By Dr Cynthia Chisom Umezulike
The murder of 46-year-old George Floyd sparked outrage and protests in 550 places across the United States. The avoidable death of George Floyd was not the first incident of discriminatory policing culminating in murder. Similar preventable and unexplainable faith met Breonna Taylor 26, Atatiana Jefferson 28, Aura Rosa 40, Stephon Clark 22, Philando Castille 32, Alton Sterling 37, Fressie Grey 25, Eric Garner 43, Tamir Rice 12, Michael Brown 18 – the list is endless. According to the Newyork Times, Black Lives Matter may be the most significant movement in US history.
Civis Analytics revealed that an estimated 15 million to 16 million multiethnic people participated in the protests demanding the accountability of the authorities and a more sustained effort to end systematic racism. In the United Kingdom where I reside, the three words ‘I can’t breathe’ sent shock waves through the black community, and soon our attention was drawn to the racism revealed by the Windrush and Greenfall scandals. Discriminatory policing has been a significant focus of anti-racism demonstrators in the UK who accuse law enforcement of lacking in diversity, institutional prejudice, ethnic minorities discrimination and blatant disregard for human rights laws. Social media, therefore, became a crucial tool in both digital and performance activism of the Black Lives Matter movement – amplifying transnational solidarity.
According to Aljazeera’s Thabi Myeni, “until recently, oceans and borders between us had prevented our interconnected struggles from meeting. Social media changed this”. In advocating for non-violent civil disobedience, influencers and celebrities encouraged black activists to use their social media to amplify their voice and engage in protest activity.
Intensifying or magnifying my voice on social media has always being a dilemma. I have adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards social media engagement, which reflects the lack of impassioned speeches or long essays devoted to a particular cause. Perhaps my particularly introverted personality and pride in living off the grid in solitude, in addition to 11 years of living in greyish Britain has influenced a tamer and more conservative voice. Hence, in adopting the indifference grey moniker and British stiff upper lip on social media, there is a glaring conscious lack of love or hate on social issues that matter. Impassioned write-ups on social media often draw a montage monologue of critical responses, which is candidly hard to ignore, thus igniting social media war of ideologies. I, therefore, do not particularly care for the back, and forth-trivial word combats intended to coax the other person coyly to understand my perspective or better still wholly change their view to conform to my narrative. In my mind, why bother arguing with tomfoolery?
I always insist that nothing is undoubtedly worth the gut-wrenching horrors of blindly submitting and clutching at straws with someone utterly set and fulfilled in their ways. I am adamant that I do not overtly engage or retributively argue on social media for the same reasons I do not visit flea markets. With flea markets, I insist that regardless of how economically sensible and impressively preserved an item is taunted, one must not forget – it is still a flea market, bargaining is cheap, and anything goes. Like flea markets, social media is very chaotic, bothering anarchic and very fast-paced. Information or knowledge is often only validated when trended by a trendy source. We, however, forget the problem with trends is that they disappear as fast as they emerged so rather than create a sustainable chain of positive reaction – the hashtags become momentarily fleeting and hardly ever leads to substantive reform.
Although very inconsistent and devoid of trends, my somewhat fiery activism statements are green-lighted on twitter. If I genuinely feel uneasy about any issues, I rely on the 280 characters limit to convey my views and judgements. I still have uneasiness with twitter because it often seems that talk is cheap – everyone is speaking at the same time, and no one is truly listening.
Between law schools and graduate schools, I spent most of my early years dabbling in fashion. My Instagram account, with a decent amount of followers, was organically grown by posting well-curated and aesthetically pleasing vanity fashion highlights. My followers demographic are therefore mainly fashion-conscious connoisseurs, and I often dread driving them away by appearing too woke or real; hence my captions tend to be rather short and unbothered with the gruesome realities of life. Before blackout Tuesday, I have never participated in any social media challenge-ever. I first considered not posting the black square symbol of blackout Tuesday not because I did not support the cause- far from it as the circumstances surrounding the death of George Floyd kept me awake many nights. Still, I can shamefully admit that I had a momentary pause before posting the black square because I was not sure social media blackout momentum would translate to real legislative change. I shared the same views as writer Thabi Myeni, “substantive change begins where decisions are made, in boardrooms, where often the only thing of colour is a pen”.
