The Hashtag, used as a way to market the murders of Black people, commodifies their deaths, and as such, separates them from the possibility of life before Death.
We have reached another pivotal moment in modern history; a continuation of the radical movement birthed in 2014 through the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson. Months ago, we heard of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor amplified by the murder of George Floyd. Since that moment, we have racked up more hashtags to join the ranks of them who have lost their lives twice over. Hashtag Tony McDade; Hashtag Regis Korchinski-Paquet; Hashtag Rayshard Brooks. All of these names were once living beings who were murdered by police, and each of them have been murdered again in their deaths through the plague of Celebrity.
Since the genesis of the Black Lives Matter hashtag and organization in 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman—the man who murdered Trayvon Martin, there has been an overwhelming push to use hashtags as the means by which we advocate for “justice.” The idea is that every hashtag would call attention to the “unlawful” and “unjust” murders of Black folks by police. Hashtag ‘Black Lives Matter’ is offered as a call to action; a hook in a song with lyrics comprised only of the names of slain Black bodies—not people. Yet, since Trayvon Martin’s murder, we have been pushed no closer to “justice”—at least not a justice that brings us any closer to freedom. The song gets longer, the hashtags grow colder, and the actual stories of the people whose names rest behind the hashtags remain untold.
Last week while scrolling through Twitter, I saw a flyer for an event. In bold print, the top of the flyer read “#SAYHERNAME. JUSTICE FOR BREONNA TAYLOR.” Just to the right of those words was a small picture of Breonna. The rest of the flyer was made up of celebrities, celebrity activists, and public intellectuals like Common, Jemele Hill, Kyrie Irving, Rep. Ayana Pressley, Dr. Brittney Cooper, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and Alicia Garza—one-third of the founders of hashtag Black Lives Matter. All of their faces printed much larger than Breonna’s and not a single organizer from Louisville—where Breonna was murdered—in sight.
As I stared at this flyer, growing angrier by the second, my eyes would not turn away from the hashtag that preceded the words “say her name”—a campaign conceived in 2014 to amplify the murders of Black women and girls.
Central to american activism is the celebritization of advocates and organizers. That aspect of this is not new. That is how capitalism functions. What is new, however, is the use of the Hashtag as the medium by which one makes this push. While their blood still soaks the ground, we throw hashtags in front of the names of Black people murdered by the state and immediately their deaths become their only story. Who is Trayvon beyond his hoodie, his Skittles, and his Arizona Tea? Many may not know, but they know his name and they know to associate Alicia Garza’s name with his. Who is Mike Brown beyond his home, Ferguson? Many may not know, but they know his name and they know to associate his name with DeRay McKesson’s. And as I stared at that flyer, where Breonna’s face looked almost like an afterthought, it dawned on me just how much the Hashtag has been used as the vehicle by which one arrives at/to Celebrity. It is also, however, the tool that obfuscates the line between awareness and a second murder for the people whose names are forced behind it.
Hashtag as a second Black Death. Hashtag as Black Death, too.
The Hashtag, used as a way to market the murders of Black people, commodifies their deaths, and as such, separates them from the possibility of life before Death. As if to say they have always only ever been dead. It makes them the Other in Death, too, which forces their names and bodies to be the catalysts for someone else’s social mobility.
We could ask ourselves who DeRay and Alicia are before Trayvon and Mike. Some may know and some may not. But as they are alive, and not yet rendered a Hashtag, they can use Blackness as the commodity that it is, and their proximity to the Othered, as a way to make their stories worth telling. Trayvon and Mike don’t have that luxury. In physical death, all they have is a Hashtag, whereby I really mean that they have nothing at all. Their lives rendered unlived in only a moment through the construction of the Hashtag, and that can always only ever be for other people’s benefit and consumption. They become celebrities too, but only inasmuch as they are property without stories; Slaves even without breath in their bodies. Owned by the Hashtag and used by those who reap the benefits of being a celebrity by proxy.
As such, the celebritization of Black folks murdered by police is arguably the worst thing about Hashtag Black Lives Matter. Seven years after the birth of that particular movement, we have been pushed no closer to justice—even in terms of arrests, for those who are of the belief that arrests are justice. What it has done, however, is create more celebrities off the backs of those murdered.
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Every life lost is immediately robbed of whatever their story was prior to death, and it immediately becomes about who can capitalize on the name itself.
The dehumanization of Black people even after Death is true to an american society committed to amplifying our traumas. But this is exacerbated by the construction of the Hashtag through Black Lives Matter where the only way it seems we can advocate for our lives, and thus our freedom, is by hashtagging ourselves to Death. We have to actively condemn and work against this. Our spirits deserve to know peace after/in Death, with no concern for the flesh we left behind or the outside structures that were always committed to our Deaths. If our movements can’t do that for lives lost, we have failed.
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