their names are disrespected, forgotten, or turned into internet memes. Often, when Black women attempt to speak up about the specific ways that they are criminalized because of their identities, they are talked over or talked down to by members of their own community.
Breonna Taylor and the countless other Black women who have been killed by the police, some of whose names we may never know, deserve more than to have their stories forgotten or to have their names Photoshopped onto a singer’s body for a mere minute of recognition.
This tension was seen recently when rapper and activist Noname and rapper Boots Riley had a two-hour livestream conversation about activism and our current political moment. Afterwards, many were upset with Riley and accused him of talking over Noname during the livestream when she was trying to speak. Riley (who has since deleted his account) addressed these concerns over Twitter, writing, “In a convo that is supposed to be an exchange of ideas and I literally answer questions and have a back and forth and get called mansplaining, and the other person never got cut off- in the whole 1hr 53 min talk, then those words lose meaning.” Many were dissatisfied with this response. On June 16, rapper J. Cole released “Snow On Tha Bluff,” a new song in which he raps about a woman who is more intelligent than him and who tries to spread consciousness to other Black people in a way that he finds distasteful.
His lyrics, such as “Instead of conveying you holier/ Come help get us up to speed,” and “I would say it’s more effective to treat people like children,” have caused many to suspect that the song was a dig at Noname, who has spent the last several months educating and radicalizing her followers on Twitter, though Cole has not admitted this outright. Like Taylor, Noname is being reduced to an online joke merely for existing as a Black woman. Perhaps the most disturbing element of the Taylor memes is that they’re designed to be helpful and raise awareness. It’s painful to think that a cute internet joke is needed to rile people up after the death of a Black woman, whereas righteous anger after the death of a Black man is a given. Taylor, Salau, Polanco, and the countless other Black women who have been killed by the police, some of whose names we may never know, deserve more than to have their stories forgotten or to have their names Photoshopped onto a singer’s body for a mere minute of recognition.