By William H. Freivogel
Ferguson was America’s Arab Spring moment, spawning a new civil rights movement and stoking a national debate about race, privilege and the American character.
A social media tsunami of 35 million tweets dominated the media narrative and public debate about the killing of Michael Brown Aug. 9, 2014. No previous event in American history had led to that kind of outpouring of righteous anger and social media connection.
It was the incubator of a new generation of civil rights activists, among them DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie. They and others met on Twitter in the days after Aug. 9 and used their natural language of 140 characters to grab the world’s attention as they shouldered past the previous generation of civil rights leaders. From the spontaneous combustion of the Ferguson moment, Black Lives Matter burgeoned into the new face of the civil rights movement. Social media activists from Ferguson were in the lead.
Questionable police shootings that once didn’t make the front page of a local newspaper, now are national news within hours of the posting of a new viral video from Baton Rouge or St. Paul or Cleveland or North Charleston or St. Louis. In the blink of an eye, a national jury of social media users is ready to convict, and legacy media sometimes follow suit by re-reporting social media’s unverified “facts.” Events that once took days and weeks to digest flash by in a Twitter instant faster than the eyes can read and far faster than the national consciousness can comprehend.
Elzie posted influential tweets about Brown’s death within hours, including one six hours after the shooting. She was one of the most active and influential users of Twitter in the days that followed. Mckesson, a school teacher from Minneapolis, followed those and other accounts on Twitter. A week after Brown died he announced on Twitter he was quitting his public school job and moving to St. Louis to help with the protests. There he connected with Packnett, Elzie and other young, social media activists, who became the core of the rapidly growing Black Lives Matter movement.
The three have developed Campaign Zero, which maps police shootings around the country and calls for reforms in police policies. Packnett, who heads the Teach for America program in St. Louis, also served on the Ferguson Commission and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, two government inquiries into how to curb police shootings. Map: http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/
All three activists traveled to Baton Rouge last month to protest the police killing of Alton Sterling. Mckesson’s arrest for protesting on a highway (he says he was on the shoulder) was a national news bulletin pushed out by the Washington Post and The New York Times on the tense Saturday night after the killing of the Dallas officers.
True to his social media roots, Mckesson captured the arrest on the live streaming social media platform Periscope, which instantaneously gives people all over the world a front-row seat to far-flung events. The arrest came at the end of a day of Black Lives Matter protests around the world.
Kelsey Proud of St. Louis Public Radio curated the social media chaos, reading thousands of tweets in the weeks after Brown’s death. She reposted on a live blog the most reliable or influential at the rate of three or four a minute.
“It was like the whole of St. Louis decided to get together in a gigantic auditorium and yell at each other about things that had been bothering them for generations,” she said.
“St. Louis got a gigantic mirror thrust upon itself and then it reflected back to show America and the world things that some people felt were done and over with…. And social media was the vehicle for allowing these kinds of conversations to come up again in America. If social media had not been around I’m not sure the whole world would know of Michael Brown or….whether the rest of St. Louis would. And that is something too to think about,” Proud add: “Why when those things occur more people don’t know about them?”
A new civil rights movement
Elzie, a journalism graduate of Southeast Missouri University, has spoken about the importance of social media to developing a new generation of activists. She told CNN, “Having national attention on issues that affect the black community is something that’s never happened in my generation. And it would not have happened without social media.”
The new generation of civil right activists won’t be pigeonholed. Most don’t want to be called leaders. With roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement, they shun leaders but also dispute the criticism that they are leaderless, responding they’re “leaderful.”
This is a movement largely composed of millennials, with little patience for the older generation of civil rights leaders, the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Women play a major role. When Sharpton led a march in Washington D.C. in December 2014, the young activists from Ferguson were told by organizers that they couldn’t speak. Elzie grabbed a microphone to complain the Sharpton rally was a “publicity stunt.”
