More than forty years ago, the talented and tragic poet/musician/activist Gil Scott-Heron rapped–before there was rap–that the Revolution would not be televised. Television was controlled by big corporations and commercial interests, and social change would come from the streets. But television isn’t the big medium for activists these days.
I’m still trying to figure out how the proliferation of new social media has changed the ways protest movements organize and sometimes matter. Jay Caspian King offers some help in a fine old-style piece of journalism in the New York Times Magazine. Looking at some of the intelligence infrastructure of the emerging campaign against police violence, King mostly focuses on DeRay McKesson, who is portrayed more than anything else as a vigilant and stalwart reporter. [Note that Jenée Desmond-Harris was on this story earlier, publishing at Vox nearly four months ago.]
Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August, McKesson has been going to the protests all over the country and reporting on both the protests and the violence that provoked them. McKesson tweets the names of mostly young men killed, beaten, tear-gassed by police, protesters’ organizing efforts, and the confrontations in the streets. The names matter, of course, but it’s not just the names. McKesson tweets the events and the pictures from scores of allied campaigns across the United States, with a resolute focus on keeping police violence in the news.
McKesson’s persistence and ubiquity won him attention from mainstream media. Below you can see CNN’s Wolf Blitzer repeatedly trying to get the activist to condemn the riots in Baltimore, while McKesson works hard to bring the conversation back to Freddie Gray’s killing. His discipline in keeping the focus on the cause is admirable–and critical. “You are suggesting…that broken windows are worse than broken spines…” McKesson repeats. It’s a line he circles back to again and again, one he probably prepared to maintain a sense of perspective on recurrent injustice that seemed to disappear in coverage of the riots.
DeRay McKesson’s story is interesting: public schools in Baltimore, student government, student tour guide at Bowdoin College (a small, cold, elite liberal arts college in Maine), Teach for America, then an administrative position in Minneapolis Public Schools. But it’s not just DeRay McKesson, of course; many other citizen reporter/activists, equipped with phones and laptops are covering the issue and uncovering police violence. In addition to McKesson, King highlights the efforts of Johnetta Elzie, and Desmond-Harris published tweets from Antonio French. Reporters pick out individuals who make for good stories, but every identified hero stands in for many many more less recognized people doing the same work.
In the not too distant past, activists had to attract mainstream media to get their message out to a broader audience. Now there are other routes to that audience, while waiting for the rest of the world to come around.
DeRay McKesson has 122,000 followers on Twitter. You can join them @deray.