Derek Chauvin pressed his knee down on George Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, refusing to remove it even after Mr Floyd lost consciousness. Officers Thomas Lane, J Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao stood by idly and continued to pin him down when Mr Floyd cried out for his mother and told them that he couldn't breathe at least 16 times.
The United States has been gripped by protests since George Floyd's murder. Footage of Mr Floyd's last minutes has gone viral and sparked global outrage at yet another instance of police brutality resulting in yet another senseless death of yet another African American. Last week, social media users across the world posted images of black squares with the caption #BlackOutTuesday in solidarity with the US protests, and while I applaud this symbol of camaraderie, I sincerely hope it isn't another superficial gesture of viral activism that leads nowhere.
Social media is awash with messages of solidarity. In September 2015, the world collectively grieved over the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned and washed up off the shores of Turkey. The photo was Tweeted over 30,000 times within the first 12 hours of going online and the widespread sharing of this image is credited with a surge in support for Syrian refugees. One non-governmental organisation reported a 3,000% increase in donations at the time, but this support was shamefully short-lived. On the one-year anniversary of Aylan's death, popular support for refugees was overshadowed by feelings of fear about terrorism in Europe after the Paris attacks.
There was also global outrage after a viral video shed light on Joseph Kony's atrocious crimes against humanity and sparked the #KONY2012 campaign. Views of the Kony 2012 video reached 100 million within the first six days of its release on YouTube, but a year later, it was barely gaining 100,000 views per week.
The 2016 protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation prompted an equally pointless social media trend that saw more than a million people using Facebook's 'check-in' feature to check-in to Standing Rock as a way of publicising their support. In reality, only a few thousand actually travelled to the North Dakota camps to protest in person and risk arrest.
Last year, people posted blue-themed artwork on their social media in memory of 26-year-old Mohamed Mattar, killed during an attack by security forces in Sudan. Celebrities like Demi Lovato and Naomi Campbell shared the trending hashtag but just over one year later, #BlueForSudan is no longer trending.
Evanescent gestures like these aren't enough. As the waning interest in these campaigns illustrates, translating a tweet or a Facebook post into meaningful policy or empirical change is incredibly difficult. Before the internet, activism built momentum and moved at a slower, and arguably more sustainable, pace. The act of defiance that immortalised Rosa Parks and triggered a 13-month-long Montgomery bus boycott was prefaced by an entire year of planning by civil rights leaders to challenge Montgomery's racist bus laws. Ezell Blair Junior, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond's Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in on 1 February 1960, which set off a chain of organised lunch counter sit-ins, took place four years before the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in public spaces.
Our mobilisation on social media is driven by a sense of community. In times of crisis, we are woven together by shared grief, fear or hope. But meaningful and enduring relationships take time to foster, and while we are bombarded with new scenes of tragedy and injustice every day, that sense of fellowship is written over again and again, superseded and fractured by new subjects and new social media trends. The hashtags and black tiles of yesterday fall to the bottom of the trending list and the image of a new victim evokes our sympathy. It's not that our shared compassion is eroded, but it cannot command the same fire when so many issues demand it. Positive social change can simply not be effected if the fires that burn today are but blue embers in a few months' time.
What happened to George Floyd, and Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Terrill Thomas, Botham Jean, Michael Brown and so many more, is beyond sickening. As the list of black men and women who lose their lives to systemic racism grows longer, short-lived gestures of solidarity fall increasingly short. If these black tiles don't accompany real campaigning for change then they are trivialising the entire struggle.
At this point, 'awareness raising' is a lazy objective. We owe it to George Floyd and the countless others who continue to be suffocated by institutional racism to recognise the privilege of being able to educate ourselves about racism instead of experiencing it on a daily basis. It also behoves us to be mindful of other ways we can lend our support. A friend of mine is helping to raise money for a non-profit journalistic organisation that amplifies minority voices, while another regularly shares content relating to racial violence across the world.
Ultimately, social media's role in activism is contingent on whether its users believe networking sites are about identity building or relationship building. If the former, then these black tiles are nothing more than superficial attempts to construct socially-aware images of ourselves. If the latter, then we won't need to remember the fires of yesteryear, we'll feel them.