“They are not doing anything but standing around,” she said. She told reporters. “This is a youth-led movement.” http://fusion.net/story/33815/young-and-seasoned-organizers-clash-at-justice-for-all-march-in-d-c/
In an interview with Complex Life magazine, Elzie rejected the Martin Luther King model of civil rights leadership. “They keep wanting to put us in the civil rights movement box. And we’re not in that box,” she said. “We’re not respectable enough to be that. People didn’t change who they were when they came outside. No church told us to go. No organization told us to go. There was no start button. People saw what happened to Mike Brown and didn’t leave. We just went.” http://www.complex.com/life/2016/03/johnetta-elzie-profile
According to Proud, “What we have to resist is that figureheads are not really something in this movement….(People) were looking for their Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson…but power and influence is much more spread out and segmented and much more nuanced.”
Birth and growth of #blacklivesmatter
The #blacklivesmatter hashtag on Twitter was born earlier, the night in 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin in the Florida stand your ground case.
Alicia Garza of Oakland told Politico she was in a bar in Oakland, Calif., drinking bourbon and awaiting the verdict. When she learned on Facebook about the not guilty verdicts, she wrote what she describes as a love letter to black people ending, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, shared Garza’s Facebook message on Twitter under the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. The traffic on that hashtag began to pick up after the death of Michael Brown and spiked after the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson. http://www.politico.com/magazine/politico50/2015/alicia-garza-patrisse-cullors-opal-tometi
The Black Lives Matter movement is not the same as the hashtag, but it also surged as a result of Ferguson. In the summer of 2015 it confronted presidential candidates, demanding they do more about police misconduct. After the shootings during the summer of 2016 in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, it showed international strength with demonstrations in New York, Portland, Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Dallas, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, San Francisco, London, Berlin and Amsterdam.
With the assassination of five white police officers in Dallas at the end of a Black Lives Matter protest in July, the movement faces new criticism for being anti-police. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called the movement “inherently racist” and “un-American” arguing that black lives matter implies other lives don’t matter. The slogan should be All Lives Matter, he says.
But Black Lives Matter says its rallying cry is being misunderstood: “The statement ‘black lives matter’ is not an anti-white proposition,” its website says. “Contained within the statement is an unspoken but implied ‘too,’ as in “black lives matter, too,” which suggests that the statement is one of inclusion rather than exclusion. … Black Lives Matter movement stands for…the simple proposition that “black lives also matter.” http://blacklivesmatter.com/11-major-misconceptions-about-the-black-lives-matter-movement/
Critics also point out that crowds at the movement’s demonstrations sometimes chant “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” A video of the Black Lives Matter rally in Portland about the same time as the Dallas shootings shows speakers advocating violence against police.
“I don’t give a f—k whether you knock ‘em over, whetheryou run up on them, whatever you do, you better f—king take action!” one speaker said.
But Black Lives Matter disavows violence. Its official statement is: “Most police officers are just everyday people who want to do their jobs, make a living for their families, and come home safely at the end of their shift. This does not mean, however, that police are not implicated in a system that criminalizes black people, that demands that they view black people as unsafe and dangerous, that trains them to be more aggressive and less accommodating with black citizens….”
Elzie herself opened the movement to criticism by suggesting in the days after the Dallas police assassinations that the shooter was actually a government provocateur trying to damage the movement. Referring to the FBI’s Cointelpro infiltration of the civil rights movement during the 1960s, she tweeted the day after the killings:
“From my experience, whenever public opinion shifts to strongly support the movement an act of violence against the police happens. It happened last year, and like many Ferguson protesters have pointed out today, a random black person becomes the shooter. I will not let go of the fact that I know cointelpro exists.” https://twitter.com/Nettaaaaaaaa/status/751466657848004608
Neither Elzie nor anyone else has presented evidence of government involvement in the Dallas murders.
David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a national expert on police use of force, says violent, anti-police rhetoric protesters sometimes use is dangerous and should not be written off as so much hyperbole. He fears a return to mid-1970s when the number of police killed by suspects was about 275 per year before declining in recent years to around 120.
