The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile feel like a grotesque ritual at this point. A black person is killed by a cop. The internet goes apoplectic over it. A few hundred people protest at the scene of the crime. Then most white people move on, nothing happens to the police officer in question, and the black community remains squashed under the foot of institutional racism. Repeat, ad nauseam.
What the fuck is it going to take to break the cycle?
Hint: It’s not disturbing revenge fantasies brought to life, as we saw last night in Dallas—that’s only going to make the situation worse, spawning a cycle of fear and retaliation that will inevitably erode trust on both sides and lead to more deaths.
But the question of how to bring about a real solution is one you’ll find strewn across the social media landscape whenever this happens. Twitter users ask “How many more?” and demand change. They smartly call out the NRA for remaining silent on Philando Castile’s Second Amendment rights, they pull in retweets for making reference to Rapist Brock Turner’s light sentence, they share the graphic videos of Sterling and Castile’s final moments—videos that recall the footage of Bull Connor’s Birmingham police force brutally attacking civil rights protesters in the 1960s. They post lengthy diatribes on Facebook, which attract solidarity in the form of likes (or maybe “love” or “angry face” reactions, because Facebook allows us to plumb the entire range of human emotions now). Sometimes, their diatribes go viral.
And yet nothing substantive happens. The vague, lusty shouts for change fade over the weeks-long aftermath. For everyone beyond the small, hard, superheated core of real activists, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile will disappear into the memory dump from Inside Out, making a cameo the next time a cop murders a black person but otherwise dying 100 percent in vain.
That confuses the hell out of me, because at least from where I stand, the activist spirit and racial consciousness haven’t been this strong in America since the 1960s, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading hundreds of thousands of people in a march on Washington; when John Lewis was getting his head bashed in by white law enforcement in Selma; when Lyndon Johnson, a white southerner, was directing Congress to pass real legislation to address the black community’s concerns.
The ‘60s may not have brought an end to institutional racism, but they contained more sweeping civil rights reform than anything we’ve seen since. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, along with these laws’ enforcement, were national triumphs that resulted from years of well-organized demonstrations featuring a strong coalition of brave black people and their white allies. And here we stand in 2016, three years into the Black Lives Matter movement, and the tumult has to feel familiar to those who lived through the heyday of MLK, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the other legends of the Civil Rights Movement.
So what gives? Why hasn’t all the outrage, all the grief and tooth-gnashing and righteous fury, translated into organized action the way it did fifty years ago?
I think all you need to do is look at the platform on which you found this article—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—for your answer.
Social media has worked so many wonders in so many ways. People can start nationwide campaigns from their computers, never meeting their kin in sentiment but feeling a sense of false solidarity all the same. Video evidence of Alton Sterling’s execution can spread like wildfire in a way that network television would never allow, stoking passions and raising the call to action to a fever pitch. All it takes to find someone with whom you agree is a search for a hashtag (or, if your Twitterverse and Facebook friends mostly share your views, merely loading the main feed). So long as you’re even remotely open to considering the plight of black folks in America, it’s impossible to remain ignorant; thanks to social media, police shootings will seize a place in your consciousness. (Trump supporters, sadly, might be beyond help.)
But social media activism is not real activism. It’s an important component of activism—in fact, a more effective rallying tool has probably never existed. The trouble arises when people confuse a flaming tweet or sharing a moving article for actually taking a step toward ending police murder, or enacting meaningful gun control, or securing environmentally friendly policy, or achieving literally anything else that’s worth fighting for. Unless you’re Anonymous and you practice vigilante cyberjustice (for the record, I don’t condone this), it will always takes feet on the ground to create lasting change.
In fact, the way we cultivate our social media feeds often does the opposite of raising public consciousness and confronting the nation with difficult truths—it creates an echo chamber, in which we’re only seeing what we want to see. We block or unfollow those we disagree with, and they do the same to us, and soon these platforms are only reinforcing those arguments we already agree with. Instead of spreading justice, we’re remaining inside our walls, staring at a computer screen, and patting ourselves on the back.
I’m willing to bet that most people understand this at some level. And as masturbatory as social media can be, I believe the majority of those who use it to fight for justice are sincere. Yet you won’t see the hundreds of thousands of people making #PhilandoCastile and #AltonSterling trend worldwide actually marching in the streets. Even though massive public protests will be the only way to bring about police reform, it’s just too convenient to join in from the online sidelines, adding your own voice to the swollen tide and feeling like you’ve made a contribution.
So what we end up with anytime a police officer guns down an innocent black person is a decentralized cacophony of tweets and Facebook posts and think pieces in tremendous disproportion to organized, physical activism. This is the environment that has spawned Black Lives Matter—which, no surprise, can only be characterized as the loosest of confederations, a movement that began as a hashtag and still basically operates as such. BLM is putting feet on the ground, true, but nowhere near as effectively as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the Students for a Democratic Society did in the 1960s. There is no modern Martin Luther King, Jr., no transcendent leader with the power to organize a massive campaign, because the pell-mell, uber-democratic nature of social media hasn’t provided the soil from which such a leader can sprout. Instead, the cycle repeats: Shooting, hashtag, small protest, disperse. Repeat, ad nauseam.
(The sad irony of Dallas, of course, is that the peaceful demonstration that preceded the shooting was a big step in the right direction.)
Until someone figures out how to harness the power of social media as more than just a way to raise an online ruckus, until people realize that a hashtag or a viral harangue isn’t a substitute for an organized body with a unified voice, there will be no change. The black community, bolstered by white allies, needs to pull together physically, the way it did in the 1950s and 1960s, and conduct actual marches and protests on a mass scale and a regular basis. Amidst such an atmosphere, a leader couldn’t help but emerge. And when that moment comes, those white allies who are serious about ending institutional racism and police violence will have to drag their asses off of Facebook and Twitter, put their feet on the ground, and literally stand with their black brethren.
Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks that social media has changed the protest game for good, that online organization has inserted itself as a permanent replacement for real organization. 250,000 people tweeting about #AltonSterling and #PhilandoCastile is no match for 250,000 people listening to an Alabama preacher share his dream on the National Mall, but it’s today’s reality until proven otherwise.
Please prove me otherwise. Don’t just share this; start building a protest organization that will last. Something that moves beyond a fucking hashtag.