‘We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.'
' When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.’
Amanda Gorman (2021) The Hill We Climb
‘If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.’
Bob Marley (1973) Small Axe
Viral videos, murals, graffiti, performance activism, tumbling statues, and Black Atlantic film screenings are all part of empowering audio-visual-digital narratives that contribute to the rising momentum against ongoing institutional racism - on the backs of the legacies of colonialism, slavery and exploitation across the world. From the Rhodes Must Fall movement that started in South Africa, the townships of Johannesburg, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Black Lives Matter in US and UK, to the reclaiming of rights of indigenous communities, migrant ‘braccianti’ in Italy, Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories among other ethno-racial minorities - audio-visual-digital conduits have connected local and global struggles for rights and recognition in the face of state brutality, corporate collaborations and racist violent attacks. This is amid growing awareness of the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marginalised Black, migrant, minority, and indigenous communities – further linking social exclusion and health inequalities to ethnic or racial discrimination.
Triggered by the global protests that sparked in the United States following the atrocious murder of George Floyd in May 2020, we set out to explore such mediated representations and performances as ‘catalytic signifiers’ in moments of rupture (Kaur) that play a major contributory role in explosive uprisings (Grassilli) even while they may be limited in terms of their long-term effects (Stewart 2015). We recognise that this is not the first time that such revolt has occurred mobilised by grassroots media – the police killings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner among many others also acted like lightning rods where their deaths were differently mediated as with in situ audio-visual testimony, post-death imagery, audio recordings before a fatal shot, and online calls in a series of recurrent hauntings (see Cox 2015).
As we consider these protests, we also investigate the ripple effects that re-thinking and reclaiming icons such as films, statues, museums, monuments, streets, sites names and sounds are having for social change and equality in contemporary and historical eras (Klinkert, Casagrande and Lincopi). As Cornel West commented on the protests that followed Floyd’s murder: ‘It is ‘America’s moment of reckoning… but we want to make the connection between the local and the global’ (Democracy Now interview, 2020). We have seen solidarity in advocacy and protest as forces have joined in reaction and in relation to a shared history of oppression and inequality. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest, calls against weaponised state violence on minorities, migrants and indigenous people have resulted in a decentralised movement that aims to protest police brutality while exposing the ‘carceral state as a fundamentally racist regime’ (Burton 2015) and the continuing cruelties of coloniality (Quijano 2020).
In a world asphyxiated by the pandemic, pollution, carbon overload, violence and abuse - breathing becomes a metaphor for justice. Breath forges an energetic synergy between words, images, performance and context to create a fundamental, shared and synaesthetic effect as our senses intertwine and respond. Physical and political suffocation adds an additional dimension to our perceptions and experiences of the world, whilst building up frustration and anger, thereby accelerating the potential of resistance (Sharma, Rosamojo). From a moment of asphyxiation, ‘I can’t breathe’ becomes ‘an incantation, a conjuring of the ghosts of state-sponsored racism’ as Christen Smith (2015) recalls with regards to the police chokehold on Garner. Expiration became the inspiration and basis for a unifying politics of refusal as part of collective action to reject unjust structures and systems – and, building upon Paul Gilroy, a venture towards a transformative and performative planetary humanism (Kaur).
