Do you remember the first time you saw Breonna Taylor‘s face? Or, perhaps more aptly, do you remember the first time you saw her likeness? None of us can really say we’ve ever seen her face because the vast majority of us never knew her. But I can tell you with certainty when I made my first social media post about Taylor: on June 4, 2020, in my Instagram stories, I reshared a Change.org petition called “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” At the time it had 2,949,394 signatures with the goal of reaching 3,000,000. The link to the petition was accompanied by the now-familiar picture of Taylor at her graduation. In the image, she’s immortalized as a young Black woman, smiling broadly, her face bare, her hair arranged in black and red twists and woven into a crown on her head. She’s clad in a uniform with a bouquet of yellow flowers cradled in her arm and her recently awarded certificate displayed prominently in her hand for the photo. Behind her is the Louisville seal and four standing flags, the Stars and Stripes the most identifiable among them. Her gaze is frontal, she stands poised and proud of her achievement.
If we think of time in terms of news cycles, that image first flashed across social media timelines lifetimes ago. Back in early June, people were reeling after a video of Geroge Floyd slowly dying under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was widely circulated. That video came only weeks after the horrifying video of Ahmaud Arbery's last moments as he tried desperately to fight for his life against armed white men. Outraged protestors took to the streets, police precincts were burned, and monuments were torn down. Norms shifted suddenly and violently, and in response, the internet collectively stopped talking about at-home quarantine hacks and redirected its attention to grassroots petitions that needed signatures and nonprofits that needed support, and white people who needed validation that their online anti-racism work was sufficient. In an effort to seize on to the cultural momentum and to bring awareness to other grave racial injustices, there was a deluge of images of more Black people who had been killed by police, suspected racists, or else under suspicious circumstances that were never thoroughly investigated The departed person’s personal photos the main image on countless petitions pleading for justice. Taylor’s was one of the many stories of murder that was clamouring for national attention at the time.
Unfortunately, the few cases that actually make it into mainstream consciousness represent only a sample size of instances of violence against Black people. In 2014, Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum started the #SayHerName social media campaign to bring awareness to often overlooked names of Black women and girls who have been targets of racist law enforcement. From Eula Mae Love who was murdered by police in the front yard of her Los Angeles home in 1979 to Atatiana Jefferson who was murdered in her Fort Worth home in 2019 just a few months before Breonna, or Anjanette Young, a Chicago social worker who was handcuffed naked in her own home by police during a botched raid in early 2019, American history is strewn with the unacknowledged and disrespected bodies of Black women. For a while, the #SayHerName campaign’s effectiveness was seen mostly in and around “Activist” and “Woke” Twitter. I first saw it in July 2015 when the hashtag was used to highlight the story of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman who was detained during a traffic stop and later died in police custody. Since then, the use of the hashtag has been expanded to include the names of murdered Black trans women whose stories often go under-covered or misreported.
Less than three months later her image would come to represent so much more than herself, more than a life cut tragically short at the hands of trigger-happy state militants who don’t see the lives of Black people as worth protecting
However, in June 2020, #SayHerName became synonymous with Black Lives Matter protests and their calls for justice. The hashtag was so ubiquitous it was chanted at demonstrations in a call and response pattern. “SAY HER NAME” someone would shout to which the masked crowd would reply “BREONNA TAYLOR” (conversely, Say His Name was also chanted at protests in a disappointing, but not surprising, misunderstanding of the original idea).
Taylor’s life was taken on March 13, 2020. Her death could have easily been relegated to the annals of history like the many deaths before hers, another injustice that would go unnoticed and the perpetrators unpunished. But through a confluence of events, that isn’t what happened. Maybe it was the timing, maybe it was the egregious injustice, or maybe it was just her face, but with the help of social media her story was catapulted into the spotlight. Less than three months later her image would come to represent so much more than herself, more than a life cut tragically short at the hands of trigger-happy state militants who don’t see the lives of Black people as worth protecting.
The summer of 2020 saw global protests and growing enthusiasm toward movements against racial injustices, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s. From Minnesota to Nigeria, Australia to France, racial justice protests reached across the globe, and at the center of the maelstrom was the image of Taylor. Once the self-appointed vigilantes and cops who killed Ahmaud Arbery and Geroge Floyd respectively were arrested, all energies were directed to the case involving the death of a Black woman and what started as broad calls for change became almost completely fixated on Taylor. For months, she was almost inescapable. Her name was on hats and in memes. Lebron James wore a refashioned MAGA hat that said “Make America Arrest the Cops who killed Breonna Taylor'' and played in shoes with #JusticeForBreonnaT emblazoned on them. Her face was airbrushed onto shirts and painted on signs. Oprah Winfrey erected billboards in Louisville and covered the September issue of her magazine with an illustration of Taylor’s face. Her selfies proliferated across platforms and across countries, shared from person to person almost like trading cards. Her personal photo was on the main page of Beyonce’s official website. Murals of her face appeared in most major metropolitan cities across North America and beyond. A tsunami of images of this young woman was created and the tidal wave crested with Amy Sherald’s breathtaking memorial depiction of Taylor for the cover of a special edition of Vanity Fair. All in the name of awareness.
