Seeking Justice for Breonna Taylor Beyond Social Media
O Magazine is ending regular print magazine issues in December 2020 to adopt a digital-first approach (Hollywood Reporter). But for the first time in 20 years, Oprah herself isn’t on the cover. Instead, this month’s cover is dedicated to Breonna Taylor. She was murdered 140 days ago by Louisville Metro Police Department officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove after entering her home with a no-knock warrant while she was sleeping and opening fire (The Cut). Although one of the three officers has been fired, the other two are only on administrative reassignment, and none of the officers face criminal charges (NYTimes). The magazine commissioned 24-year-old digital artist Alexis Franklin to create the cover, and she used a well-known selfie Breonna Taylor took shortly before her death (Washington Post).
• Sign the Color of Change petition to demand that all police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor are fired.
• Call Kentucky’s local official and the public integrity unit of the Louisville Metro Police Department to demand the officers involved in Breonna’s death are fired and charged with her killing. Go to StandWithBre.com and tap the button on your mobile phone and they will call for you!
You may have seen this photo on the cover because it’s been all over social media. In fact, Breonna Taylor’s name and image have been widely shared through memes, gifs, text-based posts, and more since the protests. Earlier this week, the controversial “Women Supporting Women” Selfie Challenge dominated timelines when women encouraged others to share a selfie in black-and-white (Elle Magazine). Many people decide to use the moment instead to share photos of Breonna Taylor (The Lily). Echoes of calls for justice are heard in protests on the street, in window signs, and amplified by celebrities. Beyonce penned an open letter to the Kentucky State Attorney General (Beyonce). The WNBA dedicated its entire 2020 season to honoring Taylor and the Say Her Name movement (KPBS).
Breonna was murdered in March 2020, but her story became a key narrative in the Black Lives Matter protests in May, with specific attention towards how little press her story had received. Although Blavity and The Root, two major publications that focus on Black stories, published articles about her story in late March, mainstream news sources didn’t pick up her story until late May (used Google Search results for this one). Although the intense coverage of COVID-19 during this time likely played a factor (Courier Journal), many believe it’s our country’s longstanding tenuous relationship with Black women that minimize police brutality like this (PBS). And until we see more accountability for her death, we can expect that her story will continue to resonate with allies and activists as the anti-racism movement progresses.
But are all these memes and tributes and cover takeovers helping or hurting? Some believe that these statements don’t do her life and legacy justice. And the statement “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” a popular catchphrase, is misleading, according to film and culture pop critic Cate Young (Jezebel). How exactly is the community supposed to achieve that while they’re scrolling through Instagram? Like the ones in today’s Take Action section, the more pertinent actions are shared significantly less.
And what is the creator intending to do when posting a meme like this on social media: raise awareness about the injustice of over-policing Black women or gain some easy likes? And the memeification of violence against Black women perpetuates the same systems of discrediting and minimizing that pain.
When she’s diluted down to a glib, cutesy meme it’s a dishonor to her. She was very much a real person, with real thoughts and dreams and dislikes. She leaves behind a world of hurting family, friends, and acquaintances.”
Others believe that these subliminal messaging shift perceptions and encourage action in a time when many people’s newsfeeds have gone back to normal. Allissa Richardson, a journalism professor at USC Annenberg and author, believes it’s a powerful way. Black people can trick the algorithm to hold conversations that advance critical issues that may otherwise go ignored (Washington Post). And when conversations persist, the media pays attention, drawing the conversation back into the press cycle. It has compelled me, too, to write about Breonna Taylor again for the Anti-Racism Daily.
The power of media in this movement brings to mind the strength of Emmett Till’s mother for holding an open casket, putting her son’s mutilated body on display for the whole world to see. The photos, which were published in Jet Magazine and circulated broadly afterward, forced America to confront the brutality of the racism that may have been easy to overlook (view the photo and corresponding story in Time Magazine). Unlike the memes of Breonna, these images were chosen by the family and approved to share, not user-generated memes with their branding and hashtags. But for the time, these images achieved something similar to what we’re seeing today: it’s impossible to look away. But we shouldn’t need a meme to draw our attention back to injustices against Black women. It’s our responsibility to share these stories with respect and care and continue fighting justice even when we’re not reminded to while scrolling through Instagram.
Like the story of Breonna Taylor, the perpetrators of the murder of Emmett Till walk free. The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, which was created by family members of Till and other community members, is asking the community to sign a petition to hold Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman that falsely accused Emmett Till of a crime he did not commit, accountable. Learn more about Emmett Till and his story in our Anti-Racism Daily on lynching, and sign the petition here.
• It has been 140 days since Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police Department officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove.
• Oprah joined a long list of celebrities, activists, and individuals using their platforms to call for justice.
• The memeification of Breonna Taylor is helping to keep Breonna’s name in the media but at the expense of perpetuating the same systems that harm Black women.
• We must leverage our platforms to center the needs of others with care and grace.