From The Hashtag to The Grassroots – The #BlackLivesMatter Case

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.  ̶ Margaret Mead, n.d.

In previous posts, we have been discussing the idea of the Internet and social media as a new tool for activism and how it proposes potential political and social change. Although there are other examples of ways in which social media movements have led to further change, like the Arab Spring movements in 2011, the focus in this post will be the analysis on how the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter lead to a broader social movement.

As the news was broadcasting the exoneration of George Zimmerman who was the neighborhood watchman who killed Trayvon Martin (an unarmed black teenager in July of 2013), Seattle-based activist and theatre director Patrisse Cullors started to express her frustration and perplexity on social media using for the first time the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The way in which she was expressing her grievances on social media gave voice to the frustration of many people in the US and beyond. In the following months, a series of other shootings involving white police officers and unarmed black youth brought the intensification of motivation to act in protest.

“Social media has finally given [people of color] an unfiltered platform from which they can share their experiences with the world [after] racially motivated atrocities like the ones that recently gripped Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte.”

The documentary Black Lives Matter, directed by Nirit Peled (available at: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/black-lives-matter-vpro/) “examines the origins, influence and evolving mission behind this grassroots phenomenon.” The film shows how “social media has finally given [people of color] an unfiltered platform from which they can share their experiences with the world [after] racially motivated atrocities like the ones that recently gripped Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte.”

Patrisse Cullors is interviewed in this documentary as she created a theater-based youth group in which black teens are able to express their stories in forms of play. While interviewed, Patrisse recognizes the powerful role that social media for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. She explains how the new generations of black youth are using social media to tell their story from the ground and how that is also helping to “amplify the stories beyond the killings” to create a broader conversation on why we have put some much resources into policing and prisons.

The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.”

Culture correspondent at VICE News Bijan Stephen in his article, How Black Lives Matter Uses Social Media to Fight the Power, explains how the #BlackLivesMatter movement is decentralized but organized (different from what we have seen before with the example of Kony 2012). Bijan Stephen argues that as there are no top-down mandates, no institution seems to be needed to create the movement, but “some level of institution-building is still crucial, as the movement has realized”. He agrees with media historian Aniko Bodroghkozy in that “The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.”

This movement has brought several important actions towards political and social changes such as (1) the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol, (2) the creation of policy proposals on issues that specifically concern black people in America, and (3) the formation of the project Campaign Zero for people who want to contact their representatives and write policy proposals to deal with police violence, among others.

Like Bijan Stephen remarks in his article, “there are downsides to the media environment that today’s activists have adapted to.” In social media platforms, there are no only positive and healthy conversations among their users, there are also spaces in which activists continue to be insulted, harassed and threatened, “but they are especially pervasive for anyone speaking on the touchy subject of race in America”.

Hashtags are entry points into larger and more complex worlds even if we can sense from the surface that they “can only ever offer a limited, partial, and filtered view of a social world.

However, this example of using  hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter is clue in recognizing that hashtags are entry points into larger and more complex worlds even if we can sense from the surface that they “can only ever offer a limited, partial, and filtered view of a social world.“ Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa, researchers specialized in ethnography studies, highlight the idea of hashtags as “window to peep through” in which we can follow individual users and in which we can also “stay with those who tweet and follow them after hashtags have fallen out of “trend.” Only then can we better understand what brings them to this virtual place and what they take away from their engagement.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement started as a simple hashtag, but as we have seen, it has led to other forms of action for community-based organizations and grassroots activists. In spite of the negative uses that social media allows sometimes, examples like this movement are the ones that bring us a little closer to understand how the Internet can be used in an effective way towards new initiatives looking for social and political change. Voicing the real stories behind a conflict, showing the different perspectives on it, and allowing dialogue and creativity are the perfect combination of advantages that social media brings us as a tool that can be used for continuing to build a better and more peaceful society.

 

 

REFERENCES

Bonilla, Y., & Rosa, J. (2015). # Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States. American Ethnologist, 42(1). Retrieved from  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/amet.12112/full

Peled, N. (2016). Black Lives Matter. [Video File]. Top Documentary Films. Retrieved from http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/black-lives-matter-vpro/

Stephen, B. (November, 2015). How black lives matter uses social media to fight the power. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2015/10/how-black-lives-matter-uses-social-media-to-fight-the-power/

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