Attempts to keep her name in the spotlight bore a new variety of meme. It sets the viewer up to think they’re reading something innocuous, like a recipe or the plot line of an upcoming TV show. Then, it suddenly turns to a call for justice for Taylor’s death.
A text-based one, for example, says: “The secret to making shrimp and grits is to start by peeling two pounds of shrimp. Make a stock with the shells in a carrot, celery, and onion reduction. Finally, use that delicious stock as the base for your grits and arrest the three police who murdered Breonna Taylor.”
Their purpose is to shock the viewer into remembering Taylor’s death and the fact that the three police involved have not been charged with a crime.
“It’s a way to raise awareness,” said Allissa Richardson, a journalism professor at USC Annenberg and author of “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism.” “On surface, it may seem like it’s joking around or using satire, but it’s really just a method to trick the algorithm to talk about her again.”
The memes proliferated and trended on social media.
“That’s really been the strength of black witnesses … how African Americans can use social media to craft their own counternarratives and to keep some narratives alive well past mainstream media’s interest,” Richardson said.
It’s difficult to deny the memes’ effectiveness on an individual user who might be caught off guard. But some question if they’re able to actually spark societal change — or if they trivialize Taylor’s death.
As one user tweeted: “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women.”
One popular meme is an image titled “4 houseplants for beginners.” Under each plant sat the words “Arrest the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor & Elijah McClain.” NPR’s Gene Demby tweeted, “this kinda stuff is weird, y’all. please maybe stop?”
In a Medium post titled “Breonna Taylor Is Not a Meme,” author Michael Arceneaux wrote: “I support everyone doing their part big or small to contribute to that pursuit of justice. My concern, though, is that these police officers are guilty of dehumanizing a Black woman — and while a meme might bring a just cause to people’s attention, it also runs the risk of trivializing her murder. When you retweet someone’s trauma, awareness might come out of it, but it might just be dismissed as another clever social media moment.”
Some, though, argue the memes serve a useful purpose and that the true tragedy is lost in the conversation surrounding them.
“The most insulting thing that happened about Breonna Taylor was her getting killed in the first place,” said Lace Watkins, founder of Lace on Race, an online community dedicated to fostering anti-racism. “I do think that there is validity in getting it out by any means necessary.”
Public opinion began turning on the memes around the time they received a boost in popularity from celebrities, many of whom later apologized for posting them. Actress Lili Reinhart posted a topless photo of herself to Instagram with the caption: “Now that my sideboob has gotten your attention, Breonna Taylor’s murderers have not been arrested. Demand justice.” Following a backlash, she deleted it and tweeted, “I’ve always tried to use my platform for good. … I can also admit when I make a mistake and I made a mistake with my caption. It was never my intent to insult anyone and I’m truly sorry to those that were offended.”
Rapper Lil Nas X posted — and later deleted — a meme in which he wrote “yeah, i’m gay,” then spelled out the word as “g- arrest, a- Breonna Taylor’s y- murderers.” He tweeted an apology: “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 [stet] to anything. i do understand the backlash tho, and i’m learning.”
Rob Eschmann, a professor in Boston University’s School of Social Work who studies social media and racism, notes that when a celebrity or an influencer posts an activist meme, they can become easy targets for critics who think they’re seeking attention.
“But the thing with hashtag activism is you never know when they’re doing it to get clout or for the movement. You can never know a person’s true intentions,” he said, adding that even if a meme is being co-opted for clout, it still “is bringing attention to the issue.”
Sometimes that attention translates into real-world action. “Never before have we been able to walk up to a Washington Post or New York Times editor and say, ‘Put this back in the paper again,’ ” Richardson said. “It’s an unprecedented time in history where readers can really force a topic to become headline news again. Some of these memes provide the phone number to the Louisville police and urge people to call.
Watkins, meanwhile, argues these memes — with “that little bit of sarcasm” and with proper added context of who Taylor was and what happened to her — can act as a Trojan Horse and reach people who might otherwise ignore Taylor’s death.
“Make sure you have the walnuts, find the people who killed Breonna Taylor,” Watkins said, referencing another meme. “You’ve got some 40-year-old suburban lady in La Mesa, and when she’s [shopping] for the walnuts, she remembers that someone killed Breonna Taylor. And it’s going to affect how she votes, how she talks to her husband, how she talks to her kid. I think there’s a huge effectiveness in putting bugs in people ears. This time last year, the 40-year-lady could care less about someone dying, because we were dying once a week back then, too.”