In the days following the May 21 protest against police killings of unarmed black women, Facebook and Instagram took down photos of the women who exposed their breasts during the demonstration.
Jay-Marie Hill, who participated in the #SayHerName protest that day, told BuzzFeed News that the photos she posted to Facebook were placed with a notice as to why they had been taken down.
Hill’s photos were also removed from her Instagram account. She told BuzzFeed News in an email that she replaced one photo with the same image but blurred her nipples, and that it remained in her feed.
Rose Berry, who works in the Black Youth Project 100’s Bay Area chapter, said that Facebook required her to remove the photos and images she had posted earlier of the topless protesters before she could access the rest of her page.
A representative from Facebook explained the site’s community standards to BuzzFeed News, noting there is a section specifically on nudity that addresses how the site treats images of protesters who expose their bodies.
In these cases, according to the Facebook standards, “We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content — particularly because of their cultural background or age.”
Facebook’s standards acknowledge the fluidity of cultural meanings of nudity, but the site maintains the importance of having universal policies that can be implemented globally.
“As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes,” the outline reads.
The Bay Area protest was just one of at least 17 other movements taking place in other metropolitan areas, including Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.
Chinerye Tutashinda, a founding member of the BlackOUT Collective, told BuzzFeed News that the decision to carry out the protest by exposing their bodies was a local one, and that she did not expect other demonstrations in other cities to follow suit.
She added that the reasons behind the bold choice ranged from ancestral homage to social critique.
“We wanted to be able to say ‘enough is enough’ and draw on traditions from Nigeria, Gabon, Uganda, and South Africa, from women who bare their chests and other parts of their bodies in protest,” she said.
Exposing their breasts also served as a statement on the societal tendency to fixate on black women’s physical bodies, but not when those same bodies face violence.
Rose Berry works for the local chapter of the Black Youth Project 100, and described the disconnect to BuzzFeed News.
“When it’s in the name of pop culture, and what’s expected in mainstream society, people applaud it, but when it’s in the name of peace and justice and liberation, they ignore it,” she said.
The organizers also talked about the third, more personal impact of protesting topless: For black women who had been victimized by various forms of violence to reclaim their bodies in public space.
Tutashinda said some of the women who removed their shirts “were women who’ve been survivors of rape, who’ve had abortions, who’ve lost children.”
“Putting yourself out there makes you very vulnerable,” she said.
As someone who also protested with her chest exposed, Tutashinda said she was terrified.
According to Berry, the protest, while relatively small compared to other related demonstrations, still made a sizable impact.
“There were black women on their way to work who stopped and cried, thanked the women who were protesting,” she said.
Some men joined the demonstration, and while they experienced a few unpleasant words from frustrated commuters, the police were cooperative, Berry added.
“We wanted to kick off the day, give them a dose of black women’s liberation with their morning coffee,” she said. “We won’t be ignored anymore. We’re not invisible. We’ve never been invisible.”
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