When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman on the evening of February 26, 2012, at the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida, the story was not national news. Local news outlets heard of Martin’s death, had an inkling that something (the strange phone calls, the fact that Martin was unarmed except for groceries) was amiss, and covered the story cautiously. A week later, the story could be found in papers around the state.
But it wasn’t until the middle of March that the rest of the country found out. The first national news report was on CBS News, on March 8, and by the end of the week, the story was everywhere. Almost a full month later, on March 23, President Barack Obama took to the podium to address the shooting, and by then it finally became clear that this was not just the shooting of one black teenager from Florida but a much larger social issue.
That’s not what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. The story of Michael Brown is no slow burn.
On August 9, Brown, 18 and unarmed, was shot to death by a Ferguson police officer. By the next day, it was national news, reported by every major news outlet across the United States. Locals took to the streets in protest; the police department armed up; the media sent down their reporters and camera crews. On August 14, Obama spoke to the nation, urging both law enforcement officers and protesters to “take a step back and think.”
“Now’s the time for healing,” Obama said. “Now’s the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.”
Racial violence and police brutality aren’t new topics. They’ve been a plague on this country for decades, centuries even. But the narrative is changing. The traditional story of the law enforcement hero and the criminal black man is starting to disintegrate, and it has everything to do with who gets to speak.
When it came to Brown’s shooting, the story “skipped over classic media filters,” says Rashad Robinson, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Color of Change. “In some ways, the media was not driving the story, the public was, through social media, and the media was following public cues.”
That it took less than a week for Brown’s death to go from the streets of suburban Missouri to the White House speaks volumes about the shifting dynamics in how these stories are told.
In big part, this is due to a group of media-savvy, grassroots organizers that arose after the failures of the media response in 2012 and the shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, in 2009. The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice was established in March 2012, immediately after Martin’s death became national news.
The group “helped to generate the fastest-growing petition signing in the history of the Internet,” says Deputy Director Dante Barry. The petition, which was started by laywer Kevin Cunningham and ultimately acquired 2 million signees, called for Zimmerman’s arrest. After Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder on April 11, 2012, Million Hoodies shifted gears.
“We reacted almost instinctively in response to Trayvon Martin,” says Barry, and it worked. Million Hoodies helped to mobilize huge support for Cunningham's petition. But next time, the team thought, it needed to be ahead of the story—driving the conversation instead of reacting. So it created networked chapters across the country, with over 50,000 members.
Million Hoodies and other grassroots organizations like it rely on social media and mobile technology to reach their constituents. In 2012, Million Hoodies launched a tool called the #OccupyMap that enabled users to log incidents of police misconduct and institutional discrimination on their cellphones. The group has been using the results to publicize incidents all over the nation that otherwise would have never gotten any national ink. It has collected 2,000 incidents of misconduct in New York City alone.
“It helped to mobilize hundreds of thousands of folks from across the country to really call to an end to racial profiling and gun violence,” Barry says. “We have people all over the country who are helping to tell the story.”
And when it came to Brown, the strategy worked.
For example, the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown started trending just one day after Brown’s death in response to a photo that some news organization had begun to use in their reporting. In the photo, Brown appears large in the frame, looking down into the camera. He’s wearing a Nike tank top, and his right hand is up by his chest, fingers extended, in what some worried could appear to be a gang sign (although it could also easily be a peace sign).
A movement quickly sprang up on Twitter, as users of color shared two pictures of themselves side by side with the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown tag and text asking “Which picture would they use?” In one photo they appeared to be joking around, drinking a beer or maybe flipping off the camera; in the second, the posed in more “sympathetic” roles—with a graduation cap and gown, for example, or in full military dress uniform.
This, of course, is exactly what Million Hoodies is all about: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was killed, and some members of the media suggested that if he hadn’t been dressed that way, he may not have been shot. Both Million Hoodies and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown ask whether people of color, particularly young black men, have the freedom to live their lives online like anyone else, without worrying that a youthful mistake would brand them as “thugs” forever. In the case of the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, it has helped develop a particularly sympathetic image of Michael Brown in the mass media.
“Media is a theater, a stage for showcasing or articulating counternarratives to the more general narratives,” says S. Craig Watkins, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies digital and social media behaviors. Watkins compares the current generation’s use of social media to craft narrative to the way young students involved in the 1960s civil rights movement would stage events in a way designed to make the evening news. They “understood the power of media” as a means of public persuasion, he says. “We too can use media as a theater to mobilize a type of discourse.”
People of color have a unique relationship to this particular media. Black men and women purchase and use smartphones at a rate that’s much higher than would be expected, based on other demographic data, Watkins says. And “they are much more earlier adopters of technology that has cameras.” Other studies show that black teens are more likely than other segments of the population to use mobile devices for entertainment, for connecting to peers and to access information.
In addition, Watkins says, there has been a clear shift in the past few years in the way black and Latino teens use mobile media and technology platforms. “The repertoire of mobile practices has continued to expand,” he says. “Not only are they using Twitter to follow their hip-hop icon or [their] favorite athlete, they’ve come to understand that these platforms are important sources of information knowledge creation, curation and circulation.”
Barry sees this playing out on the ground among the members of Million Hoodies and the organization’s constituents. “It’s not a coincidence that most people of color are found on social media—particularly on Twitter—because it gives voice to the voiceless and allows us to tell our stories in a way that is authentic, in a way that is real.”
The Michael Brown story has become incredibly real. Sadly, it is far from unique. Every 28 hours, a black person is killed extra-judicially by a policeman, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante, according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. But his story is key to shifting the narrative in a more permanent way.
“If we lay out large statistics across the board, people's eyes glaze over,” says Color of Change’s Robinson. He’s a former senior director of media programs at GLAAD, where he was part of a team that worked with The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets to change the way they reported on gay and lesbian hate crimes. Because of the clinical history of the word homosexual—and its co-optation by anti-gay extremists to suggest a type of psychological disorder—the word is now banned, with the preference being gay or lesbian.
When it comes to how the media talks about young black men, we’re not quite there yet. Earlier this year, following the verdict in the trial of 19-year-old African-American Renisha McBride, the AP ran a tweet saying, “Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch”—framing what was a second-degree murder case as if it were a story about a drunk.
But at the same time, “black Twitter exploded over that and took AP on,” Robinson says. “The rules and the dynamics have changed. Now is the moment that we have to do some work around long-term accountability and systemic change.”
The people of Ferguson organized quickly, taking to the streets and staying there, protesting the shooting and the procedural choice to not reveal immediately the name of the police officer involved. It took only a few days; on Friday morning, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson told reporters the name of the officer—six-year veteran cop Darren Wilson—who shot Brown.
“We’re in different times. We’re in a time post-Trayvon Martin. People are getting sick and tired of reacting and being the victims of violence in this way,” Barry says. “We’re building our own spaces as people of color.”
Additional reporting by Jas Johl.