March 14, 2022No Comments

From a Hashtag to a Trans-State Insurgency: Cyberspace and the Antiracist Movements

By: Julia Hodgins and Leigh Dawson.

Following the anti-racist movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd, #BlackLivesMatter generated worldwide attention by connecting clusters of individuals with compatible claims about race, marginalization, and police brutality. The movement turned into a global social insurgency facilitated by shared long-term grief and amplified by cyberspace.

In July 2013, Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi created and tweeted the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, accused of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager. Unlike social movements before it, #BlackLivesMatter reawakened the collective memory of racial oppression using a new medium – social media. This hashtag has become a referent to highlight multiple cases of African-American citizens killed by police officers in the USA. According to The Washington Post’s database, roughly 1252 were killed by police between January 2015 and July 2020. This social and cultural movement is iconic of the oppression that African-Americans have and continue to endure in USA – much of which is rooted in America’s slavery past. 

The new public ‘agora’

The increased accessibility and connectivity of cyberspace made it possible for a seemingly mundane event to reach a global audience; a phenomenon, prior to the advent of internet, restricted to those with enough social capital that remained part of the public agora alone.

Today, non-state actors – particularly individuals and civil collectives – connect online under less complex rules and often without punishment. Although, some states, like China and former Soviet nations, heavily regulate and redact content its population can see and engage with online. The legal framework and its enforcement practices often do lag in relation to cyberspace’s exponential growth and innovation, enabling non-state actors to maximize their exchanges – in quantity and quality – and by extension, wield outside of their local networks.

The unprecedented speed and outreach capacity of social media foster an unparalleled amplification power, turning cyberspace into a transformative domain that enables communities of shared experiences or beliefs to amalgamate into influential worldwide trends. Increased interconnectivity leads to a new level of collective interoperability, benefiting individuals and groups directly by growing their social capital through these exchanges. Citizens ‘live’ as both virtual and kinetic personas connected in one living macrostructure alongside public and private networks, collective spaces, and the content these all produce. As an unintended consequence of the dynamics within cyberspace, persistent disruptive social processes have found new ways to create tangible influence; this is what happened with #BlackLivesMatter. 

Optic fibers knit social tissue

Support networks between people, and the sense of belonging shaping them, are timeless. Just as centuries ago, today humans associate in search of mutual help, of spaces to share feelings, of making sense of their lives by revisiting their past and imagining their future. Part of this collective memory is shared grief, and remembrance. There is not, however, a natural link between collective memory or indignation, and cyber connectivity. How did collective memory migrate online? 

Large-scale, corporate, non-state actors dominate cyberspace, and their influence sponsors the proliferation of smaller non-state actors; as Singer and Brookings state, “For all the talk of ‘community,’ these platforms are businesses.” Following the inception of cyberspace, social media companies grew and profited by offering online community spaces to individuals, civil collectives, and smaller business, either free or at a tiny fraction of office expenses and thereby connecting physically remote individuals through smartphones, computers, tablets, and other devices. 

The number of Internet users has grown from 2.6 million in 1990 up to 4.66 billion in 2021, according to and Statista. The agency and power each actor have is uneven, and in most cases inferior to states’ power based on budget and influence, but the devil is in the detail. Cyberspace has enabled individuals to connect and share voices beyond borders, the interplay of online activity and offline creates a tangible social impact in a way that has altered the relationship between themselves and the state within cyberspace, though states do remain dominant offline.

While corporate actors reign in cyberspace, countless smaller non-state actors have gained traction and agency through mass leverage of their voices, thereby creating new patterns of social forces which challenge the status quo with diverse impact on power asymmetries.

