America never loved us!
That’s how the young activists of the civil rights group The Dream Defenders felt moments after a jury failed to convict Michael Dunn of first degree murder in the death of Jordan Davis. That Dunn will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars for shooting at Davis’ friends meant very little to the Florida-based group — Dunn was not convicted of killing Davis. It was as if the 19-year-old’s life had no value at all.
Because the group has no official office and all volunteers work from home, most members were communicating via cellphone and email over how to respond. Sandra Khalifa, co-communications director of Dream Defenders, was in her Tallahassee apartment coordinating a Twitter strategy, and within an hour, she and a few other staff members created graphics capturing the team’s emotions and tweeted them. #NeverLovedUs was trending a few hours later.
The Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) February 16, 2014
The Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) February 16, 2014
“It really kind of signifies the way it feels to be a youth of color today,” Khalifa said in an interview with NewsOne, adding that the hashtag also drew from Drake‘s hit song “Worst Behavior.” “I think, especially after the Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin verdicts, that it just feels dangerous to be a youth of color today, especially in Florida. With laws like Stand Your Ground, with huge amounts of school-based arrests in schools disproportionately affecting youth of color, these are the kinds of issues we face on a day-to-day basis. For a person to see a youth of color as dangerous and feel compelled and justified in killing him or her and then walk away free tells us that legislators and the laws that are in place in Florida perpetuate a system that says ‘we don’t care about youth of color,’ so I think that’s where #NeverLovedUs came from.”
The Dream Defenders do not have a physical reach beyond Florida, so they rely heavily on social media to nationalize their message and galvanize support around local causes. Jelani Cobb, associate professor and director of the Institute for African American Studies at University of Connecticut in Storrs, told NewsOne that social media is as vital to the group today as the advent of television was to the civil rights movement.
“In the 1960s, the television was the new form of media, so the civil rights movement was able to take what was a regional problem and turn it into a national concern,” Cobb said. “Now people can see this in their living room. They could see the images of what was happening in Montgomery, what was happening in Selma in their homes. So I think that what we see now, in terms of hashtags starting conversations and Twitter being able to help people mobilize, is the next step in the evolution in that now people can use that medium in order to register their opinions. So when people are talking about Black Twitter, it’s an example of a long-standing tradition of Black people having this running dialogue about public affairs that the mainstream aren’t aware of and consider themselves unaffected by, so I think it’s part of that same tradition.”
THE CASE OF JUROR B37
Like street protests, social media campaigns require coordination and well-honed objections. Otherwise, they can unravel like any other form of protest. Take Genie Lauren‘s approach to shutting down Zimmerman Juror B37′s book deal, for example. When the unidentified juror appeared on CNN soon after the verdict and said that she had signed a book deal that would recount her experience in the case, Lauren rallied thousands of Twitter users to pressure the publicist into dropping the book deal. In less than 24 hours, it was dead.
But Twitter was only a conduit through which Lauren pushed her campaign. She also created a Change.org petition which gave her more space to articulate her case, and tweeted the publicist’s office number and other work contact information. So even if the publicist had decided to cancel her account, thousands of people could still contact her.
“A lot of people want to run people off of Twitter, but that’s not an approach that I think is appropriate for everything because they can delete that Twitter account and create a new one that you don’t know about,” Lauren told NewsOne in a recent interview. “And they don’t have to suspend it. If you’re not following them, they can change their name and the next thing you know, you don’t know about what their Twitter is anymore, so that approach isn’t always good. And it depends on what you want your outcome to be. If you want to drive them off of Twitter that’s one thing. But if your outcome is more than getting them off Twitter, you have to try other tactics. But for trying to get the book stopped that couldn’t be the only tactic.”
Lauren had fewer than 1,500 Twitter followers before her Twitter push — she had 10,000 after. It is a clear indication that someone with a relatively small number of followers can reach audiences well beyond their base, if his or her message is honed correctly.
Los Angeles-based PR professional Janet Dickerson learned the power of social media when she created a Change.org petition demanding that Damon Feldman cancel the celebrity boxing match he organized between Zimmerman and DMX. Dickerson’s petition, which encouraged signees to contact Feldman via his Twitter handle and email address, generated more than 125,000 signatures in less than 10 days; he would eventually pull out of the fight for “moral reasons.”
While Dickerson has only 1,300 followers, it wasn’t about the numbers for those who wanted to support her cause.
“To me, it really didn’t matter how many followers they had,” Dickerson said in an interview with NewsOne. “They could have had 50 followers or 50,000 followers. I just knew the more people who came across the petition, the more interested they would be in signing it. From there it took on a life of it’s own.”
THE MISAPPROPRIATION OF MALCOLM X
A few weeks ago, Nicki Manaj was trending for all of the wrong reasons when she used the iconic photo of Malcolm X standing near the window of his Queens, N.Y., home holding an assault rifle with the title of her new single “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” emblazoned over the image. When Rosa Clemente, a civil rights activist and former vice-presidential candidate, caught wind of the cover, she took to Change.org and rallied several thousand, like-minded people to demand that the rapper pull the cover. Minaj eventually apologized and many supporters on social media credited Clemente for drawing their attention to the cover art.
“I had to say something,” Clemente told NewsOne. “I don’t need permission from somebody. Social media, especially as it relates to Black and Latino folks, is powerful. She’s dead wrong. There are some things that we have to say are unacceptable.”
And what the Dream Defenders, Lauren, Clemente and Dickerson have all taught us is that, with a well-conceived hashtag, properly-worded tweet or effectively-written petition, you can reach thousands of people without ever having to open your mouth.