By Adjoa Hackman
Hundreds of thousands of people walk the streets of New York City holding signs and chanting different slogans. The NYPD is trying their best to control the large crowd but are outnumbered. Some protestors are walking with duck tape around their mouth with phrases such as ‘Justice’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ written in bright colors. Many protesters show their solidarity by raising their hands while chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” referencing what witnesses say Michael Brown was doing when Officer Darrin Wilson shot him. Other protesters are wearing black hoodies to represent what Trayvon Martin was wearing when George Zimmerman murdered him. Countless people have signs that read, “I Can’t Breathe” to show Eric Garner’s last words as an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold. Photographers and television stations line the sidewalks to get footage of the historic moment – people are walking in solidarity against police brutality.
The deep-rooted racial tension across America has sparked protests, die-ins, and boycotts, for what many say is the formation of a new movement. People have come together for many peaceful protests to show their disapproval of a system that protects police officers when they kill unarmed black men. Although there is an obvious increase in marches and protests, it is important to note that some view the modern movement as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement is not a new phenomenon and the tactics used by today’s activists are the same as the ones used in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Media outlets such as USA Today have reported that one of the most essential aspects that makes this movement modern is the use of technology—specifically Twitter—which has allowed people across the world to share their experiences of racial violence.
“Assuming that it’s a new movement assumes that all the tools are brand new. Most of these tools are not new at all, it’s just the skin they are wearing because of social media – because of the millineal generation – because of how much access we have to information,” says Camonghne Felix, Founder of People of Color for Solvency and a Discrimination Campaign Associate at DoSomething.org. “This is very much the movement of our parents, and our parent’s parent’s. We just got Twitter and got really lucky.”
Aside from Twitter, the development of technology such as video cameras and television has proven to have a large impact on how people communicate and share information after the Civil Rights Movement. People became citizen journalists by capturing incidents around them and sharing it on their social media page or with their local news station.
In 1991, a videotape of a black man, Rodney King, being beaten by the LAPD after a high-speed car chase was shown worldwide. Many claim that this is the exact moment that many people—not just black people—began to question the authority of the police. There was no way people could question the fact that police were attacking black people – there was video to prove it.
The most recent example of this is the Walter Scott case. Scott, who ran away from a police officer and was shot in the back and killed, was accused of reaching for an officer’s taser before fleeing from the officer. However, a witness videotaped the incident caught the officer planting his taser next to Scott’s body to make it look like he had run off with the taser. The police officer has been charged with first-degree murder. Felix believes there were no video for this incident, the officer’s narrative would not have been questioned.
“It’s not that we saw him die, it’s that we got to see the corruption first hand. Showing the video of them killing us is not what does it. It’s showing the fault,” states Felix. “Before we saw him plant the taser there’s a lot people could say about maybe why he was running, maybe why he shot him- but then we get to the end video and it’s like, actually none of that matters because the cop just negated all that.”
On the surface one of the biggest differences people think they see between the Black Lives Movement of today and the Civil Rights Movement of the past is the leadership style. When many people picture the Civil Rights Movement, most of see it through the images of a few strong leaders. But even at the height of the marches there were some activists pushing back against that model, advocating for the development of grassroots organizations and the absence of a single leader movement.
Civil Rights activist Ella Baker often conflicted with other activists on this point arguing that, “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Some historians call this push back the Fannie Lou Hamer-Ella Baker model. So the grassroots leadership of today’s Black Lives Matter Movement is not so much a departure from the past but sprouting from seeds that were firmly planted during the Civil Rights Movement.
“We need to stop looking for a leader,” explains Felix. “One of the reasons we need to stop looking for a leader is because we have enough of our own autonomy, power and ability to make change.“
Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, one of the first groups to form after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, is often cast as typical of the new breed activists. The three year-old grassroots organization now has a network of 50,000 people dedicated to protect and empower young people of color from gun violence and mass incarceration. It has managed to raise millions of dollars for gun violence victims and just finished accepting applications for its own summer internship. Grassroots organizing and creative technology are in its DNA, proudly touted on its website homepage. But as much as it may be the embodiment of today’s activism, the teachings of Hamer-Baker lurk in the forefront.