This Special Issue collates the works of a range of artists and early career and established scholars including excellent undergraduate and postgraduate students to further examine these issues from multiple perspectives. Initially, presented as part of three conference panels at the RAI Film Festival in March 2021, a crucial part of this enquiry was to highlight the complex interactions and relations between racism, resistance, memory, and politics and their permutations through sonic and visual representations.1 While we are inspired by the collection of short essays on BLM in the USA, Trinidad and Brazil introduced by Bianca C. Williams (2015), we note that their focus does not extend to other oppressed racial or ethnic groups that demonstrated solidarity in movements against racism. This is aside from considering other variants of Blackness as transpired in apartheid South Africa and in 1970s and 1980s Britain when migrants from formerly colonised countries came together under the political umbrella of Black to resist the racist state (see Fatton 1986, Kumiko 1997 on Black Consciousness Movement in South African, and Hall 1967, 1970 on ‘Black Britons’), notwithstanding that all of these categories of identity are contestable and ever-shifting.2 Nevertheless, such histories have been sidelined in US-centric histories and interpretations of Blackness. Contributors’ to this Special Issue therefore pan out from Black lives in the USA (Partridge) to consider the plight of and solidarity expressed by Native Americans that powerfully re-interpreted the racist state with their own experiences (Leeves) towards wider transnational and other manifestations as inspired by more regional (Melossi, Sharma) and personal calls for justice that embraces memories and traumas, while protesting lost lives through the arts, films, music, and performances (Sharma, Rosamojo, Lennon). The role of social media plays a crucial role in millennial movements where through viral imagery and audio-visual footage, op-eds, mailing lists, and innovative funding streams, protest might escalate to engage a wide network of people (Kaur, Grassilli, Klinkert, Bennet).
An examination of historical cases as with ethnographic film (Carroll) and music through the sonic and intimate experiences of reggae, jungle and grime in London (James) reaffirm that ‘the cultural is political’. The ‘vibe’ or the building of an intimate collective through jungle music - albeit now turned online, from radio and grime clubs to global algorithms - creates affective and material moments that represent alternative cultural politics in everyday experiences. Catharsis through music, sound and other kinds of performances represents a future of hope and of resisting dystopia through diasporic aesthetics (James). Meanwhile, white ignorance is made visible as a product of such catharses (Klinckert).
The key question remains to be asked in all circumstances - whose truth is being represented, and how and where is that truth developed (Leeves)? This requires relentless investigation on the modes of knowledge production, in a reflexive and decolonial approach – ‘a radical reflexivity’ (Carroll). New forms of (co-)research with an active involvement in the research of the interested, open up to horizontal collective collaboration (Partridge) among ‘organic intellectuals’ as envisioned by Antonio Gramsci when he stated: ‘Intellectuals know, but not always feel. Activists feel but not always know’ (Klinkert, citing Gramsci, 1922).
In a visually saturated world with a short memory, the moment is acknowledged, but what about the relations of those catalytic media with actual structural and transformational change? Do these images of injustice need to be shown repeatedly? How much more do we need to see or feel in order to understand? Impact, voyeurism, ethics and respect grapple with Susan Sontag reflection when ‘regarding the pain of the others’ (Sontag, 2003). Instead, while we draw upon the pain, we highlight the agency of resilience and resistance to the pain. In general, we all agreed that reform is not enough: we need transformation to deal with the structure and the policies that are in place and that perpetuate injustice in many different ways through racial capitalism (James, Sharma). The need of the hour is to go beyond merely, as Orisanmi Burton puts it, a ‘demand for police reform or a disavowal of Black dehumanization; it is fundamentally a critique of capitalist modernity’ (Burton 2015, see also Stewart 20153). Meanwhile, with the examples that are presented - short articles, audio-visual essays and artistic works - we hope we can inspire, empower and enlighten on the depth and complexity of ongoing struggles, as new and creative forms of resistance and engagement highlight the determination of oppressed peoples.
We begin with Global Black Lives Matter, a visual essay by Mariagiulia Grassilli that offers a collage of images from multiple places in different temporal contexts as part of a global journey of protests that demonstrated vitality and solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020. The contribution evocatively and provocatively conjures up social media, global news, graffiti, murals, performances, parades, celebrity presence and filmmakers’ statements that accompanied the thousands of people who marched across cities across the world.
