by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
As a long-time writer honed in the industry of print & ink journalism, I am in awe of social media. The quick-fast global distribution of news and images via Face Book, Twitter, YouTube and other Internet sites utterly fascinates me. The phenomenon, basically driven by youth, has fueled revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, made or maimed celebrity careers and has empowered a generation of tech savvy journalists and dedicated followers who now set the pace for news that matters.
This old school journalist, however, is also leery of social media. Like the youth who drive it, there's a flighty, faddish feel to viral jornalism. It's a bittersweet sphere where tweets, pings and postings dictate the relevance of information. Its news in a hurry for hurried people conditioned to sound bites and under 500-word summaries. Social media can instantaneously motivate millions to action but that figurative moment also allows people to superficially adopt a cause or respond to a crisis without really understanding or addressing root causes or the bigger realities of societal issues.
Consider the case of 17-year-old high school junior Trayvon Martin. The unarmed Florida teen was shot dead in February 26 by George Zimmerman, reportedly a neighborhood watch captain. When police arrived, Zimmerman told them he had shot Trayvon in self-defense after a physical altercation. Police, who only found a can of iced tea, $22 and a pack of Skittles on the dead boy's body, seemed to have accepted Zimmerman's version of events.
By Florida law, residents can use lethal force if they are at risk of being killed or seriously injured by an assailant. Zimmerman had a permit to carry his gun. If not for social media, the story may have taken the typical "vigilante kills violent black youth" angle. After all, the teen was wearing a hoodie, which according to Fox News host, Geraldo Rivera, was "as much responsible" for the boy's death as Zimmerman's gun.
Friends and family members used Facebook to mourn the teen's death and demand justice. Weeks after the shooting, the tragedy blossomed into a national concern mostly because witness accounts, Zimmerman's call to police before the shooting and the questionable behavior of police officials all went viral.
On the upside, millions who found the story relevant used their voices and actions to speak to an apparent injustice. People donned hoodies, bought bags of Skittles and showed up at many of the "1,000,000 Hoodies" rallies across the country. The attire has become a national symbol of injustice with notables such as Muhammad Ali, LeBron James, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, P. Diddy, Jamie Foxx, Ludacris and others have all demonstrating their outrage with clothing.
Hoodies and candy may be an effective way to voice indignation about the death of an innocent child but this contemporary application pales in comparison to the brave souls who faced club-wielding policemen, slathering dogs and torrents of skin-pealing water hoses to challenge Apartheid in America. Today, Internet-savvy folk can simply purchase a hooded sweatshirt, a bag of Skittles, show up at a rally, post a picture on Facebook and PRESTO, they are bona fide activists.
This type of protest underscores the mindset of a consumer-driven, quick-fix generation. They are in-it-to-win-it" ... for the moment. With Internet-driven activism there really is no long-term commitment to eradicate racism or societal injustice. It provides the illusion of progress. Addressing the deeper issues of poverty, racial profiling, police corruption, unfair sentencing and prisons filled with almost a million older Trayvon Martins are too complicated and require the staying power that symbolic activism does not foster.
It's a sad commentary when far-right extremists such as the Tea Party have more in common with civil rights-era leaders than today's Facebook activists. The Tea Party's message may be goofy, but strategists have a long term, well-funded machine that influences politics and demands conservative change by any means necessary.
If George Zimmerman is charged with a crime, today's Smart Phone protestors will declare victory and move on to the next topic du jour. Yet, in the wake of their triumph, neighborhoods will still be impoverished, childhood will still be threatened and the quest for true brotherhood will become abandoned endeavors...until the next sensationalized heavily-tweeted incident.
National outrage personified by symbolic objects will result in symbolic victories. Quick-fix solutions will satisfy a quick-fix generation of Internet activists. They will eat their Skittles and shed their hoods in victory while the "hoods remain unchanged.
Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis, MO-based writer and founder of When We Dream
Together, a nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.