“I don’t think we need that one person to speak up,” says Pete Halian-Eduah, the National Policy Director for Million Hoodies. “I think it’s important to highlight that this is a movement of the people and of the people of different communities and I think it is unauthentic when one person goes into a community that they have no familiarity with and tries to dictate how they should be acting and or should be responding.”
Even the reliance on technology of today’s movement over religion might be seen as merely an update rather than a departure in practice. The role of religious institutions in the Civil Rights Movement was a practicality rather than a deliberate statement. Young activists did not turn to the church – they were already there and their rise from such institutions was already expected. It appears that the black church was the most developed social structure of black life of that time. Today that would be Twitter. In fact, of all online adults who use Twitter, 27 percent are Black, while only 21 percent are White.
“Twitter is browner,” says NPR correspondent Gene Demby. “Black people are way overrepresented on Twitter and they can use Twitter in a way that they can’t on other platforms.“
Demby says that now that technology and social media is a huge part of people’s everyday lives young people are able to capture different parts of the movement. Even though there were photographers who were able to photograph graphic and violent moments of the Civil Rights Movement, during the 1950’s, 90 percent of the American population had a television. People had nationwide coverage of what was going on in places like Selma and Birmingham. The Civil Rights Movement was the fist social movement to be televised, proving that video is certainly a continuation of the movement. But there is a difference: People are able to get full video coverage of an incident and can show what some media outlets will not.
John L. Jackson, Jr., Dean of the School of Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania has even penned an essay asking “Is Twitter the New Religion?” In the essay, he argues that Twitter fits an anthropological definition of religion including the concepts of followers, fellowship, self-policing, and helping to answer life’s big questions. He says Twitter is not competing with traditional churches, but rather it should be seen as a kind of “civil religion”. “Social media offers up the basic logic for understanding our interconnected world and the relationships we forge with one another in it,” he writes. “Virtual spaces like Twitter and Facebook organize those relationships giving them meaning and determining their impact on our lives.”
From a legal perspective, David Harris, who writes and teaches about police behavior and regulation as well as law enforcement at the University of Pittsburgh, highlights how the shift in technology has also become a serious challenge for officers.
“The narrative that the police have can be transformed by this new technology. Most of us in this country believe the officers first which is why they have controlled the narrative. Now we have another narrative,” says Harris. “Videos may not be complete and not be well done but may contradict the officer’s narrative and some of their details. That’s one of the reasons police really don’t like this.”
Nowadays, there is no specific “spokesperson” or organization for the black community. There are many different grass-roots organizations that have very different goals. For example, some groups want to focus on how to handle encounters with the police while others organize protests and raise money for the families directly affected by police brutality.
“Everyone needs to be moving on different fronts, even when they disagree because the idea of an organized civil rights movement is a gigantic myth,” says Demby. “King had his people and Stokely had his people and they didn’t bang with each other – they just didn’t get along.”
Churches and clergy members are still involved in social justice movements, however, the movement has decentralized to make sure many different voices are heard and that people can utilize their skills elsewhere. Many people in the communities of Ferguson and Baltimore feel that they would be most helpful with providing resources for protesters, while others believe that communicating with government officials to change policies that affect policing black communities is a priority. Community activists such as Johnetta Elzie are committed to providing supplies such as food and water to protestors as well as coordinating cleanup efforts following riots or protests in Baltimore and Ferguson.
The current movement is led by black youth who are making an emphasis on the value on black lives, hence the hash tag used by millions of people on Twitter, “Black Lives Matter.” Sarah J. Jackson, a professor at Northwestern University who studies social movements wrote in an email interview, “The three women who started the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter which has become the rallying cry/frame of the current movement and the everyday citizens who have become citizen journalists and activists thanks to social media and a more intersectional understanding of who can lead.” The three women Jackson references are Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.
This hash tag sparked dialogue among millennials and has forced people to ask themselves why so many people were talking about black lives. This movement has also made room for the black LGBTQ community because they are now leaders in the movement as opposed to being background advisors during the 1950’s and 1960’s such as Bayard Rustin. As Twitter members clicked the hash tag they soon learned of the many stories of racism and police brutality that black people faced on a daily basis. Instead of a regular hash tag about a Thursday night television show, people were able to direct the conversation elsewhere.