President Obama cautioned that anti-police sloganeering can hurt the cause of police reform. “Whenever those of us who are concerned about failures of the criminal justice system attack police, you are doing a disservice to the cause,” he said. The Dallas shooter’s crime was a hate crime, the president said, like Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black parishioners in their Charleston, S.C. church in 2015.
Speaking in Dallas at the funeral service for the slain Dallas officers, Obama called upon all Americans to, in the words of Ezekiel, give up their heart of stone for a “new heart.” “With an open heart,” he said, “those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward.”
Mckesson, Packnett and Elzie were not the only reformers empowered in the wake of Brown’s killing.
Ferguson connected a new generation of civil rights, criminal justice and community activists in St. Louis and set them in motion addressing the need for racial integration and racial equity.
Ferguson was when St. Louis “hit rock bottom,” says Nicole Hudson, head of Forward Through Ferguson, the successor to the Ferguson Commission. After Brown was killed “I immediately felt and saw that this could be our opportunity as a region to hit rock bottom and deal with our issues once and for all,” she said in an interview.
Hudson has seen how social media have connected activists, linking them into new reform groups.
“As much as people pooh-pooh social media as ahorrible loud place,” she said, “there are moments and times when real community is created and change can happen….There is this myth that Twitter is horrible because there is a bunch of untrue stuff on it but like any medium you have a responsibility to use your brain.”
Hudson said she was disappointed with traditional media’s coverage, although she recognizes that budget cuts have weakened legacy media. “The thing I found frustrating in the traditional media is I wanted to see a story about the nuances to the protest movement. I wanted to see a story that recognized what was happening on the ground between the young kids and the elders and that some of the elders were having some aha moments about how the kids were saying you’re not my elder and i don’t need to listen to you.”
Each month, a group of the young activists meets to plan actions to advance priorities such as reforming municipal courts, arranging a debate of candidates for circuit attorney and interrupting the school to prison pipeline by changing school discipline. ArchCity Defenders takes the lead on municipal court reform, for example. Kayla Reed of Decarcerate St. Louis took the lead on the St. Louis Circuit Attorney debate. Reed’s involvement prompted current Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, herself a Twitter aficionado, to ask why the organizer was someone who wants to “blow up the whole system.”
The group of organizations working toward reform meets monthly, and intentionally doesn’t have a name or a leader. Some just call it the “organization” or the “grassroots table.” When a reporter used the term “the organization” with one regular, there was a look of surprise because the group doesn’t want itself characterized in the press.
Other groups of reformers also meet regularly: For the Sake of All, Forward Through Ferguson, Ready by 21, Invest St. Louis, the Community Builders Network and the Social Innovation District among others. Hudson says that group of people “has been regularly talking about how we leverage each other’s work, how we leverage the community’s investment with our work.”
Neither the table of grass roots activists nor the table of reformers existed before the death of Michael Brown, Hudson says.
Hudson says the activists and Forward Through Ferguson are making progress: “If we’re doing this work right if we’re really starting to peel the onion around racial equity it is going to - it has already (is) - making people very uncomfortable…This status quo is going to hold on with its fingernails.”
The attention that social media attracted to the Ferguson provided fertile ground for other reformers, who have long toiled with little recognition. Among the stories in this special report are the accounts of these young and older activists whose efforts were propelled or influenced by the national attention Ferguson attracted. They remember clearly what they were doing on Aug. 9, 2014:
When Thomas Harvey heard about Brown’s death he had a report on his desk at ArchCity Defenders describing the way in which municipal courts have become modern-day debtor prisons. Poor people sometimes lost jobs and housing when they got stopped for not having paid a traffic ticket and ended up in one or more of the municipal holdovers. Harvey calls it the muni-shuffle where a person could end up serving time in one holdover and then get transferred to another because of unpaid fines. Brown’s death provided the impetus for the first steps toward reform.
Jason Purnell’s For the Sake of All project had just released its report on the impact of poverty on health. It showed that those living in the 63106 zip code of predominantly black north St. Louis had a life expectancy 18 years less than people in 63105 in affluent Clayton. Ferguson’s 63135 zip code had a life expectancy 8 years less than Clayton. With the death of Brown, journalists and others turned to Purnell for deeper explanations and possible solutions. Purnell’s recommendations for more early childhood education, universal child development accounts and in-school health clinics have gathered support.
