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How social media changed the conversation on #Ferguson

Is this hashtag activism's tipping point?


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Posted on Aug 18, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 6:22 pm CDT


Police brutality in America has long been a story in the inner city told by residents to each other—with the exception of the occasional atrocity writ large enough to make the news.

Each time it has been treated as an isolated incident, unique to whatever locale plays host to tragedy. Communities spend the time between these tragedies pulling together for other reasons, be it to advocate for better access to education, healthcare, food, or any of a dozen other issues that impact marginalized populations. However, residents are always aware that what has happened in the past can happen again at any time, and that victims may well be on trial posthumously.

Yet Michael Brown‘s death has gone from an under-reported story to international news. That happened largely at the behest of social media.

Hashtag activism” is often derided, but without it, Ferguson police might have been able to sweep Michael Brown’s death under the proverbial rug; they could have found a way to charge him with property damage for getting blood on an officer’s shoes, for example, as happened in the case of Henry Davis.

As it stands, we’re watching the same script that is often used when an unarmed black, Latino, or other person of color is killed by the police. Names like Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo, John Crawford III, Omar Abrego, Kathryn Johnston, and Dante Parker are woven into the fabric of POC communities’ relationships with police.

Yet those names are just samples of what has prompted the outpouring of support for Ferguson and other cities in social media. Unarmed may not mean innocent, but if the police can take a mass shooter or a terrorist bomber into custody alive, then certainly it is reasonable to expect them to be able to handle traffic stops, jaywalking, or interviewing possible suspects without lethal force.

Activism in the era of social media looks a lot like activism in the past, only it moves at a faster pace. Because information is harder to suppress, oppressive activities that have become normalized in marginalized communities are now being seen in real time.

There is a tendency to assume that the people in heavily policed communities deserve the high rate of police interaction. That these are high crime areas full of criminals and, thus, the police narratives about dead residents must be true. Headlines proclaim that community responses to police brutality are aggressive. That looting and rioting provoke the police into firing rubber bullets, tear gas, flash bangs, and other “non lethal” rounds into the crowd. Stories often focus on the few who are destructive and erase those who are trying to be heard while maintaining their community’s health.

Yet we see these communities pushing back via social media. Petitions asking local governments to require police officers to wear cameras, use less/none of the military equipment intended for anti-terrorist initiatives, and improve other aspects of community policing are circulating. Photos and videos of the people who march peacefully every night, who stand in front of the stores to stop looting, who get between the police and protesters in hopes of lowering the tension, and others bringing food, water, and medical supplies can be found all over Twitter.

For people who have no direct or indirect connection to communities of color, seeing these images via social media may be the only way that they hear the rest of the story. The mundane daily details of how these areas pull together in the face of tragedy to care for residents can be highlighted by citizens, journalists, and those miles away who help the counter narratives go viral.

The humanity of the marginalized should not be up for debate or discussion, but as it so often goes unrecognized in mainstream media, it is even more important that social media be used to emphasize that the people in Ferguson are just like those in any other city in America.    

Police brutality is a problem that spans generations, departments, and communities. However, with the advent of Twitter and other forms of social media, the larger pattern of police brutality that was supposed to be investigated 20 years ago is now becoming obvious even to people outside the targeted communities. What’s happening this week in Ferguson could happen next week in Los Angeles, Chicago, or any other city in America. While it is certainly more likely to happen to some people than to others, the reality is that it is everyone’s problem.

Every time police brutality goes unrecognized, is excused, or worse yet, is lauded by those who think victims must deserve it by virtue of their address and skin color, it damages our society. If the police are meant to protect and serve, then the question of who they are protecting, and how they are serving, must be asked and answered.

For those who are certain that what happened in Ferguson could not, would not happen in their neighborhood, there needs to be a discussion of how the police engage with residents, as well what residents expect from police when they call on them.

Twitter and other social media has become a way to hear the voices of people who have good reason not to trust the police, to see the way police treat residents in marginalized communities. It can be a tool that allows the privileged to understand that while none of these incidents are isolated, in so many ways the communities where they take place are, and to examine exactly what it means to be able to trust the police.

We should continue to use Twitter or any other platform not only to raise awareness for causes that are important, but also to become aware of things that are happening to others. It’s the only way to break the pattern—and make these incidents a rarity. 

Mikki Kendall a writer and occasional feminist divides her time between two careers, a family, and brunch. The last is necessary to provide the energy she needs for everything else on her to-do list. Her writing can be found at XO Jane, Salon, NPR’s Code Switch, Guardian, and a host of other places willing to let her rant. She commits occasional acts of fiction largely focusing on black people in every situation under the sun, and a few under undefined celestial bodies. She can often be found on Twitter engaging in the highest quality shenanigans.

Photo via Shawn Semmler/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 18, 2014, 10:30 am CDT