In The Spark that Ignites: Catalytic Signifiers for a Transformative and Performative Planetary Humanism, Raminder Kaur considers a range of ‘catalytic imagery’ used in anti-racist and anti-xenophobic protest from the 1960s to the present day. While imagery might not on its own trigger a movement, it can certainly amplify the moment into a movement. With such a repertoire, she enquires into the features of viral imagery in a world that is super-saturated with imagery. Structured around three critical questions, she asks: what exactly is the spark that ignites protest when it comes to visual/audio-visual imagery? What makes for a viral (audio-)visual phenomenon when it comes to anti-racist/xenophobic movements? And at what point can the specificities of racial identities dissolve while still mindful of racist injustices? Her contributions conclude with a revisitation of Gilroy’s ‘planetary humanism’ that works against political and intellectual divisions based on race for continuing Eurocentric discourse or ‘codes’ (Gilroy 2004, 2005). Calling it a transformative and performative planetary humanism, she proposes that while going beyond race becomes critical to socio-political change, organising and raising awareness around race remains essential to challenge the specific morphing of hierarchical and racialised regimes.
Moving away from catalysis and taking inspiration from the Gramscian interpretation of catharsis, Victoria Klinkert in her Toppled Statues: From Catalysis to Catharsis, analyses the imagery of, and around toppled statues on various online and offline platforms in the summer of 2020. From graffitied Confederate statues to a Columbus engulfed in flames in the US, all the way to the dumping of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour and the quick and quiet removal of yet another slave trader, Robert Milligan, in the UK - the media landscape had become saturated with images of toppled statues. The falling of one statue prompted the falling of the next, so much so that the Conservative government rushed to push new legislation to protect them as British heritage with penalties of up to ten years in prison for any desecrator. The spate of attacks, however, continued through memes, photographs, gifs and videos.
Klinkert goes on to question just how catalytic these moments were, for whom and how. Delving into their limits, imaginations and potentialities, she argues that they were catalytic for inducing and replicating moments of catharsis. In an adaptation of Gramsci’s theories, defacing and shattering statues become cathartic spectacles that had knock-on effects enabling a ‘radical political potentialities and pedagogical possibility’ to unpack coloniality and unlearn white ignorance. Yet, as Klinkert highlights, it is crucial to interrogate how far this potential is able to penetrate engrained racist structures, to what extent it can catalyse change, and how this catharsis might well be re-appropriated and crushed.
Olivia Casagrande and Claudio Alvarado Lincopi take us to statuesque monuments of whiteness in the central urban spaces of Santiago in Chile. With a focus on three indigenous and mestizo performative interventions around these central statues and spaces, the authors examine how artistic gestures rupture dominant, colonial and racialised narratives, arguing For a Subversive Political Aesthetics. Whether it be through history, politics, culture or urban space, indigenous presence is usually relegated to marginal places, while the capital city monuments and landmarks are mostly dedicated to European invaders to celebrate the colonial past. Recently, the politics of these representations have been defied by urban artists and protesters. Building on two years of collaborative work with Mapuche artists and activists in Santiago, Casagrande and Lincopi explore staged theatre pieces and audio-visual documentation and the challenges they pose for the rethinking of visual icons in a moment of social change in Chile.
In ‘We can’t breathe’ – race/mourning/digital media/utopia, Ashwani Sharma provides an audio-visual essay that draws upon the killing of Floyd to consider other moments of urban violence. The critical analysis extends to the 2017 Grenfell fire in which more than seventy Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people died due to a combination of state neglect, substandard tower cladding and mixed messages from the emergency services in one of the richest boroughs of west London. With a focus on community activism allied by Lowkey’s lyrical rap demanding recognition and recompense, Sharma considers the use of digital video, social media, and online networks as critical modes of collective memory, mourning and cultural resistance in relation to events of racial violence and death.
The dominant media spectacle of the Grenfell fire disaster vindicates 'necropolitical violence' that abstracts such events from their social and historical moorings. In contrast, alternative digital media and communication enables forms of social grounding, organising and mourning of the dead from real-time live coverage of protests, street photographs, to online music videos of remembrance. These emergent archives of digital fragments create autonomous Black and Brown sociality and historical memory countering the amnesia of the state of whiteness in cahoots with corporate media. The essay ends with an analysis of the visuals and voices of Lowkey’s music video, Ghosts of Grenfell, in which social mourning provides a form of ethical resistance and a counter-memory to the dominant framing of people of colour.
