Content and Trigger Warning: This post contains profanity and strong references to violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, but more specifically, protesters who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
In 2020, we saw the collision of two simultaneous crises. First, the COVID-19 pandemic forced social, political, economic, and cultural changes in our lives. Adapting to this crisis hasn’t been an easy task, especially for individuals, communities, and societies that were already marginalized.
The second crisis involves the historical and ongoing systemic racism and its evolving forms of violence, such as racially motivated police brutality. Catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd who died saying “I can’t breathe” while a cop suffocated him with his knee, the swelling frustration and anger boiled over — though not for the first time, nor probably the last time. Masked Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters took to the streets to challenge the systemic ways in which Black people have been persecuted, from slavery to the prison industrial complex, from health inequalities to murder by police and civilians alike. The viral crisis and the racial crisis have become inseparable issues threatening lives in intersecting ways.
But out of all the places, the one that sparked the questions “what kinds of narratives emerge and spread when a viral crisis and a racial crisis coincide?” and “who is considered ‘contagious’, by whom, and why?” was a British online dog community where I came across a meme that garnered hundreds of positive ‘reacts’ and comments before it was deleted by the original poster.
Before the post was deleted, I took over eighty screenshots of these comments and sorted them into three categories here:
- Those in total agreement with the caption, with a fair dose of color-blind racism and antagonism toward the protesters.
- Those calling for violence toward or punishment of protesters in the name of love of animals.
- Those against the protesters because of the role that they might play in the spike in COVID-19 cases.
The first category was defined by name-calling. “Disgusting scumbags,” “lawless scum,” and “vicious bunch of thugs” were just some of the terms that the animal-loving racist commenters used to describe BLM protesters. These commenters denied any possibility that they could be racist, because they “don’t care if (the protesters are) black, white, blue, or multi-coloured,” and because “there is good and bad in all races of humans.” There were also some people who chose to call the protesters “animals.” “If I call someone an animal to describe the people ‘rioting,’ I was told it’s racist, hmm,” one commenter wrote sarcastically. “Calling someone a dickhead is not racist, just as calling someone an animal isn’t either,” wrote another.
The animalization of the BLM protesters effectively and literally de-humanized the protesters while calling into question the commenters’ love of animals. It demarcated who got to be considered human and who didn’t within white consciousness: protesters, who were either Black people and people of color or sympathizers of their antiracist cause, got conferred the status of animals by these commenters who took on the role of the arbiter of human/nonhuman distinction.
The second and largest category of comments was characterized by the desire for the incarceration of and violence towards the protesters as well as the appeal for the UK government to take a stronger militaristic stance. Some lamented that “it’s a shame the horse didn’t trample him.” Many expressed that water cannons should have been used. Others called for gun violence: “I say shoot them for breaking the law,” “shoot the bastards,” “absolutely disgusting bastards. Want them shot for doing this,” “shoot them on sight, I say. No excuse.” Some even voiced their desire to take matters into their own hands: “if I see anyone harming an animal, I don’t care what happens to me. Their head will leave their body,” wrote a commenter. “Personally, I’d taken them out and shot the lot of them,” wrote another, getting five “likes” for the comment.
Some commenters advocated violence, suggesting, “deadly force of rubber bullets should be used now,” bringing to mind the many graphic images of American BLM protesters hit with rubber bullets. Others complained that “this country is too fucking soft” and that it was “time Britain toughed up.” Similarly, some urged the government to “bring in the tanks!!!”, “exchange horses for tanks with great guns,” “send in armoured cars and stun grenades.” “The army should be sent in to take them down,” said one commenter, “let’s see how tough these morons are when face to face with an army team.” Some were more sinister, saying that the protesters “need to be stopped by absolutely any means possible,” and that “anyone attacking horses or dogs ought to receive as much pain as they cause.”
The comments demonstrated that these white British people would happily see BLM protesters — who they have declared sub-human — die at the hands of the state, or even their hands, for causing pain to police animals. The police animals were painted as “innocent” beings “just doing their jobs.” In their perspective, the protesters were not just sub-human but also below the police animals in their hierarchical view of the world; they were vermin to be exterminated. Furthermore, the commenters also positioned themselves to be the authority on who got to live and who should die.
The last category of comments was defined by its appropriation of the discourse of fear surrounding COVID-19. Even though data showed there was no drastic uptick in new COVID-19 cases from protests thanks to mask-wearing and taking place outdoors (Hernandez et al. 2020 and Jha 2020), some preemptively blamed the protesters for the second wave of the pandemic. They believed that the protesters were using BLM “as an excuse to get out of lockdown” and that this was akin to “putting their fingers up to everyone who has kept the rules, the NHS, and all the 40,000 who have died [from COVID-19],” especially because “what’s happening in America does not involve us.”
