Picture a road divided. A night sky, usually consumed with a black obscurity, now ablaze with fire and clouded with tear gas. On one side of the road stands a row of policeman, silent and deadly, unidentifiable beneath their armor. Crowded in front of them are mothers, fathers, siblings, children, friends and lovers all exuding an extraordinary passion in sharing an immeasurable grief over the loss of a member of their community. The crowd is screaming, crying, begging people to listen to their stories about how Mike Brown was not the only Black man beaten dry by the police, about how walking past police cars sends chills down their spines, about how the brutality inflicted upon their community is but a weekly occurrence. This was the essence of the Ferguson protesting.
Around 12:03 P.M. on August 9, 2014, a white Ferguson police officer shot an unarmed eighteen-year-old Black man named Michael Brown six times resulting in his death. Just moments after the shooting, the news was promptly posted to Twitter by a spectator saying, “I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE.” Although the exact details and circumstances of the shooting remain heavily scrutinized, police officer Darren Wilson’s readiness to kill an unarmed African American teenager without justification is indicative of a highly problematic racist attitude that exists within the American police force. Naturally, relatives and peers of Brown were outraged by the devastating instance of police brutality and Ferguson’s Black population took their grief to the streets to protest his death in an exercise of free speech. However, the resulting chaos was evident—live video updates of violent confrontations between militarized police officers and unarmed protesters were posted to Twitter under “#Ferguson” and the story of Brown’s death began to circulate in national and international news coverage. On the first week of protests, over 3.6 million posts were submitted to Twitter regarding Michael Brown’s death. By the end of August, “#Ferguson” was posted more than eight million times (Bonilla). For many African Americans, social media—especially Twitter—was a critical and unique platform for sharing, identifying, and opposing instances of racial injustices regarding Ferguson, and, as a result, created a new form of social activism via digital technology.
Through the use of various creative hashtags, members of the Black community were able to collectively call attention to the unjust representations of Michael Brown by the mass media. The use of Twitter and social media as a whole is only as broad as our current social networks. Users can only see the posts and perspectives of “friends” and people they follow, which, depending on where you grow up, can be fairly binary. However, the use of hashtags give Twitter users a window into a wider range of opinions regarding a certain topic, and therefore become an important way of relaying information. One of the first leading activism hashtags to arise out of the Ferguson case was #HandsUpDontShoot. Before he was killed, Michael Brown allegedly had his hands up in the air while telling Darren Wilson not to shoot. In response, many people posted pictures of themselves holding up their hands (Bonilla). These photos call attention to the vulnerability of Black bodies and the perception that they are dangerous, threatening, disposable. Furthermore, the posts are acts of solidarity. The people in the photos make the victims of police brutality visual and therefore relatable. In a high profile case like Brown’s, it is easy to distance oneself from the victim by viewing the shooting as an extreme case. However, the #HandsUpDontShoot photos remind us that a similar fate could happen to any person of color.
Mainstream news channels broadcast a photo of Michael Brown wearing a cutoff tank and sweatpants, looking down at the camera with a stone cold face and raising a peace sign–which might even be mistaken for a gang sign. Twitter users juxtaposed this image with a picture of Michael Brown on his graduation day holding his diploma—clearly a very proud and successful moment in any adolescent’s life.
These posts were captioned with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, calling attention to the media representations of Black victims as criminal and “thug-like” (Bonilla). Many Twitter users opted to post opposing images of themselves, questioning which photo the media would choose to embody them, if they were the ones in Michael Brown’s place (Entralgo-Fernandez). Lastly, the hashtag #NoAngel came into fruition after the New York Times posted an article calling Brown “no angel” and mentioning that he “dabbled in drugs and alcohol” (Eligon). TThis unfair representation of Brown generated an even worse implication: that occasionally drinking or smoking was acceptable justification to shoot him. One user tweeted: “In view of @NYTimes: white terrorist = #GentleLoner, Unarmed black teenager killed by police officer = #NoAngel.” The collective purpose of these hashtags was to demonstrate the victim blaming, stereotyping, and racial profiling of state-sanctioned institutions inflicted on Black bodies, and insist that we do not live in a post-race society.