Malcolm James explores the sensory mutations of ‘catalytic signifiers’ through the cultural politics of Black diasporic and popular music as it transitioned from the 1970s and 1980s reggae dancehall, through 1990s pirate radio and 2000s YouTube music videos. These performative arenas enable “sonic intimacy,” which refers to the ways in which sound conveys notions of presence, relation and shared understanding at odds with the visual, tradeable and rationalised regimes of racial capitalism. James’ contribution, Sonic Intimacy as a Political Resource, evokes as it invokes the presence of people in the dancehall, shared understandings of racial and class oppression, and the penetration of sounds through the collective body combined with lyrical wisdoms. Altogether they produce a demand that exceeds the imagination of the racist state at the time.
James then addresses what happened to the demand of the reggae sound system as it was transformed into the fractured fervour of jungle pirate radio in the 1990s, and then into the hyperlinked screen intensities and immediacies of grime YouTube music videos from 2010. In the process, the affective resonance of catalytic signifiers through sound, embodied as they are with a certain visceral efflorescence, become flattened and spectacularised with the latter-day turn to visual and digital platforms. Nevertheless, sonic intimacy remains an important space for the articulation of an alternative cultural politics to the ones perpetuated by racial capitalism.
Jeffrey Lennon from African Street Style London presents the creative work, Progress, that he produced as an example of Art-based interventions on Race, Politics, Gender, Social Commentary, and History. Focusing on pivotal years for Black protest, 1968 and 2020, the project draws on significant events of social and political upheaval from around the world, the former epitomised by civil rights campaigns and the latter catalysed by the protests around Floyd’s death. But as one of the contributors to the art says even of modern artistic and political expressions, ‘this new is bringing something old… because when what is old is not resolved the new will always bring that old that is not resolved to be seen again’.
The film was launched in 2019 as an immersive public arts installation in Brixton, London. Directed by Etienne Joseph (Decolonising the Archive) and Ada Cotton (Imigongo Films), Progress1968 refers to artistic and academic reflections on the Portuguese colonial war, Biafra conflict in Nigeria, military rule in Brazil, the impact of the Algerian war of independence in France, and political influence from the Caribbean at ‘a time when Black power was hitting us’ in the words of one of the contributors to the work.4 As one participant put it: ‘When you talk about the hostile environment, it’s always been hostile’ and another ‘the past coexisting with the present… and that can help me reconfigure what options I have at this point of time’. Progress2020 is a work-in-progress that aims to capture contemporary experiences with specific examinations of race, duality, gender, along with the ongoing legacy of colonialism. The work extends to associates and artists in the cities of Bremen, Kingston, Maputo, and Bologna to seek out other parallel forms of creative and political expression.
In Witch Finder Phenomenal, Maria Rosamojo presents how performing black queer resistances through hauntological film narratives, storytelling and communicating with ancestors can be a way to protest, empower, heal trauma and find meaning in grief. She reflects on auto-ethnographic and storytelling narratives from her experiences as a Black British mixed-race queer woman. With a hauntological method of self-reflection in her filmmaking process, she channels personal and collective trauma into performative queer resistances through the art of representational storytelling. She maintains that the dying motions and desperate cries of “I can’t breathe” are painfully ingrained, not only with BLM, but onto the ‘fabric of societies “mostly” collective grief’. By examining how the BLM protests and the spectre of Floyd ricocheted in and out of her own childhood, Rosamojo analyses the ‘catalytic signifiers’ between racially motivated injustices and violence, then and now. With her creative contribution, she proposes that we can learn from the past to find meaning in traumatic individual and collective trauma and grief by tapping into a ‘matriarchal ancestral witch power’, writing and sharing our stories, and listening to Others.
