By Ryan Switzer
In early March of 1965, state troopers attacked a group of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. One woman, a civil rights leader named Amelia Boynton, was left unconscious on the side of the road. From several yards away, a news camera zoomed in on Boynton just in time to capture a billy club crashing into her limp body. The event was broadcasted on evening news.
The next day the protest’s leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., announced, “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.” From then on, the revolution was televised. People sitting at home could see the firehoses spraying, the clubs swinging, the leveling of lock-armed vigils. Evening family time around the television became a lot less comfortable.
Each subsequent revolution was televised as well. As the quality of television technology increased, the desire to protest grew. Television proved to be a relatively successful mobilizer of social movement participation. An inevitable percentage of social movement participation was influenced by images seen on TV, as it was (and remains) the primary news source for Americans. Television informs the public about an atrocity, the protests inspired by the atrocity are then broadcasted, and the broadcasts of the protests inspire greater participation. Combat footage from the jungles of Vietnam sparked some of the largest anti-war marches in American history. Images of the nuclear power plants on Three Mile Island billowing not-quite-right smoke led to the Anti-Nuclear Protests of the 80s.
“Today, the only barrier between a story and its audience is the audience’s willingness to click on a link.”
If any factor limited the participation resulting from television, it was the limits of television itself. Broadcasts of the civil rights movement are notorious for their focus on a select few “desirable” black activists and exclusive coverage of the loss of white life. A participant in the UK Poll Tax Riots in the 1990s recalls returning home to TV reports of “laughably small” estimates of participation and no mentions of police provocation. A news piece is cut for time, tailored for the agenda of the media organization, and then beamed through the tube several hours later. These broadcasts of protests go one way, straight to the viewer, leaving no room for compromise. One may question the content, but it can not be changed by the consumer.
Today, the only barrier between a story and its audience is the audience’s willingness to click on a link. Footage of injustice can be blasted into cyberspace with nothing but a combination of right-place-at-the-right-time and Internet access. There are no barriers to membership on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, and no restrictions on the scale of mobilization other than the size of your sphere of followers and friends.
With the elimination of the traditional restraints of 20th century social movements, one might expect to see an explosion of successful movements — and at first we did. The Arab Spring protests in 2011 were largely credited to Facebook. Social media was called “absolutely crucial” to the movement that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. But while the primary goal of the movement was achieved, the final results aren’t looking too positive; countries involved in the uprising remain unstable. In the immediate wake of the Arab Spring came the Occupy Wall Street movement. Mobilization was swift, Internet-propelled, and brief. Until 2014, the social media-social movement relationship could be described as fast to start and quick to fizzle.
“Mass participation is one of those hurdles – and no social movement of the Internet Age has incited mass participation as effectively as the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Any challenge to the status quo comes with something to prove. There are hurdles of legitimacy to clear before policy or minds can be changed. Mass participation is one of those hurdles – and no social movement of the Internet Age has incited mass participation as effectively as the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Black Lives Matter movement started as a hashtag following the loss of a life. When a trial jury acquitted George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, Alicia Garza responded to a Facebook threat by coining the hashtag. For the past two years, “#BlackLivesMatter” has punctuated common sense analogies and statistics explaining racial issues and videos of police brutality against black Americans. These videos are just as visceral and brutal as they are necessary to the advancement of the Black Lives Matter movement’s influence.
A crucial aspect of Internet activism and the Black Lives Matter movement is that one doesn’t even have to be a self-proclaimed “activist” to produce mobilizing footage. Intention is meaningless when a piece of media can be replicated and analyzed thousands of times in a few hours. The shooting death of Walter Scott and the strangulation of Eric Garner were recorded by a friend and a bystander, respectively. Ramsey Orta ended up capturing a defining moment in a year of exposed police brutality by doing something he already did dozens of times a day. “I was already on my phone,” said Orta, the friend who recorded the death of Walter Scott. “I always seen them cops doing something to somebody else, so I figured I’d just record it.”
This footage has become the moral currency upon which the Black Lives Matter movement is built. The online distribution of these horrific images and videos is the ideal catalyst for participation. Convincing people to join a social movement is difficult due to the costs in time, money, and safety. In a base that voted for “change” in 2008 and has been “feeling the Bern” for a few months, social mobilization should not be that hard. Unfortunately, it takes people losing their lives on camera in order for people to start caring. It’s a technique that Dr. King learned on a bridge in Alabama. In that same speech in Selma, Dr. King asked the crowd “to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it.” Black Americans have quickly learned that they can take the camera and their fate into their own hands.