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NPR Arts & Life

Why Memes Around Breonna Taylor's Death Are Not Doing Her Story Any Justice

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In March, Breonna Taylor was killed in her home by Louisville police officers. Now her death has sparked a movement. But what happens when a movement turns into a meme? My next guest writes that the central demand, arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, that it's gone from a rallying cry to a punchline on social media. It appears in a comedian's tweet about the TV show "Friends." It's the caption to a graphic about houseplants. There are self-care posts reminding you to drink plenty of water, wash your hands and arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.

Just to explain how this works, a reader or viewer is setup to think they're looking at something innocuous - the houseplants, say - and then suddenly there's a turn to justice for Breonna Taylor, the idea being to keep her in the spotlight. But film and culture critic Cate Young told me these memes have shown a lack of reverence for Taylor.

CATE YOUNG: I'm not entirely sure when the shift happened, but it became really apparent that it had stopped being something that was a reminder for justice and was something more about finding the cleverest way to hide the message. It was a perverse kind of rick-roll (ph) almost, which was frustrating to see because it felt very disrespectful to her memory.

KELLY: I hear you arguing that you see these memes as being sometimes a bit disrespectful, as trivializing her death. Is it possible for that to be true and for it also to be true that some of these memes are effective, precisely because they might reach people who otherwise aren't talking about this?

YOUNG: I think that's definitely possible. I mean, I am a huge proponent of the fact that two things can be true. But I think that whether or not they are effective for a small segment of the population should not override the fact that it is a disrespectful way to engage with her memory. I think there are lots of things that could be effective. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are the best option. And if there are better options, then they should be taken. I mean, even this phrase, arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, who exactly is that for? Because the rest of us on social media don't have the power to make that happen. We can't actually do the arresting. So who specifically are you talking to?

KELLY: So if these memes aren't the right way to advocate for justice for Breonna Taylor and other women, what is the right way? What should we do?

YOUNG: Honestly, I'm not sure that I have that answer. I think the concrete things that we can do now include, you know, signing petitions and donating to her family's GoFundMe. But as I personally am struggling with, you know, these issues of abolition, I don't know what justice looks like outside of the prison system.

KELLY: That's really interesting to hear. You, as someone who is thinking deeply and writing on these things, you're wrestling with it, too.

YOUNG: I think a lot of people can identify with the fact that we are kind of having to grapple with a lot of new things very quickly, and it isn't easy. You know, there are people who have devoted their life to this. So the idea that we would just have the answers overnight is ridiculous. But I do think that it's work that is worthy and that we should be doing and that we should be pushing ourselves to do instead of defaulting to easy things like memes because a meme takes nothing out of you. You post it, you double-tap, you move on. But if we want to actually dismantle the systems that we are living within right now and build something that's actually just, that actually serves everyone equally, then we have to actually take a look at what the root problems are and figure out how we can disentangle them from our very specific ideas about criminality and race and justice. And that is a project that will take years, decades. I mean, this country is 200 plus years old. That's a lot to undo. And it's not something that's going to happen in a couple weeks. But it is work that can happen if we commit to doing it.

KELLY: That is film and culture critic Cate Young. Thank you for joining us.

YOUNG: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIBO'S "MOON JUMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.