We can hardly go a day without some spectacled, new-age media type telling us about the power of social media.
And, to an extent, they’re right. Social media is a powerful tool. Ubiquitous access to the Internet empowers anyone who can put their thoughts into words or catch a transgression on a cellphone camera, to be heard by tens of thousands of people. In fact, this has led to a new branch of movements, commonly referred to as “hashtag activism.”
Hashtag activism’s strength is its ability to gain widespread traction through rapid social media dissemination. Its weakness is its tendency to become diluted and even incoherent due to its lack of hierarchy.
Anyone tweeting or commenting under a particular hashtag can claim to speak for what the slogan in question represents. If you create a movement rather than an organization, spectators trying to gain a sense of that movement will judge it by the lowest forms of behavior its proponents exhibit. What’s worse is that because hashtag-inspired movements can galvanize the public so quickly, its adherents might take to the streets with only a half-baked sense of what they stand for.
Recall a movement from 2011 called Occupy Wall Street, or #occupywallstreet, the brainchild of the Canadian environmentalist group, Adbusters. Occupy Wall Street originated in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. It decried corporate influence in government and made famous the cry, “We are the 99%.”
Eventually, it spread to numerous cities around the world and championed, well, just about anything on any given day. It lacked established leadership and practiced tactics that didn’t always fall within the realm of peaceful assembly. Its adherents engaged in numerous riot-level confrontations with various police departments, and there were reports of theft, woefully unsanitary conditions and even rape in some of its encampments.
Occupy Wall Street was a movement that became a mob. It eventually lost support from even the most sympathetic media outlets and left behind nothing but Woodstock-levels of debris.
Today, the nation’s protesters are rallying around a new movement, #BlackLivesMatter. Arising after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the vigilante neighborhood watchman who killed Trayvon Martin, the movement has snowballed during the last two years. In quick succession, we saw the deaths of numerous black civilians, notably Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, at the hands of police officers. Many of these incidents were even caught on camera.
Put simply, Black Lives Matter wants to confront and end institutional racism, particularly in law enforcement.
Of course, that sounds great, but the mission-creep of such an endeavor has already materialized in a way that has left me questioning some of the movement’s recent tactics and rhetoric. Let me be clear, this is not intended to be a pure critique of the movement’s merits, but rather reasonable advice to keep things on the rails and headed toward positive change.
Do me a favor and pull up the official website for Black Lives Matter and look at the site’s problematic “Demands” section. First on the list is the demand for the “immediate arrest” of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.
I have to wonder if the creators of this document read the Justice Department’s March report on Brown’s shooting, which exonerates Wilson and cites fairly clearly its reasoning for doing so. I believe then-Attorney General Eric Holder would have gladly put Wilson through the wringer if the evidence had warranted it.
Further down the list is the demand for Eric Holder (again, someone should tell them he’s no longer Attorney General) to release the names of all officers involved in killing black people in the last five years so that they might be “brought to justice.”
These are calls for double jeopardy and mob justice. They detract from the more reasonable demands of anti-black law enforcement reform and the removal of military-grade equipment from police hands.
Outside of the digital world, Black Lives Matter recently interrupted speeches by Democratic presidential contenders, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders. It must be noted that these episodes are designed to be combative rather than conciliatory. At a Sanders rally in Seattle, two activists stormed the stage and demanded the microphone. An event manager attempted to restore order to the proceedings by saying, “We are trying to be reasonable.” In response, the activists thrust themselves inches from his face and screamed, “We are being reasonable!” in a mismatch of meaning and tone that can only be deemed hysterical.
Hillary Clinton, not one to cede control of anything much less her own campaign event, barred a group of Black Lives Matter activists from a forum on substance abuse last Tuesday. She did, however, arrange a private meeting with them after the event. During the exchange, activist Julius Jones asked Clinton how her views on racial disparities had changed, implicitly referring to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which is widely held in contempt in activist circles.
Clinton didn’t answer that question, instead suggesting that rather than appealing to white people’s feelings, the Black Lives movement present the country with a set of realistic policy proposals. Jones responded that Clinton was engaging in “a form of victim blaming.” The conversation degenerated from there as the two talked past each other.
I was the first to take in some schadenfreude at seeing Clinton made so uncomfortable by these activists, but I think she was actually listening to them and giving solid advice. Instead of pressing Clinton for failing to see exactly eye-to-eye with him, Jones should have said something like: “We’re way ahead of you on the policy issue. Here is a set of suggestions that you should make a part of your 2016 platform.”
Today’s activism is “easy come, easy go.” All one must do to realize this is to contrast modern-day movements with those of the past that resulted in lasting change. The civil rights movement lasted roughly from 1954 to 1968—the better part of a generation. Today’s social media movements are fueled by real-world events that seem to fade almost always after a few news cycles.
Black Lives Matter has been around for a full two years now, but will it fade away if we’re lucky enough not to see any police shootings in the papers for a few months?
Those who have established themselves within the movement should remember that energy without an end goal is just noise. So, set some goals and get the word out in a responsible way.