This is what happens when political resistance goes digital
By: Imani J. Jackson
To many millennials’ chagrin and not of our own doing, American capitalism continues to operate despite its negative impact on Black and Brown communities. Confronted with this economic system and sustained government violence against Black and Brown people, activists are increasingly combining traditional civil rights tactics, like protests and economic boycotts, with digital resistance.
Certainly, leaders, lawmakers and lay people should respect Black and Brown people’s human rights to “life, liberty and security of person.” Revolutionary Brazilian academic and philosopher Paulo Freire cautioned, “Sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so,” in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The issue is not that we are actually less human, it is that our system allows us to be treated that way.
Oftentimes those perched behind privilege and power ignore Black and Brown liberation efforts until people of color generate or block their streams of income (or to put it colloquially, “mess up some commas”). Thus, “conscious consumption,” app creation and digital fundraisers are contemporary responses to longstanding problems with a racially-charged capitalistic system.
“I believe that social media kind of crept up on the traditional players of the Movement that have represented our interests for so many decades,” activist and author Deric Muhammad told me. The Houston based community organizer said he has done this work for about 20 years. His advocacy has included societal stakeholders including Muslims who protested anti-black police brutality and hip-hop artists.
Muhammad shared that “social media is very important,” having seen countless individuals and groups call for humane treatment of Black and Brown people and consequences for those who harm Black and Brown people.
According to Muhammad, calls for justice for Mike Brown were especially notable because of the shifts from social media organizing and fundraising to congressional hearings, city hall protests and economic boycotts. “It rose above social media and people started taking it to the streets,” he said. People who have oppressed communities of color often respect “organized and mobilized activity on the ground.”
President-elect Donald Trump’s rise also presents opportunities for cyber and economically rooted resistance. Despite Trump’s “campaign [which was] largely devoid of policy proposals, except for those of erasure and exclusion,” he garnered enough votes and revved up enough voter disenfranchisement to become the next commander-in-chief. Thankfully, planned protests and responses are afoot. The Democratic Coalition Against Trump (DCAT) created the Boycott Trump app to dissuade support of businesses with Trump entanglements. DCAT reports a community of more than 125,000 Boycott Trump users. And #NotMyPresident protests erupted nationwide.
Social justice fundraisers are also popular ways to leverage existing social networks to create a more just world. After Baton Rouge police detained, restrained and killed Alton Sterling in July, writer, producer and actress Issa Rae created a crowdfund for Sterling’s survivors. Rae did not know Sterling or his family personally, but used her platform to help Sterling’s children.
In an email to supporters (full disclosure: I donated), Rae wrote, “My mom, upon hearing about this fund, called this new movement a form of #EconomicAnger. It’s clear that our dollars (whether through boycotting or through united contributions) are sometimes the loudest way to make our voices heard. We will stand together and we will help our own until we’re able to effectively change this system for the better.” In less than a week, the fund generated more than $650,000. The ultimate total of $714,438 in donations substantially surpassed the $200,000 goal.
Similarly, crowdfunding pages were started for Philando Castile’s family after a Minnesota police officer shot and killed him. In less than a week, more than $300,000 were raised between several pages created for Castile’s beneficiaries. However, legitimacy concerns also arose.
Given the less than pure intentions of some cyber fund seekers, Muhammad cautioned would-be supporters to do their due diligence before giving money. Sometimes “resources that are raised never reach the family or the victim.” In an era where phrases like “fake news” and “post-truth” are inserted in discourse to obscure information, we can all afford to thoroughly investigate where we can have economic impacts.
Economic boycotts carry significant weight in civil rights battles. One of the most widely cited boycotts is the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted from December 5, 1955 until December 20, 1956. The Women’s Political Council distributed fliers spreading the word. Black ministers shared the news. Journalists reported on it. A day after the Montgomery Advertiser ran a front-page story about the boycott, 40,000 Black people elected not to use the bus system. People of color, especially Black people, still have tremendous buying power.
Whether using the “grapevine,” physical fliers, Twitter threads or crowdfunding, people use many mediums to counter oppression. In recent years, Arab Spring was a profound global example of blending in-person protests with digital organizing. Decades ago, soul, jazz and spoken word great Gil Scott Heron said that the revolution would not be televised. Even with gadgets and Wi-Fi, revolution cannot be solely application based, crowdfunded, tweeted, liked or e-mailed either.
Muhammad stated that an ideal balance between in-person action and cyber work is 90 percent in real life and 10 percent digital. He offered the following caution: “If our online efforts don’t transmit or transmute to organized activity on the ground, then it will ultimately dissipate.”
Photo via Pixabay
Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.