Society often accepts as accurate that all black activists are committed to the black African movement against white domination and exploitation. This belief is far from the truth. Activism is decentralised and very much individualised according to personal preferences dictated by a complex range of factors including the penchant for advancing social-political transformation.
In my case, there was the occasional nod and acknowledgement of black movements geared towards dismantling institutional racism, but I had no principal dedication to the cause.
Unfortunately, although I am of full black ancestry, the African American struggle for liberation and equality has never been an area I critically examined. I am more devoted to advancing human rights, bodily integrity, feminism and feminist ideals. However, the heightened social media narratives about the death of a black man as a result of police brutality in America held my attention.
For the first time, I became devoted to researching, reading, listening and learning about the continuous cycle of oppression black people historically endure. I, therefore, carefully followed emerging stories as the peaceful protests began to break out across the world. I still cannot bear to watch the entire video of events leading up to George Floyd’s brutal death which independent autopsy later confirmed to be asphyxiation – sustained from compressions pressure on his neck and back by Minneapolis officers during his arrest. I found the chain of events leading to George
Floyd’s death very troubling and all week thoughtfully pondered on the ideological struggles of the black race and the crises we still face in our quest for knowledge, cognitive and social infrastructural liberation.
Beyond the black square, June 2nd 2020 was very significant because for once, I felt I truly belonged to a powerful community trying to address past experiences to achieve multicultural democracy. Scrolling through my timeline to see all the non-negro brands and influencers I love and back turn black to reiterate #blacklivesmatter was emotional. The muted act of solidarity silently echoed – you are seen, heard, supported, and your struggles are valid. However, later that day, I unceremoniously found myself engaging in my first ever-social media war of words with a non-negro acquaintance. Don, who had previously posted a black square in solidarity of the black movement, had a sudden change of heart and now believes black lives are not exclusive and all lives matter. He then displays a beige square with a caption expressing he knows what his ‘black brothers and sisters’ face daily haven faced similar racial discrimination as a white man.
I read his statement in a fury and briefly contemplated cursing him out – black style, but I choose instead to wear my tutor hat and educate his ignorance. I painstakingly explained that the grievances we publicise is not a millennial trend but a recollection of a collective ancestral hurt which dates back to the struggles of our forefathers who rejected white supremacy and unapologetically demanded equal cultural, political and economic rights. If all lives truly matter, why do black identity, economic progress and growth seem always to matter less? In creating a united front or movement, the task is not to automatically get recognition but to create a chain reaction for the next generation of voices. I match for economic development and selfdetermination because my forefathers started the quest for the little fundamental social transformation I enjoy today.
In the end, I did not need validation through the apology later posted by Don acknowledging his ignorance and lack of sensitivity in exploring the social, structural and historical struggles of black people. I learnt that indifference is a bigger monster than love or hate. In loving or hating, a weary trail of invidious sentiments is provoked – full attention, energy and emotional vibration.
In being indifferent and voiceless, I am complicit in perpetuating the prevalent injustice, ethnic class suppression and black consciousness disenfranchisement scourging our black race. I am now aware that beyond systematically organised movements, our voice on all social media platforms is more important than ever to sustain established resistance to oppression and subordination. My new role is not to revolt against every single person or system that questions the black lives matter movement or our chequered history of slavery or enslavement. Finding my voice on social media and beyond has enabled an inherent duty and mission to sustain a historical consciousness, productive communications and conversations on ideologies that advance the elimination of racial bias and the removal of structural elements of black segregation.
*Cynthia Chisom Umezulike (PhD) is a London-based International Human Rights Lawyer, Lecturer in Law and Co-chair of Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation