The Power of the Hashtag–
“You don’t do shit but TWEET,” one angry social media user wrote, accusing Deray McKesson of being all bark and no bite. By now, most of us know Deray as a young, passionate activist who shares his experiences on the front lines of the movement via Twitter, daily. Over the course of a year, Deray has managed to become somewhat of a Twitter (and real life) celebrity, acquiring over 200,000 followers and counting (Beyonce’s one of them).
“You don’t do shit but TWEET!”
The backlash from that comment was swift from Deray supporters, but mostly from people who have eyes, ears and good sense. It was pretty much impossible to claim that Deray wasn’t actually “DOING the work.” We’d seen him. We’d heard him. At one point, it seemed like Deray was on CNN more than the anchors. Always there. Always ready. Always poised. Always in that blue vest. There was no doubt that he was doing his part. Yet some still managed to have doubts.
I’d seen other similar accusations floating around Twitter and even Facebook. This time the accusers weren’t targeting Deray specifically, but they were targeting “Social Media Activists” in general. It was interesting seeing how angry they got when discussing people who were known for tweeting about social issues on a consistent basis. What was the problem, I wondered?
My guess? Perhaps to them, using social media to fight such important causes was futile. I mean, how could a few tweets really affect change?
Honestly, I cringed every time I read someone’s post about how much they hated “social media activists.” For some reason, people who tweet and document their experiences, or even call for change via the internet couldn’t be viewed as “real activists” in their eyes. For me, that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Social media is the most powerful tool that we have in 2015. Everything happens there. You can find a job, you can get recipes, you can watch videos, you can date, and yes, you can fight for social justice. Frankly, I’m tired of people ignoring the power of the hashtag.
Let’s take a step back and reflect on the tragedy that we now know as “Ferguson.” Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson was the incident that first ignited the fire within Deray McKesson and his good friend Johnetta Elzie (Netta). When the unarmed teenager was shot and killed, both Deray and Netta decided it was time for them to take matters into their own hands.
Not too long before the death of Mike Brown, we also mourned the loss of an unarmed Florida teen by the name of Trayvon Martin. Martin was murdered by a violent vigilante named George Zimmerman while on his way home from the store. At the time, I don’t think we knew it, but Trayvon’s death marked a major shift in our nation’s consciousness. When Zimmerman was acquitted, racial tensions began to boil over. Change was imminent. That was two years ago.
Since Mike Brown and Trayvon’s untimely deaths, we’ve had to face so many other painful realities. At times, it’s hard to keep up. From Rekia Boyd, and Sandra Bland, to Anthony Hill and Walter Scott, every day, we’re bombarded with news and images of Black bodies being assaulted, murdered and abused, often, never receiving the answers we deserve. While it’s fairly easy to get discouraged when things like this happen, the truth is, we’ve had some small victories. “Social media activism” has made a difference in ways that are worth noting.
Take the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for example. This hashtag, created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi when George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013, has since spread like wildfire. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which has garnered national attention, started from a simple Facebook post. Two years later, “Black Lives Matter” is a well-known rallying cry used by activists and social justice warriors both on and off line. This simple slogan holds a lot of weight, and has helped to jumpstart a new civil rights movement, which has birthed a new generation of civil rights leaders in a time when many Americans thought there was no longer a need for such movements.
In a bold move this year, TIME magazine fearlessly declared “Black Lives Matter” on the cover of their April issue.
Mainstream media was finally catching on. They were paying attention. And so was everyone else. Darren Wilson, the officer who is responsible for Mike Brown’s death is no longer on the police force. Because of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Department of Justice launched an investigation, and as suspected by protestors, they found a pattern of civil rights violations at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department.
“As detailed in our report, this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized, and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.”
This investigation turned up countless racist emails among other things, causing two more officers to resign, as well as the termination of a court clerk.
Fast forward to McKinney, Texas. A “pool party gone wrong,” some called it. Twitter on the other hand was calling it exactly what it was—an out of control racist cop who needed to be held accountable for his racist actions. Officer Eric Casebolt barrel rolled onto the scene of a McKinney, Texas pool party after police were called to respond to a “disturbance.” Turns out, the disturbance was a few white parents shouting racial slurs at a few of the black party-goers, telling them to “go back to Section 8.” The back and forth resulted in a physical altercation between a white woman and a young Black girl. Instead of Officer Casebolt arriving on the scene and asking questions, he decided to grab a young Black girl by her hair, throw her to the ground, and plant his knee firmly in her back while she screamed for help. He then proceeded to detain all of the Black children on the scene, letting the white party-goers roam freely.
When social media users (specifically “Black Twitter”) got wind of the story, the community erupted with shock, horror and anger. But most importantly, Twitter users wanted answers. Always proactive, users found the woman who had assaulted the girl, and called on her employer to hold her accountable.
Tracey Carver-Allbritton has been put on administrative leave while an investigation takes place. Not long after that, Officer Eric Casebolt resigned from his position.