Normandy teacher Inda Schaenen was at an in-service training for new teachers in the failed Normandy schools in the days after the death of Brown, a recent graduate. The trainer, a teacher from Texas, had no clue that she was in the middle of one of the biggest civil rights stories in recent history, nor any idea what to do about it. At a time when students needed permanency and friendly faces, the state was bringing in a whole new team of teachers under chaotic circumstances. The principal and superintendent were gone before the end of the year.
Richard Baron, when he heard about Brown, immediately thought back to his early years as a legal services and ACLU lawyer. He represented tenants in a public housing rent strike and then won the Black Jack housing discrimination case. Black Jack, a town not far from Ferguson, had been incorporated to block a housing project that would have brought in black residents. A federal court ruled that the town’s action had the effect of racial discrimination. Baron went on to form McCormack Baron company and became one of the most successful developers of mixed income housing in St. Louis and around the nation. After Brown’s death, Baron put together a proposal for rebuilding the apartments near where Brown had lived. When he took the proposal to HUD secretary Julian Castro, he was told there was neither federal buy-in nor White House support.
Roger Goldman a law professor at Saint Louis University was finalizing his retirement about the time Brown was killed. Goldman had realized three decades earlier that a police officer fired in one municipality could move to a neighboring department and get a badge and a gun. After Maplewood police shot and killed a developmentally disabled man in the police station in 1977, investigators found that Lt. Joseph Sorbello, had been forcing suspects to play Russian roulette in the police station. Sorbello was unsuccessfully prosecuted and then fired. But he turned up a few years later as a cop in a nearby muni and killed a fleeing suspect. Goldman began his crusade for licensing police -- one that has spread to many states. But it has been blocked in the northeast where police unions are strong and many state laws, including Missouri’s, are weak. Brown’s death suddenly brought more attention to his reform proposals than they had gotten in a career.
Klinger, the criminology professor at UMSL, found himself in great demand because of his specialty and his proximity to Ferguson. Klinger, who himself had used deadly force to kill a suspect when he was a Los Angeles cop, is an advocate for better police training and a balanced look at the statistics on police use of force. His primary goal is to obtain reliable numbers on how often police shoot at suspects - a number that no one currently compiles.
Klinger got a taste of the vitriol in the race and police debate when he appeared on public radio’s Diane Rehm show the Monday after the Dallas shootings. On the show, he said -- accurately -- that people sometimes don’t realize that more whites are shot by police than blacks. He also suggested that people should withhold final judgment in the St. Paul and Baton Rouge police shootings while they were under investigation. By noon, Klinger had received emails and voice messages calling him a racist or a member of the KKK and demanding he be fired.
In the age of Twitter, the online judgment of a media remark can be fast and harsh.
Proud, the social media expert at St. Louis Public Radio, says the speed of the social media reaction to events like Brown’s death is fundamental to its power.
“The speed at which people can understand what others are going through and make decisions on whether they are going to support each other - that is the most powerful interesting thing about it,” Proud added. “The staying power of the conversation in public forums…. It is a conversation that some people would wish would just go away and I don’t think that is going to happen.”
The conversation certainly hasn’t gone away. As Donald J. Trump accepted the GOP presidential nomination late last month, law and order and support for police rang through the convention hall, a distinct and intentional echo of Richard Nixon almost half a century earlier.
On the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, reforms are underway in Ferguson, St. Louis and across the nation. The legacy of race in America is again at center stage and intricately woven into the presidential election.
What we can’t know is how this turns out. Will the arc of history bend again toward justice, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, or toward chaos, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says?
The chaotic outcome of the Arab Spring is not comforting. But the triumph of Dr. King’s non-violent advocacy over assassination, riots and violence offers encouragement. After the killing of police officers in Baton Rouge in late July, Mckesson told the New York Times that the Black Lives Matter “movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains. My prayers are with victims of all violence.”