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Opinion Breonna Taylor deserves better than memes and barbecues

A memorial for Breonna Taylor is seen during the Good Trouble Tuesday march for Breonna Taylor on Aug. 25 in Louisville. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
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Breonna Taylor deserves better than memes and barbecues.

The 26-year-old Black woman, who was shot in her home by police in March in Louisville has become a symbol for the dangers of superficial wokeness. Almost instantly, her death became fodder for various memes and social media gimmicks that draw attention, not so much to what justice for her death would mean, but rather to the wokeness of the sender.

But last weekend, the inappropriate marketing of Taylor’s death rose to a new level. Activist group Until Freedom, co-founded by Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, put on “BreonnaCon,” a four-day event in Louisville. There was a “Taylor-Made” women’s empowerment event for “Beauty, Power and Justice” featuring Yandy Smith-Harris, one of the stars of “Love and Hip Hop,” and Porsha Williams of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” fame. There was even a “Bre-B-Que.”

Meanwhile, faces of famous activists and celebrities supporting the event appeared clearly on the flyers publicizing the event, while Taylor’s face faded into the background. Conference-goers could choose whether they planned to be arrested (risking time in one of Louisville’s covid-19-infested jails), provided they gave their name and various identifying details on a very public Google form.

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On the day of action, 71 people were arrested at a sit-in on an overpass. Smith-Harris, after days of posting pictures of herself in flowing dresses and posting with conference-goers at the event, uploaded a video of herself onto Instagram being gently escorted away by police, giving new life to the term “vanity arrest”.

So much about the event seemed to be in bad taste, yet organizers say 4,000 people attended. Mallory defended BreonnaCon to me in an interview, saying Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, asked for help to organize events that could honor her slain daughter, and that Palmer was involved in the planning. She added, “I have no regrets about it.”

While it is of course true that activists would want to honor the family members of victims of police brutality, experienced organizers should know better than to exploit the grief and desperation of these families to shield themselves from legitimate questions and criticism.

Local activists felt excluded. “I’m frustrated,” said Chanelle Helm, one of the core lead organizers for the Black Lives Matter chapter in Louisville. She noted that the BLM chapter worked with Until Freedom briefly but eventually parted ways, saying that Until Freedom wasn’t highlighting the work Helm’s group was already doing on local policing. Helm told me she felt as though those who organized BreonnaCon were “clout-chasing.”

If so, they aren’t alone. The beautiful memes, murals and portraits of Taylor keep coming, even from large corporations. This week, Vanity Fair released its special September issue, which was guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also conducted a touching interview with Taylor’s mother. The issue features a portrait of Taylor on the cover, painted by artist Amy Sherald. Taylor, painted in a blue dress, looks dignified and beautiful. At the same time, in this moment, I don’t think a viral #BreonnaTaylorChallenge on TikTok can be far off.

It is good that Breonna Taylor has not been forgotten. But I still wonder: Is this the best we can do for her cause? Are barbecues and beauty panels all we are willing to do for Black women who are victimized and killed by police? If there were ever a moment that a Black woman’s death should inspire mass marches and civil disobedience, this should be it.

We seem to save our energy to respond to the pain and death of Black men in a way we don’t for Black women. People around the world took to the streets for George Floyd. After Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed in Atlanta by police in June, residents immediately made their outrage clear. Just this week, the viral video of a Wisconsin police officer shooting Jacob Blake in the back sparked demonstrations and anger around the country. Sports teams have gone on strike to protest racism and police brutality in Blake’s name.

Black men get mass uprisings, while Black women get memes. Must Black women be killed on camera to generate gender parity in terms of public pressure and response?

Black women deserve to live in a safe world. The police forces that shoot and kill innocent Black women with impunity ought to be defunded.

And when we don’t get justice — as Chicago educator and activist Alicia Crosby wrote — Black women deserve uprisings too.

Read more:

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