tweet: #IfIdieinpolicecustody tell them i was a lion

Instead of trolling a lion hunter, we should #SayHerName

The recent social media onslaught against a feckless lion-killing Minnesota dentist tells us a lot about the nature — and uselessness — of online outrage, especially when directed at a single target. 

To be quite sure, the murderous DDS was indeed responsible for a stunning tragedy: killing a beloved lion in a Zimbabwe national park and then beheading him for the sake of a trophy. The bloody practise drips with ugly anachronisms, from being a shabby and pathetic display of masculine prowess that demonstrates the ultimate poverty of manhood as an idea, to the colonialist overtones of a white man paying 50,000 dollars to fly to an African nation and turn some of its endangered fauna into a home decoration. The entire thing is ugly and and constitutes a moral crime.

But one tweet stands out amid the social media wreckage that the entire sorry affair has produced:

It’s times like this that I don’t find myself cursing Twitter’s character limit. It took only a few words to point out everything wrong with the social media outpouring that Cecil the Lion’s death has created. You see, amidst all the social media backslapping, mockery, trolling, and inevitable doxing and death threats, not only will nothing change regarding the appalling state of our environmental stewardship, but we lost our already precarious sight of a larger problem that has generated a much narrower band of outrage: we are learning as a society, irrefutably, that people of color, especially Black Americans, are dying in police custody at an alarming rate.

While Sandra Bland’s case is paradigmatic of this silent atrocity, her case has highlighted several other recent instances of it. Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a Lakota woman, was found dead earlier this month in a South Dakota jail. She had complained to guards about pain but was told to “quit faking” and instead isolated from other inmates. She died soon after. Or take the case of Ralkina Jones, another woman of color with health problems who was, again, found dead while in police custody in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The problem is chronic and like most law enforcement abuses falls most heavily on communities of color, and heavier still on Black communities in particular.

Freddie Grey’s murder at the hands of Baltimore Police deliberately giving him a “rough ride” in a police van lent fire to a national movement. But Bland’s death and those of all the other women who finally have names and a modicum of press recognition (albeit a fraction of that given to male victims of police brutality) also reveal the often hidden extent of how this problem affects Black women. This is, without doubt, a crisis.

Death in police custody, though something that should outrage anyone who professes a belief in justice, is not a new problem of course. According to a Journalist’s Resource summary of the problem:

The federal government also tracks fatalities in jails and prisons through its Deaths in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP); typically, the vast majority of deaths result from illness or suicide, with homicides and unnatural deaths attributed in only a few percent of cases.

What Sandra Bland’s case reminds us of is that even in the cases of suicide, we must ask why taking one’s own life seems like an option in the confines of a prison cell. The answer should be obvious: especially in the US, prisons and jails are deliberately designed to suppress the spark of human life. Why should we be surprised that suicide claims so many within their walls? Thus, the tug of war over the exact means of Sandra Bland’s death, while important, obscures the fact that even if she did die by her own hand, the sheriff’s office still all but killed her. To place people into Kafkaesque situations of hopelessness that make suicide seem viable is a reckless indifference to human life that is murder in all but name.

The entirety of this edifice of execution and the mass murder being perpetrated on communities of color, and on Black women especially, is worth all the outrage that has been shamelessly poured into prosecuting that fool of a dentist. In theory, of course, people should have the bandwidth to handle both but the reality has been well marked by a number of Black activists who see the air being sucked out of the room by this leonine Twitter phenomenon.

Indeed, the #CecilTheLion rage bacchanal seems tailor-made to cater to cynics who cluck their teeth at “hashtag activism” and scorn all online organization as inherently compromised, privileged, and meaningless, save as an exercise in bullying and “shaming,” to use the cliche of the hour. But contrast it to the numerous hashtags spawned by the Black community’s fight back against police violence and their effectiveness as organizing and consciousness-raising tools — from the hashtags named for the fallen, to the heart-rending #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, to #SayHerName which elevated black women and shamed Democratic presidential candidates, to #BlackLivesMatter itself. These tags were not impotent rage for its own sake; they were exercises in survival, raising the voices of the unheard. They launched from already thriving Black communities on social media to create their own activist ecosystems that, themselves, would spawn theory, news, organizing tactics, relationships, and even humor in their turns.

The contrast to #CecilTheLion couldn’t be more stark. Like most well-intentioned hashtags that ultimately center on attacking an individual (in this case our dastardly dentist), it quickly degenerated into abusive back-slapping that rewards our worst impulses. No policy will change, little good will come from the spectacle, and its ultimate legacy will be a fusillade of death threats and a graveyard of parody Twitter accounts.

It accomplishes nothing and will serve only to briefly sate the ennui and cynicism of the more privileged members of our generation, while further slandering the power of the internet to effect real change. Meanwhile the grim rages of the sorry Cecil spectacle will be used to tar Black Lives Matter activists (who target a system rather than individuals) as unruly, threatening, outrage-mongers, while the beat goes murderously on.

When Black activists feel they must change their Twitter avatars to lions in order to make a point, it says a lot about where we are as a society.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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