Poppy Bennet in Black Lives, Brilliance and Grassroots Fundraising discusses the creativity engaged in the use of social media to fundraise for the BLM movement as an original, grassroots approach to campaigning. BLM is a very visually orientated movement, and its fundraising is no different. Based on activities that she partook in Bristol in the summer of 2020, Bennet analyses how BLM fundraising differs from standard campaigns while providing some lucid examples. These include selling artworks on social media platforms and YouTube's advert revenue systems where supporters uploaded videos designed to be shared and played repeatedly, including the adverts. Funds were then raised through multiple clicks and donated to foundations and campaigns related to BLM. Black Lives and Voices Matter: an art exposition was one of the most popular with over ten million views at the time of writing. It was started by YouTuber Zoe Amira to share a visual compilation of Black art such as poetry and music. As their activities raised funds, activists also celebrated ‘Black brilliance’, directing people (and their spending) to creators and innovators, thereby also subverting negative depictions of Black people in mainstream audio-visual media.
Expanding on Indigenous Lives Matter, Molly Leeves considers the film Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock (2017) to explore the value of self-representation by indigenous communities who stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline through their ancestral lands in the USA. This is in a context of a hegemonic corporate-influenced counterinsurgency against Native Americans where a combination of soft and hard power tactics are used to racialise and criminalise them as a community along with their non-violent actions. This might include counter-insurgency techniques that combine surveillance, stop-and-search, targeted violence, the creation of fear, the manipulation of media, silence and defamation, among others, to suppress the movement. In Awake to Racialised Truths and Resistance, Leeves looks at how film can be a platform for marginalised communities to resist powerful global actors through self-representation, subject sovereignty and activism. As one of the protagonists says in the film, ‘Something that I’d seen was lacking was filming from an indigenous perspective, and our story wasn’t being told correctly’. While the media and powerful actors supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline misrepresented the indigenous community and manipulated peaceful actions, the filmmakers and subjects of Awake use the filmic platform to give context to, and mitigate negative corporate-influenced and institutionalised media bias. Such outputs that are available online as part of creative commons have catalytic potential as a means with which to speak audio-visual truth to power while presenting their narratives and agency with which to engage with their circumstances and cause: ‘Will you wake up and dream with us? Will you join our dream? Will you join us?” asks Floris White Bull, the film’s advisor and co-writer.5
Moving on to the content, context and viral impact of shared videos, Emilia Melossi considers imagery of police brutality against African migrants in Italy in 2018. African Migrant Struggles in Italy: The Narrative behind Jallow's Arrest relays an incident that had a major impact in the country as investigations were opened against policemen for abuse of power during a brutal arrest. Jallow is an African “bracciante” from Gambia who lives in a shanty town outside Foggia in Puglia (southern Italy) and makes his living picking tomatoes for meagre pay. He was arrested in October 2018 for allegedly assaulting two policemen and attempting to resist arrest. The event was recorded by Jallow’s fellow migrant shanty town residents to the chants of: “He is not an animal!”. Campagne in Lotta — a local activist group committed to challenging the mainstream narrative that African migrant shanty town residents are ‘criminals' — uploaded the videos on their platform that went viral. In the end, with the force of the campaign, protests and imagery testifying to the events, the police were forced to retract all accusations while being investigated themselves for abuse of power. By denouncing the racist, violent and dehumanising police arrest tactics through the shared videos, the migrants’ struggle went from being a local issue to gaining increased visibility.
The case, however, did not attract the attention it deserved on mainstream media as migrants suffer a double discrimination based on a combination of race and their legal status where their lives are deemed less important than citizen’s lives. The article is a useful comparison to earlier cases where, on the one hand, videoed evidence that played a large part in soliciting popular support was dismissed in court, as happened with the case of Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King in the early 1990s; and on the other, contemporaneous examples as with Floyd's case where Derek Chauvin, the police defendant, was charged in the US in April 2021 - yet Pantaleo was not for Garner’s death in New York 2014. The effects of audio-visual testimony defy logical conclusions owing to the contingencies of how images are interpreted and from whose perspective.
