How Michael Brown’s death, two years ago, pushed #BlackLivesMatter into a movement
USA TODAY NETWORKJosh Hafner , USA TODAYPublished 7:50 p.m. ET Aug. 8, 2016 | Updated 12:28 a.m. ET Aug. 10, 2016
The Louisville chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement called for justice during a vigil and march following recent police shootings. Sam Upshaw Jr./The CJ
(Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images)
Since police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown two years ago Tuesday in Ferguson, Mo., the words “Black Lives Matter” have morphed from a public outcry into a national movement.
Through a decentralized collection of grass-roots activists and groups, Black Lives Matter protesters have rallied on the streets of cities around the nation where African Americans have been killed in police-involved shootings, including Baltimore, Minneapolis and Baton Rouge. The movement even made its presence felt in protests at July’s presidential conventions.
Activists who drive the Black Lives Matter movement and academics who study it say it all began with Brown’s death, when images of his body lying on the street of a northern St. Louis suburb and accounts of his killing spread widely through Twitter and sparked protests and media attention.
“If Mike wasn’t killed and people weren’t directly impacted, if we didn’t leave our homes, I don’t know where or what movement I would (have been in) two years ago,” said Johnetta Elzie, 27, a Ferguson protester who has become one the movement’s most prominent voices.
Without Brown’s death, Elzie said, “I probably wouldn’t be as involved as I am now.”
Kwame Rose, 22, became an activist in Baltimore after a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody eight months after Brown’s death. Black people dying at police hands isn’t new, Rose said, but the recent incidents have received more widespread attention because of social media .
“Black people have been having these conversations in our living rooms,” Rose said. “But social media has invited our followers, and millions of them, into our living rooms to have this conversation with us, in a sense.”
(Photo: Brown Family via AP)
#BlackLivesMatter, the now-iconic Twitter hashtag, first surfaced in 2013 after the acquittal of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old. It accompanied a public expression of grief by Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza.
Use of #BlackLivesMatter had diminished by summer 2014, however, said Deen Freelon, an associate professor at American University who studies online political expression. In the months after of Brown’s death, the hashtag became more widely used among people sharing frustration about not only Brown’s death, but also other incidents around the country.
Freelon co-authored a study, Beyond the Hashtags, that examined 40 million tweets related to Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. It determined that Brown’s killing, paired with the protests and media attention that followed, propelled Black Lives Matter from a expression into a national movement.
A handful of Twitter users played key roles in driving awareness of Brown’s death on Aug. 9, 2014, the study determined. First, St. Louis rapper Tef Poe tweeted a photo of Brown’s body lying in the street that was retweeted more than 5,000 times.
Then activists Michael Skolnik, a New York-based entrepreneur, and Shaun King, a writer for New York Daily News, tweeted streams of details, including that Brown was unarmed and that police had left his body in the street for hours. Then came the national media, which leaned on social media to source on-the-ground reports and photos.
What really bolstered the movement, Freelon said, were the protests and police response in the days after the Ferguson incident. By Aug. 12, activists hit the streets. Police responded with armored vehicles, military-grade equipment and what critics considered disproportionate force. Images spread online of officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds.
“We saw no examples of highly-retweeted eyewitness accounts supporting the police response,” the study concluded.
Multiple hashtags found widespread use after Brown’s killing, including #HandsUpDontShoot and #NoJusticeNoPeace, driving demonstrators into the streets. The simple hashtag #Ferguson was the most used in the study’s data. But #BlackLivesMatter found favor during an Aug. 30 protest march in Ferguson, the study found, when several on-the-ground Twitter users used it and found themselves retweeted widely.
“I didn’t know it would be a movement for a few months at least,” said Elzie, who was among the earliest demonstrators who began protesting on Aug. 9. But she saw first-hand how online interactions could manifest into physical action.
Elzie recalls “just meeting people literally off Twitter who wanted to help and didn’t know where to go, just making connections with strangers who all saw what happened and felt inclined to do something.”
The hashtag gained considerable prominence on Nov. 24, the day a grand jury declined to charge Wilson in Brown’s death. Before that date, #BlackLivesMatter had appeared in 2,309 tweets. Its tweet total rocketed to 103,319 that day, the study found. Tweets and retweets pushed #BlackLivesMatter in front of a diverse audience in the months after Ferguson.
Within two weeks, another grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer who had fatally choked Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, earlier that year. More protests and media attention followed, pushing the phrase “Black Lives Matter” further into the public consciousness.
The lack of an indictment against Wilson, Freelon notes, was the tipping point. Twitter activity around the movement never fell to its former levels and a higher baseline emerged.
Black Lives Matter had started to take root both online and off. Over time, it became so recognized that competing hashtags from critics riffed on its format, sparking #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter.
(Photo: Noah Berger, AP)
Now, Black Lives Matter serves as a banner under which multiple groups, individuals and protests aim to address police brutality. Elzie joined other activists to form Campaign Zero, a 10-point policy plan that calls for police use of body cameras among other proposals. Last week, a coalition called the Movement for Black Lives released an agenda with 40 recommendations for policing and criminal justice reforms.
To Freelon, the policy proposals show that a movement “that has a very substantial online component can also have serious goals.”
But had Wilson never opened fire on Brown two years ago, had Brown not died about 150 feet from Wilson’s vehicle, had images of Wilson standing over Brown’s corpse not gone viral online, Freelon believes Black Lives Matter would have still happened.
“I think this was probably inevitable, the movement,” Freelon said. “Because the movement tries to communicate that these are not isolated incidents. Sooner or later, you would have seen something like this.”
Follow Josh Hafner on Twitter: @joshhafner