What Does Real Change Look Like?

What Does Real Change Look Like?

Tahmina Begum explores the memeification of Breonna Taylor

Breonna Taylor is on the cover of two September magazine issues. First in Oprah Winfrey’s ‘O’ and the second being Vanity Fair. Yet, no police officer has been charged with her murder.

As a victim of police brutality, the 26-year-old was fatally shot eight times earlier this year, as she slept in her bed, in Louisville, Kentucky. Both magazines, like many other countless platforms, pay tribute to her life lost and are part of the wider Black Lives Matters conversation. In addition to this being the first cover, Oprah hasn’t donned since the birth of ‘O’, ‘The Great Fire’, the name behind Vanity Fair’s September issue will also be a keepsake for the times. It’s been guest-edited by prolific author, writer and correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates and painted by artist Amy Sherald.

For many Black and brown people, the protests which amassed after George Floyd’s murder were nothing surprising. The protests for some people outside of the Black communities may have felt daunting and like a ‘great fire’ but for many, the fire was necessary to burn down all the ways in which the system had already been decaying. The fire, in this case, is overdue.

It makes sense then that this issue of Vanity Fair sees every page filled with creatives of colour and Black artists, actors and activists. Many whose self-portraits were captured in their garden due to Coronavirus and social distancing. However, Vanity Fair’s cover has been met with criticism. 

A magazine based on high society hasn’t historically documented the rhythm and blues behind Black lives. And, yet, I wonder, are these things that we do in remembrance of those who have lost their lives due to police brutality, ever enough? 

Vanity Fair’s “The Great Fire” hums to the melody and protest behind Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Say Her Name campaign, which began in 2014. A reminder that Black women, in particular, are victims to state violence yet are often erased from the discourse of police brutality. And Breonna Taylor’s mother wants us to remember her daughter’s name. 

And we have remembered Breonna Taylor’s name — in comparison to the thousands that have been killed at the hands of state violence, (there have been only eleven days in the US where someone has not died through police brutality), therefore the memeification of Breonna Taylor is something we’ve all become witness to. 

There’s so much stuff, whether that be T-shirts, artworks, merchandise and now magazine covers.

In the only way, a capitalist society knows how we have made so many things about Breonna Taylor. There’s so much stuff, whether that be T-shirts, artworks, merchandise and now magazine covers. On one hand, there’s so much noise and remembrance that’s necessary to be a vehicle for change, for the powers to be to hear all of us protesting but there’s also a question of how much stuff is needed to bring on judicial change.

Jason Wess, the designer behind the popular T-shirt that reads “Arrest Breonna Taylor’s killers” with an official phone number on the back to call for updated information about the case, told GQ that he “really didn’t want to be that guy”. Yet after asked by his followers if the proceeds would go to a charity or the Breonna Taylor Go fund Me page and Wess stated he was still figuring out percentages, making the memeification of Breonna Taylor murky. 

His response to muting his comments was, “It was just like, ‘you guys aren’t getting the purpose.’ The purpose is the statement to raise awareness. I’m not trying to do this to get famous. I’m not in it for any recognition. I’m literally in it for awareness. If it’s gonna bring more eyes to the cause then I’m down for it.”

Yet the question of awareness and exploitation has a fine line — regardless of who may be producing it with the intention of awareness. Whether you’re Black, Brown, mixed and so on, creating T-shirts of Breonna Taylor or George Floyd’s name and face, Money is still being made. It lends to why so many people respond with the now also common phrase, “Anyway, arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor”. 

No one has been charged for the murder of Breonna Taylor

As of yesterday, no one is being charged in the murder of Breonna Taylor. It’s proof that memes, Instagram posts and tweets are simply not enough when it comes to real justice for Black lives. Though Palmer doesn’t want her daughter to be forgotten, as she says in her Vanity Fair profile, she also doesn’t want anyone else to go through as a parent. If we’re going to say and honour Breonna Taylor’s name, we need to close the gap between this conversation around state violence and systematic justice. 

That’s not to say protests and signing petitions doesn’t work — but if we’re in an era of radical racial justice change, the decisions made from the judges, politicians, police officers and those especially with government-funded power, have to match the efforts of the layman. And we can change who’s in power, with our votes.

The grassroots organisations, students lobbying for change and frankly, the Black and Brown people, but most importantly Black people, who have had to experience these inequalities disproportionately for far too long. It’s great that statesmen, celebrities, broadcasters are saying Breonna Taylor’s name but, we can’t have mere lip service.

The line between activism and memification is becoming more and more blurred. But, yesterday’s news goes to show that delicate infographics and t-shirts are not enough. Activism needs to transcend our screens and into tangible action. Yesterday’s news demonstrated that what we’re doing is simply not enough. 

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