Last Tuesday night, in response to the grand jury decision the day before not to indict former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson on charges pertaining to the shooting of Michael Brown, more than 1,000 students and community members congregated on the Diag to hold a vigil for the deceased, and to protest unjust racial politics and police violence as systemic problems facing the nation. After leaders from various student organizations gave speeches condemning the inaction of the grand jury as deplorable, a march through downtown to Ann Arbor City Hall ensued. On the steps of City Hall, speeches drew parallels between that night’s protests and those of the 1960s, classifying the current movement as a continuation of that era’s Civil Rights Movement. Protest leaders called on participants to wholeheartedly take action in fighting racial injustice, rather than merely sharing on social media that they’d attended the rally. Activism, they implied, is much more than mediated, surface-level interactions via the Internet.
What exactly does it mean to be an activist in this generation? Attending protests, picketing causes deemed abhorrent or garnering thousands of signatures for a petition were called activist measures by previous generations; but are such actions alone relevant to the technology-driven ideals of this generation?
Social media and the Internet as communication technologies have the power to inform, persuade and mobilize citizens as previous calls for action never could. Whereas the organization of a vigil of last Tuesday night’s scale may have taken weeks in the past to accomplish, currently, a Facebook event invite made it salient across other social media platforms and attracted thousands overnight. Once at an event, today’s protesters can cover the events themselves by live-tweeting or snapping photos to upload to Facebook, effectively taking the power of narrative appeal away from larger media conglomerates. To this extent, a protest is made up of everyone who’s physically there, along with everyone who’s following the event on the Internet.
Although armchair activism may not be as invigorating as actually attending a protest, the results can be just as — if not more — impactful. After all, Edward Snowden drew the attention of millions to invasive practices of government espionage through Internet leaks and remote interviews with journalists, effectively calling into question the morality of the American government and its adherence to its own Constitution. He did all this without stepping foot in a rally. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign have also embraced the mobilizing potential of social media — its revamped red and pink logo, released in the spring of 2013 in conjunction with Supreme Court hearings regarding California’s Proposition 8, had been seen by over 9 million people and was shared over 77,000 times in the course of a day, according to one report. It would have been completely infeasible to garner such a show of support for a cause by more traditional means of grassroots campaigning alone.
Amidst evidence of Internet activism, it’s not right to demean Facebook posts and tweets about a particular cause as lesser than more traditional shows of protest. While sharing an article or posting a status could be considered arrant nonsense with no basis in fact, so too can reasons for protesting or rallying, regardless of the caliber of the event. Menial displays of support aren’t reserved for the Internet alone.
In evaluating what it means to be an activist in today’s society, one shouldn’t diminish the resources available with which to catalyze change. With the same logic, in defining what it meant to be an activist in the past, one shouldn’t glorify all actions taken by our predecessors. In Detroit, during the summer of 1967, the city erupted in protests against police brutality; during a four-day span, many died, hundreds were injured and uncontrolled looting and vandalism ravaged the city.
By perceiving these actions as having been efficacious in igniting change — by perceiving such movements as activist in nature — many in Ferguson are engaging in similar activities. Taking to the Facebook page or blogosphere, in comparison, are peaceful means of protest that have the potential for tenable change. That being said, activism today shouldn’t be about merely emulating the actions of those who came before. Rather, they should be about taking traditionalist definitions of what it means to act and reforming them to be more conducive with current ideals of a productive, educated and peaceful society.
Austin Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.