All we need now is a name. Nobody waits for a mugshot or allows media outlets to choose a photo of the slain anymore. The name of the victim — so often black, so often unarmed — is all we need to begin our search.
If the person gunned down or assaulted by a white police officer was at all active on social media, an amorphous online collective of activists and other people who care about the survival of black people will track down their accounts within hours of the first news report. We’ll read their Twitter feeds, share their Instagram photos, circulate their Snapchats. Sleuthing gives us something to do when the news of another police-involved shooting death leaves us at our most helpless.
News broke Friday morning that Texas college student Christian Taylor, 19, had been killed around 1 a.m. by Officer Brad Miller, a 49-year-old rookie in his final stages of field training. By daybreak, Twitter users began sharing a tweet from a week before Taylor was shot dead:
At the time of this writing, that tweet has been shared over 17,000 times, and a tweet from filmmaker Ava DuVernay that quotes it has been shared an additional 30,000. It wasn’t the only time Taylor had been candid about his fear of dying at an early age or at the hands of police. His other tweets, rounded up by Vibe magazine, expressed ongoing concern that the police would not protect him.
His politics were familiar. Sandra Bland — the 28-year-old black woman who was assaulted, arrested, then found dead in her jail cell of an alleged suicide — used her Twitter feed to amplify rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement. Bland started her own hashtag, #SandySpeaks, and embedded call-to-action video clips. Like Taylor’s tweets, they are haunting and tragic in the aftermath of her death.
Mining the digital footprints of the victims of racially motivated crimes for selfies and tweets might seem like a ghoulish activity. And it does sometimes make it feel like the victims are speaking to us from beyond the grave. But when the alternative is to allow law enforcement and traditional media outlets to cherry-pick photos of the deceased to fit their own agenda— he was a thug or he was a child; she was thriving or she was depressed— who could blame us?
In the three years since Trayvon Martin was killed — his own social media accounts plumbed by news outlets for incriminating photographs — a generation of social media–savvy black teens and young adults have become hyperaware of what it means to make one’s thoughts public online. It’s no coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement began with a hashtag. Ignored or warped by the traditional media, black people have identified the sustainable political potential of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and more.
But more recent hashtags responding to the deaths of unarmed black men and women, like #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, have crystallized the grim reality that we may be survived by our tweets. Young people who witness near daily police shootings and racially motivated murders are preparing for the prospect of a life cut short. They’re tweeting everything from hopes for long, successful lives to what they would want others to do in protest of their killing or in lieu of private mourning. "If I'm arrested today please know I'm not suicidal," one activist wrote. "I have plenty to live for. I did not resist, I'm just black."
It’s a powerful and chilling development: young people of color sharing what could become their last will and testament. They’re shooting cell phone footage that could be admissible in the trials that follow their deaths. They’re erecting memorials in their own honor, typing micro-obituaries.
Tywanza Sanders, 26, shot at the hands of white supremacist Dylann Roof, also used social media just moments before he died in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He recorded a few seconds of Bible study. His killer can be glimpsed in the frame. Sanders’ Snapchat has been particularly haunting for me. It evokes a scripture I learned during my own Bible study attendance: Genesis 4:10, when God confronts Cain just after he’s killed Abel. “The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’”
Miraculously, the auto-obituaries of young people of color aren’t all portents of doom. Christian Taylor, for instance, spent the last weeks of his life weighing in on the beef between Drake and Meek Mill, flirting with cute girls, sharing his teenage philosophies about love, faith, and home ownership. He retweeted coverage about Zachary Hammond, an unarmed white teen killed by police in South Carolina. He also took group selfies with his teammates on the Angelo State University football team, where he was a defensive back.
I’ve seen Taylor smiling. I’ve seen Taylor crooning off-key as his friends cackled around him. I’ve seen stills from the released video footage of him standing atop a car in the dealership where he was killed. I know more about Christian Taylor now than I do about the last 10 people with whom I’ve shared elevators, the people in line behind me at the grocery store, the person sitting beside me on public transportation.
And I’m grateful for that. Given how often young people like him are killed, I run the risk of becoming numb to the news. These internet breadcrumbs lead me nearer and nearer to a complete portrait of his humanity: messy and charismatic and talented and spiritual, full of postadolescent contradiction. #BlackLivesMatter and other social media campaigns that draw our attention to the far too frequent deaths of young people of color now compel us to spend time researching the lives they lived. It brings their personalities and their potential into greater focus.
Post-mortem sleuthing may be morbid, but if it keeps us in remembrance of the prematurely departed — and prevents them from becoming a statistic — it’s a ritual we should hold sacred.