On November 24, 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. The report released stated that there was no sufficient evidence to disprove Wilson’s testimony: that he, a 6’4” armed man, feared for his safety against “a demon,” despite the fact that multiple witnesses stated that Brown had his arms up in surrender. Wilson described Michael Brown using “it” pronouns and said he felt like “a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” (Eckholm). Those in favor of Darren Wilson’s exoneration used potential evidence of Michael Brown committing a minor misdemeanor—stealing cigars from a convenience store—in order to rationalize his killing, thus stripping his life of any value.
Along with the activism hashtags and emerging Twitter campaigns, many people of color used the social media platform to express their grief and solidarity with Michael Brown in creative ways. For example, Twitter user Shirin Barghi (@shebe86) created a series of heartbreaking images featuring the last words of Black teenagers who were killed by white police officers. The images are completely black with a simple drawing, such as a heart or a bird, and white text containing the name of the victim, the date of their death, and their last words.
Each picture was uploaded to Twitter underneath the #Ferguson. Explaining the purpose of her images series, Barghi wrote, “I created these images to raise awareness about racist police violence in America and as an expression of solidarity. I experienced police brutality in my native Iran, and the struggle here to confront that violence resonated with me. I believe that black pain must not be appropriated or profited from, period” (“Last Words”). Her Last Words project went viral across social media, managing to reach many different demographics of people. Her statement was very clear, yet the powerful simplicity of the images appealed to the emotions of her audience, allowing them to recognize the cruelty of these instances of state-sanctioned violence.
In “View of #Ferguson Thrust Michael Brown Shooting to National Attention,” David Carr explains that the use of #Ferguson also facilitated the spread of live information from witnesses and protestors, becoming a crucial form of “informal journalism.” In the New York Times, he admits that Twitter has transformed into an “early warning service” for major news stations. Through the social media platform, they can receive updates in real time about a specific story without actually having reporters on the ground. Carr describes instances of brutality in the case of Ferguson: how police officers reacted with extreme hostility towards news crews, tear gassing reporters from Al Jazeera and arresting some from The Washington Post. Tweets therefore became a reliable, safe form of communication to transmit news about the ongoing situation. Joshua Tucker writes how social media also gave the protesters the opportunity to share certain information that other sources were choosing not to cover in his article “Tweeting Ferguson: How Social Media Can (and Cannot) Facilitate Protest.” Particularly among the Black community, where the use of mobile technology is relatively high in comparison to other demographics, Twitter became a community building tool to spread information regarding safety, location and timing of planned protests through the use of #Ferguson. As Tucker stated in the New York Times, “Nothing much good was happening in Ferguson until it became a hashtag.”
In recent years, the social murder of African American bodies has become extremely evident as a result of cases like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. However, instances of retaliation such as the protesting in Ferguson prove that Black communities are taking actions to overcome their racial objectification and must not be silenced. Social media, especially Twitter, facilitates an outlet for their voices to be heard. Particularly among young people of color, whose voices may be taken less seriously or could encounter violent consequences for speaking up, social media is an imperative commonplace for sharing and discussing experiences of racial injustices.
Bonilla, Yarimar and Jonathan Rosa. “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and The Racial Politics of Social Media in The United States.” American Ethnologist 42.1 (2015): 4–17. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Carr, David. “View of #Ferguson Thrust Michael Brown Shooting to National Attention.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Eckholm, Erik, and Matt Apuzzo. “Darren Wilson Is Cleared of Rights Violations in Ferguson Shooting.” The New York Times.. The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Eligon, John. “Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Entralgo-Fernandez, Rebekah, Emilie Jones, and Sean Carney. “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown: Social Media Activism in Ferguson, Missouri.” Symposium 2015. Florida State University, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
“Last Words. #MikeBrown #TrayvonMartin.” – Voice Project.” Voice Project. Voice Project, 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Tucker, Joshua.”Tweeting Ferguson: How Social Media Can (and Cannot) Facilitate Protest.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, . Web. 253 Nov. 20145. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.