How Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter taught us not to look away
One year ago, on August 9 2014, then-police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Wilson estimated during the grand jury hearings that the entire incident lasted “less than a minute” from start to finish.
From that minute has grown a movement, reinforced on a seemingly daily basis by new violence. The people in that movement are determined to keep our attention focused on these killings and the system that has produced them. It is a movement organized around hashtags, not leaders, above all #BlackLivesMatter.
It is part of a worldwide transformation I describe in my recent book How to See the World, an exploration of how visual media are making social change. Call it visual activism.
A global transformation
Today #BlackLivesMatter is part of an ongoing global transformation. Since 2008, more than half of people worldwide are under 30. The majority now live in cities for the first time in history. And close to half the world’s population has access to the internet. The urban young are using the worldwide web to circulate astonishing numbers of still and moving images. Three hundred hours of YouTube video are uploaded every minute. Shared photographs are uncountable, at least one trillion in 2014.
These new conditions are producing a new politics. Eighty-five percent of African Americans aged 18-29 have smartphones, several points higher than their white counterparts. The young, often queer, often female, black activist generation that has come into being since Ferguson relies on social media to make these protests, and the actions that cause them, visible in new ways.
The danger of ‘reckless eyeballing’
“Not looking” was part of slavery and Jim Crow for the enslaved and segregated, respectively. Violating this code became known as “reckless eyeballing.” It is still operative in America’s immense prison network that has been called the “New Jim Crow” for its disproportionate number of African-Americans. Prisoners can be accused of reckless eyeballing just for looking at guards.
On the other side of the color line is what scholars call “the gaze,” a means of asserting power through surveillance, whether actual or implied. Looking back at that gaze was to risk violence, even death. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement that began after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 insists not just that we sneak a sidelong glance, but that we pay full attention to the repeated deaths of African Americans. This looking is not a gaze, because it does not claim power over the victims. Rather, it creates the digital form of what Martin Luther King Jr called “the beloved community.”
The civil rights movement looked above all for mainstream media coverage. In 1965, the television broadcast of the events in Selma convinced many of the need for the Voting Rights Act, passed later that year.
Today’s movement is directed at social media, using Twitter, Vines and Instagram as forms of protest and means of information. Police are now claiming that the likelihood of being recorded, the so-called “Ferguson effect,” is limiting their actions. The body-cam video taken during the killing of Sam DuBose in Cincinnati led to a rapid indictment on murder charges because it contradicted the officer’s story.
Forms of protest
All #BlackLivesMatter protest memes call attention to time and duration. The chant “Hands up, don’t shoot,” performed with raised hands, repeats a version of what activists believe were Michael Brown’s last words. It freezes time in that crucial moment before he died and defies the imaginary police to shoot.
The second major form of protest adapts the “die-in,” long a staple of environmental, antiwar and AIDS activism. Activists created several means of timing the die-ins. A participant might count out “I can’t breathe” 11 times, as Eric Garner did. Or the die-in might be timed to last four-and-a-half minutes to symbolize the four-and-a-half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street.
Or the intention might be to disrupt the circulation of goods and people on which everyday city life depends. Each time, the protests refuse to go away, refuse to move on and insist on being seen.
In these performances, activists made themselves vulnerable. “Hands up” performs the act of surrender. During a die-in, participants lie on the ground, unable to see, open to any attack or to arrest. But other participants “livestream” the events to the internet for others to watch.
And so police often do not intervene, as if recognizing the moral force of the protests. That situation changed on December 20 2014, when the murder of two New York City police officers seemed to create a moral equivalency for the police side, reinforced by their dramatic turning of backs to Mayor Bill de Blasio. The police refused to look – and won.
For many commentators, that victory signaled the failure of #BlackLivesMatter. But as the violence has continued, the social media coverage has been sustained, and changes have come. There was no indictment for the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, but indictments have come swiftly in the cases of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Sam DuBose.
With the outcry over the death of Sandra Bland in Texas, the longstanding need to #SayHerName – meaning to pay as much attention to the deaths of women as men – has been achieved. In a recent speech, Hillary Clinton adopted the slogan #BlackLivesMatter.
Even the Confederate flag has suddenly lost its legitimacy as a symbol, a visible gain for a visual activist movement.
What happens next? Keep looking.