Calling the protesters “selfish,” “absolute waste of space,” and even “plague carriers,” commenters accused the protesters of not respecting social distancing and refused to accept racism as a significant crisis deserving of action. One said, “I hope they’re proud when they take the virus home and kill a loved one,” and another complained that “two weeks ago, we were in full lockdown. I can’t hug my grandchildren or go into their house, and this rabble have undone everything we have sacrificed over the last ten weeks. They will take the virus home to their families and a shame if they get NHS treatment should they need it.”
To these commenters, COVID-19 was the more pressing and more deadly issue than racism — mainly because they have never experienced racism themselves, which was made painfully clear by one of the commenters who wrote “lots of white people get killed, too, you know.” This was especially evident in a few comments, such as “now is not the time for this. Protest peacefully online or respect social distancing. COVID is the threat today and you are going to kill us all for the sake of four dodgy cops,” “such atrocious behaviour when we all been fighting not to die from the virus,” and “I say we should be more scared of the silent killer out there. These people are helping the 2nd wave of COVID”.
These statements ignored the fact that Black people have been dying at a disproportionately high rate from COVID-19 due to systemic racism in healthcare and that racism, not just COVID-19, has been declared a public health crisis (Singh 2020). Additionally, they ignored the fact that these protesters did not end up being “super-spreader” events. So, on top of being the arbiters of human/nonhuman distinction and the judges of who should live and who should die (as well as the hopeful executioners), the commenters regarded themselves as the authorities on who is considered contagious in these viral times.
These emergent narratives exposed the ways in which many white British people comfortably reconciled their love of animals with racism. The ease with which they dehumanized Black people and people of color, the impunity with which they wished violence upon those who were protesting such violence, and the selectiveness with which they chose to blame the protesters for further transmission of COVID-19 despite the evidence all suggested the pervasiveness of “white ignorance” (Mills 2007) in the U.K.
Defining whiteness as a cognitive phenomenon that is historically specific and relatively recent, Charles W. Mills argues that white ignorance is “a cognitive tendency — an inclination, a doxastic disposition” (Mills 2007, 23) that encourages systemic misperception and dissemination of this misperception as information, which creates “white normativity.” Mills further argues that we all view the world through concepts, which are “inherited orientation” (Mills, 2007, 27) that drive perception. This explains the unquestioning and unhesitating ways in which the commenters animalized, wished violence upon, and accused BLM protesters: their whiteness “manifests itself in a white refusal to recognize the long history of structural discrimination” (Mills, 2007, 28).
This instance of white ignorance in the dog world portrays Black people and people of color as nonhuman animals mapped on to a hierarchical conceptualization of the world. In this misperception, nonhuman animals were seen as things to control and manage (Tuan 1984) — even the police animals they were defending are under human control, “doing their jobs” that were given to them by humans.
Through a white ignorant lens, Black people and people of color are seen as “bad” animals because they refuse to be under white control while police animals are considered to be “good” animals because they are obedient. This racist animalization of the BLM protesters revealed that white people perceive themselves to be at the top of not only the racial but also the ecological hierarchy. In this worldview, Black people, people of color, and nonhuman animals were all beneath white people, who got to sit at the top of this hegemonic structure and decide who gets to be human and who does not, who gets shot and who gets protected, and who gets blamed for carrying a virus and who does not. The ones that complied with the modes of control set out by white people, such as police animals, earned likeability from white people while those who resisted and protested such hierarchical structures were punished with hatred and violence.
Thinking through the lens of white ignorance that makes possible denial (which leads to selective memory, and thus selective narratives) (Mills 2007, 29), it is not difficult to see what stood in the way of the emergence of a narrative that is both pro-animals and anti-racist in this space. However, for that kind of space to emerge, people steeped in white ignorance must first be willing to challenge white supremacy despite the discomfort it may cause. That is, they have “to understand how certain social structures tend to promote these crucially flawed processes, how to personally extricate oneself from them …, and to do one’s part in undermining them in the broader cognitive sphere” (Mills 2007, 23). They must be willing to address human supremacy that is implicated within systemic white supremacy. The tiered polarization of nonhuman animals and humans that conceptualize multispecies relationships as a unidirectional and asymmetrical exertion of power from humans to nonhumans must be contested — instead, encouraging a more cooperative view that visualizes our interconnected more-than-human world as an infinite assemblage in which everyone, every being, has a significant part to play in one another’s life course.
 Color-blind racism refers to a specific kind of racism that is based on the (false) belief that racism is no longer a problem and that all racialized groups are equal, effectively denying racialized people’s experience of racism.
 The meme consists of a photograph of a protester about to throw a brick at a police horse and a caption that reads, “If your BLACK OR WHITE I don’t care you should be shot for throwing bricks at K9 horses & dogs !!! K9 lives MATTER !!!”
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Singh, M., 2020. Long overdue: lawmakers declare racism a public health emergency. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/12/racism-public-health-black-brown-coronavirus [Accessed August 10, 2020].
Tuan, Y.-F., 1984. Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets. Yale University Press.