BLACK VOICES

The Memeification Of Breonna Taylor's Death

Turning Breonna Taylor into a meme risks turning the conversation around what justice looks like for her into a temporary fad.
A demonstrator holds up the image of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville police officers, during
A demonstrator holds up the image of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville police officers, during a protest in Denver on June 3.

“Anyway, arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” This has become a common refrain, repeated across social media in tweets, in Facebook posts, in Instagram captions. The phrase ― a reference to the death of a 26-year-old Black woman at the hands of Louisville, Kentucky, police in March ― has gone from a sobering call to action to an oversimplifying meme in the months since Breonna Taylor was shot eight times while sleeping in her own home. 

The slogan and other related memes have become an almost ubiquitous part of navigating the internet’s conversation about police brutality and white supremacy, as more and more people dip their toes into that discussion. The broadened conversation has been great in many ways: Online resources have helped galvanize Black and non-Black people alike to educate themselves about race, sign petitions, donate to anti-racist organizations and GoFundMe fundraisers, and bring attention to institutional racism in America. But the popularity of this one call for action has also highlighted the ways in which this current cultural moment is being commodified, trivialized and used as fodder for performative allyship. 

Among some of the most common Breonna Taylor memes are these: A picture of the cartoon character Arthur from “Hey, Arthur!” captioned with “And I say hey! What a wonderful kind of day...to arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor!” Numerous sexy selfies (like a since deleted-post from model Duckie Thot) with the caption “Now that I’ve got your attention, arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” A tweet from Black journalist Zellie Imani that reads, “Drink water. Use seasoning. And arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” 

The memeification of Breonna Taylor shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s in step with a common phenomenon of internet culture. 

“Memes frequently operate as exemplars of larger trends, as well as stand-ins for cultural anxieties and ways to express and alleviate fears or other emotions through humor,” writer Aja Romano explained in an article for Vox about the popularity of World War III memes after reports that President Donald Trump had ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. For many people, then, memes and internet humor is a coping mechanism, a way to process, an indication of what we’re all feeling and how to feel. 

And yet it must be said that, similar to the World War III memes, things get tricky when you consider who is posting and laughing at “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” posts. It’s one thing for Black people to try to process their pain and grief over her death through humor, but what about when such memes are made for and/or by white and other non-Black people who are not affected or implicated in the same way? What does it mean for a white person who has never engaged with race in a meaningful way, who has yet to take actions outside the internet to combat racism, to tweet, “If you want clear skin, arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”? 

Earlier this week, “Riverdale” actor Lili Reinhart posted a picture of herself on Instagram that showed her apparently nude on a beach, arms carefully covering her breasts as she gazed intensely into the camera. She accompanied the photo with the caption, “Now that my sideboob has gotten your attention, Breonna Taylor’s murderers have not been arrested. Demand justice.”

The post was met with an onslaught of criticism, which prompted Reinhart to first delete the caption and then, not long after, remove the picture altogether. On Twitter, she released a statement apologizing for unintentionally trivializing Taylor’s death by way of a thirst trap. 

Part of her apology read, “I truly had good intentions and did not think it through that it could come off as insensitive.”

The thing is, the post didn’t just “come off” as insensitive. It was insensitive, and part of anti-racism work is understanding that good intentions will not solve the problem of racism. Neither will blindly following a trendy call for justice without really considering the message we’re trying to get across ― its content and its form. 

But what is most striking, most telling and most distressing about the memes is what they say about misogynoir in this country. 

There are, obviously, no easy or clear-cut answers on how to navigate the current moment, how to sustain momentum in these ongoing conversations about race without succumbing to a momentary phase of a trend. But, if anything, these memes should give us real pause, should make us consider the ways in which Black women, in particular, are so often used as fodder for jokes and humor (often at their expense) on the internet. The nature of memes, after all, is that they are transient. They come and then they go. 

Turning Breonna Taylor into a meme, then, risks turning the conversation around what justice looks like for her into a temporary fad. Other than the firing of one police officer involved in her killing, there have been no real moves toward rectifying the situation. And so, as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” gets repeated over and over again, it becomes an abstraction, it begins to lose meaning.

There are people repeating the phrase in one social media post while calling for the abolishment of police and the criminal justice system altogether in another. So where do these people actually stand? And what does the use of these memes say about their “good” intentions?

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