And just like that…

That is how antiracist movements became a global movement for justice; the killing of George Floyd triggered colossal indignation, and spurred memory trips to similar events prompting the #BlackLivesMatter tweet, activated by pain, hopelessness, and rage deriving from both the remembrance of lost loved ones dead on the hands of racist police brutality, and historical struggles. As online activity continued trending, protests were replicated across the planet and headlines covering them increased, which reinforced both online activity and street protests; these two incorporated new cases of black citizens killed in similar ways. In Jay Winter’s words, “Suffering [was] democratized,” thanks to cyberspace. Winter also argues that such shared grief migrated geographically and intergenerationally; this double-dimension migration brought to the forefront a sentiment of restitution expressed in multivocal stories shaping a worldwide demand for social justice and equality. A paramount example is the video that Darnella Frazier, a 17 year-old high school student, spontaneously recorded when witnessing the arrest and asphyxiation of Mr. Floyd. Her video went viral after she posted it in Facebook in May 27, 2020, and was of essential value during the trial that convicted Derek Chauvin, the officer whose knee suffocated Mr Floyd. Ms Frazier stated that “she felt she has to document it.” The video later earned her a Pulitzer Special Citation and has been attributed as responsible for the rebirth of the civil rights movement.

Ms. Frazier’s video ignited feelings of grief and indignation around Mr. Floyd’s killing worldwide, which aligned in real-time clusters of social unrest that were geographically scattered but connect via tags, retweets and likes, thus, strengthening their activities. This collective remembrance later connected with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter – active since 2013 – lending it new salience. Once hashtag and meaning were articulated together, the movement gained unprecedented momentum and aligned multiple antiracial protests within the USA and abroad into what Colin Gray forecasts in Another Bloody Century (2006); an intra-state and trans-state conflict. It also resembled David Kilcullen’s definition of irregular warfare, as memorialisation and social insurgency interplayed between urban settings and online venues.

Official net-warring

Historical patterns of domination at the root of persistent social inequality, which are based on an assumed – yet not factual – racial superiority, have survived within many nations in the shape of systemic racism, fuelling counternarratives between state(s) and protesting groups. During the upsurge of this antiracist social insurgency, American President Donald Trump was at war with protestors and deployed the National Guard to help local authorities regain control of their cities after rebels hijacked the peaceful protests and began destroying businesses. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson delegitimized marches by calling them ‘thuggery’; and, the former Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Kristy Kirkup neglected the systemic racism blatantly present within the federal police force and other societal systems across Canada. The hashtag #AllLivesMatter, began circulating across the same channels, attempting to delegitimize #BlackLivesMatter, a Conservative response rooted in counterinsurgency tactics, arguing that everyone’s life is important, but failing to include the elements of structural racism at the heart of the BLM movement on it.


The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a spotlight on more than two centuries of racial inequality and structural racism that had been allowed to proliferate in the USA, and across the world, unchallenged. The movement empowered youth, connecting them with historical grievances of their ancestors and those of today that still shape societal relations, locally and globally. However, #BLM’s collective memory and remembrance would not have turned into this trans-state uprising reaching worldwide prominence, without the transforming power of the horizontal amplification and vertical proliferation that cyberspace provides.

December 28, 2021No Comments

The Restitution of Cultural Objects to African Countries: New Form of Decolonisation?

By:  Alessandra Gramolini.

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Between the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, the debate on cultural decolonization processes resumed. This is an expression by which we mean the return, to the countries of origin, of works of art and objects stolen in times of conquest or colonialism. With increasing insistence, there has been talk of ways, laws and times for returning works preserved in Europe to their countries of origin.

The protection of African cultural heritage

Almost 90% of Africa's heritage is outside the continent, in particular, 80-90% of it can be found in European museums. African countries have had to face the problem of the removal of cultural properties from the continent to other parts of the world over many decades and perhaps centuries. The end of colonization has witnessed the repatriation of cultural objects from the colonial powers to the colonized countries. Examples include return of objects by Belgium to Democratic Republic of Congo, by the Netherlands to Indonesia, and by Australia and New Zealand to Papua New Guinea. The process involved in the restitution of cultural properties is usually difficult and long. Negotiation for the return of the Makonde Mask to Tanzania, for example, lasted 20 years. While other stolen memorials were returned to Kenya from the United States after 22 years. After almost 70 and 30 years Rome returned the Obelisk of Aksum to Ethiopia, and the Monument to the Lion of Judah.

Africa’s cultural heritage has attracted and will continue to attract great interest from all over the world. Each Member State needs to have a national strategy that needs to be integrated as well in new  opportunities for international cooperation.

