IN THE 1960S, if you were a civil rights worker stationed in the Deep South and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world—word of a beating or an activist’s arrest or some brewing state of danger—you would likely head straight for a telephone.
From an office or a phone booth in hostile territory, you would place a call to one of the major national civil rights organizations. But you wouldn’t do it by dialing a standard long-distance number. That would involve speaking first to a switchboard operator—who was bound to be white and who might block your call. Instead you’d dial the number for something called a Wide Area Telephone Service, or WATS, line.
Like an 800 line, you could dial a WATS number from anywhere in the region and the call would patch directly through to the business or organization that paid for the line—in this case, say, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On the other end of the line, another civil rights worker would be ready to take down your report and all the others pouring in from phones scattered across the South. The terse, action-packed write-ups would then be compiled into mimeographed “WATS reports” mailed out to organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country.
In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.
Any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it and tailors its goals, tactics, and rhetoric to the media of its time. On the afternoon of Sunday, March 7, 1965, when voting-rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, were run down by policemen at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the WATS lines were in heavy use. (“Here come the white hoodlums,” an activist said from a corner pay phone at 3:25 pm.) But the technology that was most important to the movement’s larger aims was not in activists’ hands at all: It was in a set of film canisters being ferried past police blockades on Highway 80 by an ABC News TV crew, racing for the Montgomery airport and heading to New York for an evening broadcast. That night, 48 million Americans would watch the scene in their living rooms, and a few days later Martin Luther King Jr. would lay bare the movement’s core media strategy. “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners,” he said. “We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”
“The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.”
“It was a rare admission,” writes media historian Aniko Bodroghkozy. “King and other civil rights organizers seldom acknowledged their own self-conscious use of the mass media.” Today’s African-American civil rights organizers, by contrast, talk about the tools of mass communication all the time—because their media strategy sessions are largely open to everyone on the Internet.
If you’re a civil rights activist in 2015 and you need to get some news out, your first move is to choose a platform. If you want to post a video of a protest or a violent arrest, you put it up on Vine, Instagram, or Periscope. If you want to avoid trolls or snooping authorities and you need to coordinate some kind of action, you might chat privately with other activists on GroupMe. If you want to rapidly mobilize a bunch of people you know and you don’t want the whole world clued in, you use SMS or WhatsApp. If you want to mobilize a ton of people you might not know and you do want the whole world to talk about it: Twitter.
And if, God forbid, you find yourself standing in front of the next Michael Brown or Walter Scott, and you know the nation’s attention needs to swerve hard to your town, your best bet might be to send a direct message to someone like DeRay Mckesson, one of a handful of activists who sit at the apex of social networks that now run hundreds of thousands strong. “The thing about King or Ella Baker is that they could not just wake up and sit at the breakfast table and talk to a million people,” says Mckesson, a former school district administrator who has become one of the most visible faces of the movement. “The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.”
#BLACKLIVESMATTER BECAME A HASHTAG in the summer of 2013, when an Oakland, California, labor organizer named Alicia Garza responded on her Facebook page to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who gunned down Trayvon Martin. Since then it has become the banner under which dozens of disparate organizations, new and old, and millions of individuals, loosely and tightly related, press for change.
Any phenomenon that seizes the nation’s attention this much needs a name—headline writers make sure of that. But it is hard to talk about the national Black Lives Matter movement without imparting a false sense of institutional coherence to it. Of course, the civil rights movement of the ’60s was itself far from monolithic, but there aren’t really analogues to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in today’s activist scene. “It’s decentralized but coordinated,” says Maurice Mitchell, an organizer with a group called Blackbird. “There are no top-down mandates.”
You could look at it this way: The movement of the ’60s needed a big institutional structure to make things work—in part because of the limitations of the tech at the time. Now that kind of structure has come to seem vestigial. After Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, and the city became a lightning rod for activism, Mckesson says he had a kind of epiphany about movement-building: “We didn’t need institutions to do it,” he says. Social media could serve as a source of live, raw information. It could summon people to the streets and coordinate their movements in real time. And it could swiftly push back against spurious media narratives with the force of a few thousand retweets.