That’s not all. Just a few months ago, after an unexpected act of domestic terrorism carried out by white supremacist Dylann Roof resulted in the death of nine people, Twitter answered the call of duty once again. The shooting, which had taken place at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, prompted Twitter users to question how terrorists were labeled in this country. Following the massacre, a string of several predominately Black churches were set on fire. These incidents were largely ignored by mainstream media. Twitter joined forces once again, demanding answers with the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. It wasn’t until this hashtag surfaced, that mainstream media, particularly domestic 24 hour news sources really began to take the incidents seriously.
An extension of this comes in the form of the #TakeItDown hashtag that circulated around the internet in the aftermath of #Charleston. Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, could be seen in a number of photos proudly waving the Confederate flag. Seeing those images prompted most civilized people to call for the removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state capitol. #TakeItDown emerged with a tweet from the user @lifeandmorelife at 11:47 p.m. on June 17, the night that Dylan Roof opened fire on the same bible study group that had welcomed him with open arms. Since then, there’s been over 70,000 mentions of the hashtag, according to the social analytics site Topsy. The hashtag led to a rally at the state capitol a week later, which eventually led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the state grounds.
Let’s not forget this epic moment. The moment Bree Newsome decided that she had had enough.
— #BernedOut (@rodimusprime) July 19, 2015
Who is Bernie? That would be Senator Bernie Sanders, who also happens to be a rising star in the race for Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Morrow’s point was that he wants to see Sanders talk more about race issues, regardless of what he’s done in the past with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King. The hashtag was created in response to those that say Sanders has essentially done a lot for the Black community. While Morrow says there’s no denying that he has, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I’m not expecting him to drop out of the race; I think he’ll be fine. Hopefully, from the tweets I’ve seen, I think his campaign’s listening, and hopefully they’re going to regroup and hopefully reform and be more vocal around some of these issues,” he told Vox.
Judging from Sander’s campaign’s tweets, he’s getting the hint. He participated in #SayHerName (even though he got it a little wrong), and he even mentioned Sandra Bland in one his recent speeches. This is all happening because of social media. Social media is beginning to shape politics, and that’s amazing.
So the take away is this: When someone talks about social media activism, they shouldn’t do so with their noses turned up, or with their eyes stuck in the back of their heads. They should do so with pride and an overwhelming amount of respect. A lot of these same social media activists who are often criticized for not “doing the real work”, are putting their lives on the line, spending nights in jail, and risking a whole lot in the name of Freedom. OUR Freedom.
In a story from the NY Times on Deray and Netta and their journey to Selma, Alabama, for its historic 50th anniversary, the writer points out that because of their huge online presence, even among other activists, the two aren’t always well-received.
The writer, JAY CASPIAN KANG, describes what it was like for the duo when joining a group of more seasoned activists.
“When they walked in, an elderly woman said, loudly enough for all to hear, ‘Social media just showed up.’”
Recently, media personality Montell Williams caught a lot of heat for making similar statements about Deray, calling the activist “No MLK.” But here’s what Montell and those like him fail to understand: Whether the work is being done in the streets, in government buildings or via social media…it’s being DONE. That is a fact. Social media has allowed us to connect, touch people and ideas that we’d never imagined we’d have a chance to get our hands on. Twitter has unified us for causes that are bigger than us. It’s acted as a catalyst in so many ways. Over the last few years, “Black Twitter” has become a force to be reckoned with. I mean, the LA Times even hired a “Black Twitter Writer.”
Calling people out, requiring answers and demanding accountability, social media activists are changing the course of our futures, one tweet at a time. Though the progress may seem slow, and sure, there will always be people who think we aren’t doing enough. But in the grand scheme of things, changes are being made, issues are being brought to the forefront, and people are once again finding passion for something other than themselves. And perhaps the most important thing to note of all, social media has given a voice to those that may not have otherwise been heard. Now, THAT is something to celebrate.
It’s been a year since Mike Brown’s death, and Deray and Netta have returned to St. Louis, along with thousands of others to remember Mike Brown, and of course, take a stand against police brutality. Last night, another young man by the name of Tyrone Harris was shot by the police, and he remains in critical condition.
STL. DOJ. Protest. https://t.co/FttZdjK7kc
— deray mckesson (@deray) August 10, 2015
— Johnetta Elzie (@Nettaaaaaaaa) August 10, 2015
— deray mckesson (@deray) August 10, 2015
— Imani Gandy (@AngryBlackLady) August 10, 2015
As we attempt to let our hearts and minds heal, we are all still looking for answers. But we have to understand, your activism is not my activism, and vice versa. We’re all different, we all can make contributions, and social media is certainly one of the ways people can call for change.Twitter continues to be a place where we can share ideas, information, and our pain. It’s a place where the narrative isn’t controlled by dominant culture, and it’s a place where you’re free to use your voice in a way that can and HAS made a difference in the lives of so many people worldwide.
In the words of Deray McKesson, “Twitter IS the revolution.”
We want Netta and Deray back UNHARMED!
UPDATE: Netta and Deray were released hours after they were arrested.