Changing mindsets throughout Europe

In recent years it is possible to find a strong global debate about the rightful place of cultural objects. One after another Western countries began to announce the return of cultural property to the countries of origin. Just a few months ago there was the return to Ethiopia of ten important artifacts from the Battle of Maqdala, looted by British troops during the punitive expedition in 1868. Governments themselves are starting to take actions regarding the matter of long-ago acquired artifacts, many of which are now held in public museums. Nanette Snoep, anthropologist and curator from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, said, “museums and politicians have become aware of the fact that it is really necessary to decolonize museums, and decolonizing also means restitution.”

United Kingdom

Last summer, the British Scheherazade Foundation got the Maqdala artifacts back and handed them over to the Ethiopian ambassador to the UK. The list of artifacts includes a handwritten Ethiopian religious text, crosses, and an imperial shield. They represent only a small part of the many precious Ethiopian objects that the English army stole after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. The ambassador Teferi Melesse, during the restitution ceremony declared that Maqdala was still an open wound for them. The Maqdala objects, treasures, or artifacts represent a possibility for the Ethiopians to mourn and process what they lost. Also in a statement, Alula Pankhurst, a member of Ethiopia’s National Heritage Restitution Committee, calls the objects’ restitution the “single most significant heritage restitution in Ethiopia’s history.”


In April this year Germany reached a deal to return to Nigeria Benin Bronzes next year. These ancient works of art were looted in the 19th century and are currently on display in German museums. The developments in recent months are themselves the cumulative result of many years of difficult discussions and negotiations. The first formal request for the return of artifacts looted during the 1897 raid was made in 1936 by the Oba of Benin. The Benin Court and the Nigerian government then sought to secure the return of the Benin antiquities on various occasions since Nigeria's independence in 1960. In 2010 a multilateral international collaborative working group, known as the Benin Dialogue Group, was formed. The members are representatives of Western museums together with  delegates of the Nigerian Government, the Royal Court of Benin, and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Its objectives are cooperation between museums that possess Nigerian cultural heritage in Western countries and the return of illegally obtained works of art, including the Benin Bronzes.

The engagement of these entities have been really important in the context of recent events. 

In 2019, during a meeting of the group, the members decided to plan the establishment of a new museum to house the Bronzes. After this the Legacy Restoration Trust was founded to develop the new museum, the Edo Museum of West African Art. It has the goal to highlight, rediscover and protect the history and the cultural heritage of West African culture. So for now the German government and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments have signed a memorandum of understanding for the restitution of the artifacts of the royal palace of Benin. The agreement provides for the signing of a contract to be signed by the end of the year. It will transfer ownership of the Benin bronzes from German museums to Nigeria in the second quarter of 2022.


In 2017, French President Macron, during a visit to the Ki-Zerbo University of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), declared his commitment to make possible, within five years, the conditions for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage in France. This led to the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy who, on the official request of the president, on 23 November 2018 presented a long report on the French government's decision to return the works claimed by the Benin authorities. To make refunds possible, the French Parliament approved a law on 24 December 2020 that allows for derogations from the principle of inalienability of objects that are part of state collections. Underlying this commitment is the idea that Africans should have access to their heritage in Africa. The 26 objects from the royal treasures of the Danhomé kingdom and taken by the French during the Benin colonization war of 1890-1894 were on display at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris for a week, from 26 to 31 October. They have now been officially returned from France to Benin. The return of the works to Benin represents an important precedent that could soon lead to the conclusion of new returns from other European countries and beyond.

Restitution step by step

The hope is that this trend will continue in order to focus more on this form of  decolonization, and this regardless of the requests for restitution by the countries of origin. It is not just a question of returning artifacts, but rather of recognizing the fact that countries, regions and communities of origin have the right to manage and preserve these artifacts. For all the parties involved it is a question of working in favor of a new shape and a new orientation of the museum, which is more permeable to external interest groups and which takes on wider social functions. To achieve this, close collaboration, exchange and knowledge transfer in both directions are required.