Of course, some level of institution-building is still crucial, as the movement has realized. And there are downsides to the media environment that today’s activists have adapted to. Despite its success in making videos of police violence go viral, social media itself has become another arena where black people are abused. Harassment, threats, and insults are basic hazards of online activism today, but they are especially pervasive for anyone speaking on the touchy subject of race in America. Mckesson, for one, says he has blocked more than 15,000 people from interacting with him on Twitter. He retweets some of the haters. It’s occasionally hard to read. (There’s a stale, conventional wisdom that says overt racism is largely a thing of the past in America. Whoever says this clearly has not spent much time on Twitter. God help them if they start reading comments on YouTube.)
This might seem like an opportunity: Drawing hate out into the light was, after all, a signature tactic of the civil rights movement. Televised footage of well-dressed white people heckling black children as they walked to school were powerful because they were so public, says Lisa Nakamura, a professor of media and race at the University of Michigan. “But when that happens on Twitter, it’s really, really private.” Any given tweet might be public, but online threats are disembodied and anonymous. Bystanders don’t seem to take them as seriously. Plus, the full experience of receiving a thousand threats may only really be felt by the recipient. Even in the panopticon of social media, mobs aren’t all that visible.
And of course, social media is also profoundly susceptible to surveillance. We know now that many leaders of Black Lives Matter have been monitored by federal law enforcement agencies. That has prompted many to start seeking out more secure channels; in nearly all my conversations with activists about how they use different platforms, there was a point when they told me they didn’t want to say any more for security reasons.
Still, this movement, as diffuse and protean as it may seem, has mounted some of the most potent civil rights activism since the ’60s. It helped secure the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol. It helped pressure the federal government to investigate police practices in Ferguson and Baltimore. It has successfully pushed Democratic presidential contenders to come forward with policy proposals on the issues that specifically concern black people in America. And an offshoot of the movement, a project called Campaign Zero that was organized in part by Mckesson, has put forward a bunch of specific policy proposals to uproot police violence. A huge reason for all this success is that, perhaps more than any other modern American protest movement, they’ve figured out how to marshal today’s tools.
THE MOVEMENT HAS also had another profound but less concrete effect: I believe that Black Lives Matter has changed the visceral experience of being black in America. I see this in the way it has become a community reflex to record interactions with police—a habit that is empowering, even as it highlights black vulnerability. I see it in the rise of a new group of black public intellectuals and in the beginnings of a new political language. And I see it in my own experience.
I grew up in Tyler, Texas, a small city in the eastern part of the state, in the 2000s. I attended the local Catholic high school—not the local public school named after Robert E. Lee, where the majority of the student body was nonwhite. No one called me a nigger, though white friends would sometimes use the slur to refer to other black people; in the next breath, they’d assure me I was different. Despite constantly feeling like I was a token, or that I had to tiptoe around white sensitivities, I couldn’t have told you what ailed me. I wasn’t politically conscious. I didn’t have the language to speak about microaggressions, aggression-aggressions, or structural prejudice. I just endured a thing I wasn’t totally sure I was enduring.
But I can still remember the fluorescent lighting of my high school’s hallways and the pervasive sense that something was deeply wrong. The air itself felt toxic. I had nightmares about nuclear reactors sending clouds of poison into the sky. On those nights I’d wake up and look through my window at the moon and wonder how long it would be before I could escape.
Does it seem strange that I now associate those dreams with racism? That I see the unease I felt then as a species of profound alienation that I wasn’t at all able to comprehend, because nothing I’d experienced before had prepared me to understand unthinking hate? This kind of clarity about my own experience has come with time and distance. I can’t help but think that if I’d been a few years younger—if my upbringing in Tyler had overlapped with the past two years of digital and intellectual ferment in America—I would have realized far earlier that what I felt wasn’t particularly unusual. “All of a sudden,” Mckesson says, “you see that there’s a community of people who share the same symptoms.”