Turning to historical ethnographic films and the practice of ‘shared anthropology’ where researchers work closely with their interlocutors, Sol Carroll focuses on Jean Rouch’s film Moi, un Noir (1958) in order to reassess the filmmaker’s status in the discipline. On the one hand, Rouch might be considered as a mediator, pioneering and challenging colonial representations and objectification of the Other. On the other, Rouch’s positionality as a relatively privileged white male speaking for the Other, appears to perpetuate coloniality. In the 1950s, Moi, un Noir was pioneering for its experimental and collaborative approach produced at a time of waning imperialism and rising anti-colonial movements. The film followed the everyday lives, dreams and fantasies of two Nigerian labourers, Edward G. Robinson (Oumarou Ganda) and Eddie Constantine (Petit Touré), who moved to Adjame in the Ivory Coast to acquire work. Through interactive methods in the preparation, filming, editing and screening processes, the protagonists created their own characters, shared narration with Rouch, and gave critical direction to the film. Drawing on the works of Trinh T. Minh-ha and Ousmane Sembène, Caroll’s contribution, Moi, un Noir: Affirmation of, or antagonism against coloniality? presents the case that such practices alone are not enough, for Rouch still pulls the shots and takes the artistic credit as director. The author argues for the need for ‘radical reflexivity’ when it comes to research and practices in other cultural contexts – that is, a constant re-examination of the researcher’s role, positionality and representation, and an aim for ‘speaking nearby’ while interlocutors or participants speak for themselves.
Finally, Damani Partridge investigates the extent to which diversity narratives, rather than unravelling racial privilege, enable the persistence of White supremacy in US and European institutions. Through an audio-visual essay, Interrogating “Diversity” Through Collaborative Film in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Berlin - Contesting White Supremacy, Partridge introduces a project that he began at the University of Michigan in the winter of 2020 in which he asked students to make short ten-minute films about the future of the university and their surrounding communities from the perspective of ‘diversity’ – that is, in whose interests diversity was being advocated, what it meant in practice, how it should be interrogated, and how it was affecting their experience of the university and/or their lives? With collective filmmaking, the project raised other relevant questions from the point of view of the student protagonists: such as how might Black, Indigenous, and Students of Colour gain from the term and institutional implementation of "diversity"? What might they lose? To what extent is "diversity" able to address issues of systemic racism or feelings of isolation? Partridge’s contribution is a critical reminder of the questionable role and even need of the anthropologist. Instead, collaborative film-making can be pursued, both as a mode of investigation where they call the shots, and as a means of political possibility through articulating other presents by protagonists that might otherwise be under study.
From Amnesia to Legacies
It is in recognising the bias in the audio-visual imagery among other sensory realms in mainstream representations of social and cultural movements that the potential of self-representations can be truly valued. As we have seen in the case of the Floyd video of police murder, colonial statue defiance and defamation, Lowkey’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire, sonic intimacies in collective performances, Jallow’s footage of police brutality, indigenous media in response to counterinsurgency, and personal and collective filmmaking in response to trauma and collective agency among many other examples, sound and imagery can be used to empower, strengthen and mobilise. When living with regimes of amnesia in a media cacophony, the catalytic moment becomes crucial for piercing the veils and obstructive noises. It might spark transformative action and potentially boost the demand for change, counter-memories and resistance, for these are fundamental for substantial structural reform. More interruptions in the flow of corporate-backed mainstream communication are required, and this needs to be amplified and magnified by the multiplication and speeding of a positive viral spread - whereby imagery and other sensory media can be identified with, emotionally shared and re-circulated along with new narratives. This in the long-term might be effective when allied with permanent vigilance, resilience and resistance.
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