University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. student and researcher of the radicalized construction of brown bodies, Mariam Durrani, says, “I think what social media allows is for people to change the conversation. Mainstream media has a particular narrative – which is what their viewers expect to see. Social media allows those who feel isolated to be able to reach out.”
There are a few influential people on social media such as Deray McKesson (@deray) and Ferrari Shepard (@stopbeingfamous) as well as people who regularly post updates about protests and new policies that affect the black community, however, they are primarily focused on police brutality.
Although this is certainly not a new phenomenon, the behavior of police officers is a huge issue among black protestors and activists. Bull Connor, the Commissioner for Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama, was the leading force in police brutality during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Civil Rights Movement fought against Jim Crow, which ensures that a specific group defined by race is viewed as inferior by the laws and policies within society. However, the critical moment of the movement that increased efforts on the part of the activists was the police dogs and fire hoses used against them during peaceful protests. Connor gave orders to police officers to use such force against protestors, which certainly has an influence on the tactics used by today’s police forces.
Police forces in Baltimore and Ferguson have come under fire for the tactics and protocols they used during killings of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. Communities no longer trust the police and many police agencies have had to restructure the way their officers interact with the public.
“Whether or not people trust the police is a very important question. If they don’t trust them, they won’t support them,” states Harris. “That support can be in the form of supplying information so they know what’s going on in the community, trusting the police to testify when people become jurors, or calling for help. If you don’t have trust, your efforts are significantly undermined.”
It is difficult to analyze the issues within national police departments because the demographics on officer-involved shootings are not readily available. In a speech on February 12, FBI Director James B. Comey noted that he was not able to get information on the demographics of shootings because it was voluntary and without that data it would be hard to analyze and understand how police were abusing their power. Information about settlements made between police and families of people who have been murdered is also kept quiet.
Recently, reports about settlements in Baltimore have come to light. According to an investigation done by journalist Mark Puente at The Baltimore Sun, the city has paid out 5.7 million dollars in lawsuits from residents claiming that police officers have falsely imprisoned, falsely arrested, and have used unwarranted force against them. The article notes that, “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.” Many city officials had no knowledge of these lawsuits since the Baltimore Police Department does not keep track of the amount of lawsuits against them.
The latest incidents have also highlighted the lack of diversity in most police departments nationwide. In many police forces nationwide, the percentage of white police officers is 30% or more. Several police departments have attempted to diversify their forces by hiring more African-American and Hispanic officers, especially after a report released by the Department of Justice on March 4th, which declared that the Ferguson Police Department had been using unnecessary force against African-Americans.
Additionally, more people have been advocating for the creation of a policy that requires an independent and outside prosecutor when the police kill an unarmed citizen. In a poll included in the Washington Post in December 2014, 87% of Americans support implementing this type of policy. The Department of Justice has also created a $20 million dollar program that will provide police officers with body cameras in order to prevent excessive force and for evidence during lawsuits against the police.
The mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, asked for the Department of Justice to conduct a civil rights investigation on the behavior and protocols of the Baltimore Police Department. This decision has come soon after the confirmation of the first female African-American Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, and following the state attorney’s, Marilyn Mosby, decision to charge the six officers for the death of Freddie Gray.
So what does this all mean?
Regardless of how many reforms police departments put into action, there is one major dialogue that many agree needs to occur: the acknowledgement of racism and biased policing. Public acknowledgement may, in fact, reduce tensions amongst police and citizens. Police departments can work more closely with local activists to make sure change takes place and that the community regains trust in the police. But the reality is that there is a long history of racism and oppression in America and the wounds from those who have been oppressed have not healed.
“It’s the responsibility of people with power (politicians, professors, policy-makers, etc.) to listen and include activists in their work. Policy changes are obviously needed and reforms in the criminal justice system, particularly regarding policing and prisons, are a great place to start,” says Sarah Jackson. “Activists will always need to keep the fire at the feet of those in power if they are going to be motivated to include them and their concerns in institutional processes.”
This is the movement of the millennial generation. In an era where many claim millennials are less informed about social issues, this movement is a chance to demonstrate their fight for racial equality and justice that the generations before them started. One question many millennials are grappling with is what more they can do to be a part of change that will result in true social progress.
“Hopefully we win,” says Camonghne. “I know that in the next 12 hours we need to get as much aid to Baltimore as we can. All I can see is the next day. All I can see is the next 28 hours.”