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Twitter memeified justice for Breonna Taylor. But can a joke make change?

Straightforward calls to arrest the police involved in Taylor's death have evolved. But what some call trivialization, others see as modern activism.
Protesters evoked the death of Breonna Taylor at a demonstration against racism and police brutality, in Hollywood, Calif., on June 7, 2020.Agustin Paullier / AFP - Getty Images file

On Sunday, rapper Lil Nas X sent a tweet to his 4.9 million followers that began as a tease.

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

“g- arrest,

“a- Breonna Taylor’s

“y- murderers.”

The response was not supportive. Replies called the tweet disrespectful, and pointed out that Taylor’s death was not a meme.

Lil Nas X deleted it, then tweeted an explanation: “i want u guys to know if i make a meme out of something it doesn’t mean i don’t care about it, my following usually reacts the most when humour is involved. it’s my most efficient way of bringing awarness to anything. i do understand the backlash tho, and i’m learning.”

He was hardly alone in using memes to bring attention to the life and death of Breonna Taylor. In recent weeks, what began as an increasing number of straightforward pleas in her name have undergone a metamorphosis. Now the calls to arrest those involved in her death often begin with a misdirect meme that is an eye-catching but totally unrelated statement and segues, abruptly, into a call for justice. Not everyone is happy with the memeification of these calls.

Image: Breonna Taylor
Breonna Taylor during a graduation ceremony in Louisville, Ky.Courtesy of Family of Breonna Taylor / AFP - Getty Images

Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman and former EMT, was in her apartment with her boyfriend when she was killed in the early hours of March 13 by three plainclothes officers with the Louisville Metro Police Department who were executing a "no-knock" search warrant in a drug case, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer.

Taylor's boyfriend, believing the officers were intruders and using a licensed handgun, fired at the officers, who fired back, killing Taylor. No drugs were found in the raid, and neither Taylor nor her boyfriend had any criminal history.

The man that police were looking for as part of the warrant was already in police custody at the time of the raid. Taylor's address was included in the search warrant because police believed that a suspect in the drug investigation had received packages there.

As protests against police brutality and racism ramped up across the United States after the police killing of George Floyd, calls for justice for Taylor began to grow, both in the streets and online. Floyd, who was Black, died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white officer kneeled on his neck.

In the beginning, tweets in Taylor’s name insisted that the police officers involved in her death should be arrested. (The officers have since been placed on placed on administrative reassignment pending the outcome of the investigation.) Then the calls began to transform.

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

“Re Carne Asada Fries: After careful consideration, we’ve come to the conclusion that the Kentucky attorney general should charge and arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” another tweet from L.A. Taco reads.

Although some criticize the memeified calls for justice as a trivialization of her death, communications experts and activists alike are divided on whether the grassroots protest form undermines the severity of Taylor’s killing or helps to keep it in the public eye.

“This is a communication tool that I think is effective with people who aren’t as familiar with these cases, these names, certainly with someone like Breonna Taylor, and it’s a way, interestingly enough, to communicate with people who might not be aware,” said Meredith D. Clark, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

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

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

And, Clark added, memes can also push social movements forward.

“The powerful thing about internet memes is that people can take them and add to them or transform them in ways that they make sense for the online communities that they’re a part of,” Clark said. “We see things like Black Lives Matter, which is essentially an internet meme ... 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 out of a Facebook post by Alicia Garza in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. The phrase quickly jumped beyond the internet, as memes move fluidly between online and offline spaces.

But while they state their purpose clearly, protest memes that use misdirects tweak the protest genre in ways that aren’t comfortable to all.

“People can respond in ways that are callous, and it’s hard to know what the true identity is of any of the people behind these things,” said Seft Hunter, director of Black-led organizing 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 feel like they trivialize “the seriousness of the loss of her life and the trauma her partner and her family is feeling at this point.”

Memes that force a double take didn’t begin with Breonna Taylor. In 2019, teens and young adults were using misdirects to draw attention to causes they were passionate about, like starting TikToks by talking about makeup tips before shifting into information about the plight of the Uighur Muslims in China. More recently, Clark, the media studies professor, has noticed protest-style clickbait appearing on Twitter, where a person will tweet something salacious in order to get someone to click on the thread. Once the thread is opened, the only tweets that appear link to research and charities to help spread awareness. Clark said she has seen similar tactics going back to 2016.

Hunter said he felt the memes that have taken shape around the calls for justice detract from the seriousness of Taylor's death.

"We do need to have folks say her name, and we do need to have folks know the reason and the circumstances on which her life was taken," he said, adding that he still worried about “simply kind of trivializing it and connecting it to workouts and things like that,” which might “draw attention from the seriousness of the issue."

But Hunter acknowledged the sheer frequency of police brutality against Black people, and the large number cases deserving of attention, can make it hard to capture, and hold, the public’s attention around the death of one person.

“Part of the way that activists who are working within this movement operate is by creating 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 movements and the names of victims in the public consciousness, which can sometimes take the form of viral memes, has been a cornerstone of the Black Lives Matter movement since it began. That means memes are more complex and layered than one might think on first viewing.

To Richardson, the memes around Taylor’s death are not trivializations, but rather what she called a sophisticated effort by activists to game Twitter’s algorithm and keep Taylor’s name in the public consciousness and not to let her get buried beneath the news of others who have been victims of police brutality. It’s also another way to draw attention to the Black women who have been victims of police brutality and whose cases don’t always receive the level of national attention as the deaths of Black men.

Image: Suspect In Custody After Driving Into Protest And Shooting One In Seattle
A demonstrator holds a painting of Breonna Taylor during a protest near the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct on June 7, 2020 in Seattle.David Ryder / Getty Images

“In order for her to be trending, and in order for us to even raise awareness about her, and for her to surpass the men — this is why we have a whole parallel 'Say Her Name' movement," Richardson said. "In order for her to break through the algorithm that is going to shield her underneath George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s name right now, one would have to put her in almost absurd situations in order to be seen.”

“You can trick people into thinking they're going to be looking at one of those happy-go-lucky things but, bam, all of a sudden you’re faced with this Breonna Taylor name again," she said. "It’s a very surreptitious way of getting the message across.”

There may be those tweeting about Taylor for less pure reasons, those who might only be tweeting out Taylor’s name in an attempt to get likes and retweets, Richardson said. But even that doesn’t undermine the larger goal of keeping Taylor’s name and the calls for justice at the forefront.

“I think even the clout chasers are helping the cause right now,” Richardson said. They are “helping to elevate her name, because otherwise she would be buried beneath the men."

"When her name fades from mainstream media, and mainstream news," she added, "it’s imperative that it stay alive in those digital spaces.”