Even before they knew the name of the woman killed during Wednesday’s pro-Trump mob at the Capitol, conservative accounts were beseeching followers to say it.
On Thursday morning, the identity of the sole person shot by law enforcement during the violence in D.C. was confirmed: Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran who was killed as she tried to storm through the halls of Congress.
Babbitt’s death was recorded in cellphone videos taken by fellow supporters of President Trump and shared online, quickly going viral. Footage shows her attempting to leap through a shattered window pane when she’s struck by U.S. Capitol Police; she immediately falls back onto the floor. She died hours later.
On Wednesday night, a number of prominent far-right commentators called attention to Babbitt’s death, urging followers to “say her name.”
They were immediately met with pushback online by Black Twitter users, who derided attempts to co-opt a phrase originally intended to draw attention to Black women who are victims of police brutality.
“Say Her Name was created for & By Black Women being erased from Police violence,” said one woman, adding that applying the term to a MAGA rioter is a “slap in the face.”
“Only name I’m saying is Breonna Taylor,” tweeted Karen Civil, a prominent digital media strategist.
“It’s incredibly distasteful,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president of the national civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change. “‘Say Her Name’ was a slogan that was coined to really reflect the absence of media coverage around the in-custody deaths of Black women.”
The phrase was first popularized in 2015 by University of California at Los Angeles law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum to draw attention to the death of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who was found dead in a Texas jail after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop. According to law enforcement, Bland was found hanging in her jail cell, but her family questioned whether Bland had actually killed herself and argued that she should have never been arrested to begin with.
Since Bland’s death, the phrase has been used to draw attention to other Black female victims of police brutality, including Atatiana Jefferson, Rekia Boyd and, most recently, Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police officers in her home in March during a botched drug raid. Taylor’s death may be the best example of the galvanizing power of the phrase: In the weeks following her killing, there was little national media attention on her case and protests were scant. It wasn’t until the more public deaths of two Black men — Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota — that social media users began to amplify Taylor’s death as well, using the #SayHerName hashtag.
Like their male counterparts, Black women are far more likely to experience police violence, and to be fatally shot by law enforcement, than their White peers. In 2020, The Washington Post’s Fatal Force investigation found that Black women made up 20 percent of all women fatally shot by law enforcement and 28 percent of unarmed deaths — despite being just 13 percent of the female population.
But you would not know the specificity of the phrase if you did an Internet search of “Say Her Name” on Thursday afternoon. Instead, a Google clip of a Wikipedia article returned this summary of the slogan: “#SayHerName is a social movement that seeks to raise awareness for Ashli Babbitt victim of police brutality at the capital and anti-Trump violence in the United States.”
The brief Wikipedia revision, which appeared to be gone by Friday, is just one example of conservatives attempting to co-opt the phrase. Former Daily Caller writer Scott Greer invoked the slogan on Wednesday night and was followed Thursday morning by other prominent far-right accounts, including controversy-seeking political commentator Angela Stanton King.
Far from attempting to shed light on underreported, systemic violence, Hatch says, these tweets were intended to troll the Black Lives Matter movement.
“They’re doing this with a wink and a nod,” Hatch said of the tweets about Babbitt. “It sort of makes a joke out of many of the systemic problems that Black folks are organizing to change.”
Crenshaw drew a similar conclusion, calling the right-wing usage of the phrase “debauched” and a “continuation of [the] erasure” Black women experience when they are victims of state violence.
Some Make America Great Again supporters used the phrase so quickly on Wednesday that they invoked it before Babbitt’s identity was revealed, leading several accounts to boost the wrong name entirely. Many Black social media users immediately rejected the idea that the slogan should apply to a non-Black person, particularly someone like Babbitt, who in her final moments was seen enthusiastically taking part in what national security experts have called an act of domestic terrorism.
Some specifically pointed to the case of Miriam Carey, a 34-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot by U.S. Capitol Police and Secret Service officers in October 2013 after attempting to make a U-turn at a White House checkpoint. Law enforcement shot at her car 26 times while her 13-month-old infant was in the back. The baby survived, but Carey did not.
Carey’s death predated the Say Her Name movement, but her name continues to be raised in relation to it, underscoring the narrative power of the phrase. For Black female victims of police violence, Say Her Name acts as both archive and altar, a way to publicly mourn and commemorate lives and untold grief that have frequently escaped attention.
“There isn’t national media coverage or outrage around some of the violence that is happening to Black women,” said Hatch. “That’s why Say Her Name has been such an important slogan within our movement, because it actually has elevated the stories of dozens of women who we wouldn’t otherwise even know about.”