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.
The real question that needs to be asked is, “When will the youth of today wake-up and see the power in the medium?”
It is all fine and dandy to run around and document all the bad things that happen in this world, and get the odd success story of trying to get the media to break their code of silence, when it comes to covering stories that don’t fit into their ideological narratives.
But without the power to change this world in the hands of those people who are trying to make this world a more just place, this situation will just suit the elite of the Western world just fine.
Someday, I don’t know exactly when yet, but some group of young people somewhere in the Western world are going to get sick of texting their best friend the latest jokes; emailing a link to their girlfriend with the newest song or tweet to some person they have never met, to share their opinion.
And when they do, they will unconsciously be asking out loud, “Is this all that this digital technology can do?”
And when that happens they will no longer see it as social media, but rather digital association.
They will see beyond the Internet and the intelligence infrastructure, and they will see the ‘digital estate’ that has been built around them.
And they will see modern representational democracy as inferior, to postmodern deliberative democracy.
J.R.Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher
I’m impressed that DeRay McKesson–and others–have been able to use social media to augment mainstream media’s sub-adequate news-gathering and news-reporting. Mostly, I think the young people are doing pretty well. As to post-modern democracy, I’ll have to learn from what comes next.
I too am impressed with DeRay McKesson’s ability to change the narrative that is force fed to the people of the state from the mainstream media,…but it is just not enough considering the economic and political plight of Western people today.
As for learning about postmodern democracy, let me help you and your readers see what is already being built…
In Canada the Government of Canada is giving 9 million dollars to the University of Toronto to build a digital public square, that not only gives a platform for those in repressive states like Russia to voice their opinions freely, but also offers them the ability to organize and build outside state government…
And in Ireland, the political group Direct Democracy Ireland are thinking outside the modern box of today’s representational democracy and are pitching a new postmodern ‘social contract’ to the voters there…
The time for learning is now professor!
J.R.Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher
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