This beautiful albeit ordinary woman was elevated to global celebrity status and became the symbol of a movement. But what is forgotten is that Breonna was more; more than an emblem of violent oppression, more than a rallying cry for change. Breonna was a person, a complex individual made up of thoughts and dreams, and fears, and pain, and emotions. She was a whole universe, and then like that, she wasn't. Her life was unjustly extinguished only to be resurrected again as a two-dimensional copy. At one point this summer the online calls for justice tipped into the absurd. There were trendy illustrated cocktail recipes and zodiac memes that just consisted of the words “Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor '' repeated over and over again. Fast fashion Instagram boutiques debuted crop tops and bralettes that were named after Taylor. Unscrupulous influencers and their ilk even went so far as to attach her name to unrelated selfies and videos in a cynical ploy to drive engagement. But, that's the nature of politics and fame, the complexity of an individual’s personhood is flattened and their nuances erased in service of a singular idea. Eventually, instead of a person, she was a name and hashtag. Her image replicated and reshared like an Andy Warhol screenprint, gradually emptied of substance, rendering it to a mere surface. In 1770 Crispus Attucks, a Black man and a freed slave was the first person killed at the Boston Massacre, an inciting event to the American Revolutionary War. His death was immortalized in a print made by Henry Pelham and proliferated widely (uncredited) by Paul Revere. Several artistic liberties were taken in the print. The depiction of the massacre emphasized the murderous aggression of the British soldiers while downplaying the actions of the mob but most notably, Crispus Attucks was portrayed as white. In American history parts of Black people are often erased to better serve a narrative.
...the summer of 2020 will be known as a short moment in time when people were cosplaying as revolutionaries and we all thought for a brief moment that change powered by the people was actually possible.
When historians study the archives of 2020 how will they interpret the international spread of this woman’s narrative, and how she was immortalized through a torrent of images, memes, and murals? Will these images exist or leave any trace at all, given the transient nature of our digital world and the fast turnover of our technological lives? After months of online and IRL activists demanding that someone arrest the cops who killed Taylor, no one did. Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove were not charged with the murder of Taylor. Despite the global awareness generated by social media and \ Louisville enacting Breonna’s Law outlawing no-knock warrants, the cops who killed Taylor were never arrested or charged with a crime. On their own, widespread social media campaigns of awareness were not enough. A constant barrage of images of a young, beautiful Black woman who was cut down in her prime was not enough. The exoneration of Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove demonstrated once again that the system isn’t built to serve people who look like Taylor.
Reviewing the events of this summer retrospectively, it's hard not to arrive at the conclusion that despite the extraordinary circumstances through which a Black woman who was murdered received the kind of attention typically reserved for missing white women and children but on steroids, the system still produced the result we’ve all come to expect. That sharing Taylor’s image to our social media followers again and again did not bring justice, because no matter how loud we cry out our pain falls on deaf ears. If we remember it pessimistically, the summer of 2020 will be known as a short moment in time when people were cosplaying as revolutionaries and we all thought for a brief moment that change powered by the people was actually possible.
Looking at the time between May and September through rose-colored glasses, the summer of 2020 reveals what people are capable of when we remember each other’s humanity. Campaigns that are centered on raising awareness are inherently optimistic because they rely heavily on the assumption that the people you are appealing to are capable of feeling shame and that if placed under enough pressure, they will do the right thing. For a lot of people, this meant passively posting an image of a Black woman as a signifier of “commitment” to anti-racist work and an easy way to engage with activism. And a lot of people stopped their work there. Those people aren’t in it for the long haul, and they never will be. But that’s not to say that what was done was all for naught. Tangible change is felt after millions of tiny, almost imperceptible changes occur. Even though Taylor’s murderers were not charged, progress was made. The worldwide realization that racism in America and beyond is alive and well needed to happen, but the change that was felt this summer came after years of sustained activism and organizing by community groups. The conversation on social media this past summer was only the tip of the activism iceberg. Awareness is the first step; what follows is action, and there is so much more to be done.
Like all things in the mainstream consciousness, interest is fleeting and crucial attention towards Black death is, unfortunately, no exception. Coverage of the protests waned and social media timelines gradually returned to normal. By late September the flood of images of Taylor slowed to a trickle. It wasn’t long until my timeline was filled with impassioned pleas to save the post office, daily reminders about mail-in voting, long mournful posts about the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, darkly gleeful posts about Covid-19 making its way through the white house, frightening posts about the collapse of democracy and angry posts from leftists about the futility of voting in a two-party system. Occasionally, Breonna's name and smiling face would appear in the stories and posts from my friends with a reminder to “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” or "It’s been X days since the murder of Breonna Taylor" or my least favorite, personal pictures of her presented without context, just a reminder that she was and then she wasn't. We used so much of Breonna; her name, her face, her family, her life story, her death. And when justice was not granted the world moved on to the next thing. People living in the modern world see thousands and thousands of images a day. There are so many things competing for attention, so many horrors demanding our energy. There is no way that one woman, no matter how beautiful she was, or how much potential she had, or how unjust her murder was can bear the entire weight of the movement forever.