Ferguson: When Social Media Changes the Conversation But Not the Power Structure

Just before he disappointed civil rights advocates — and set off a long night of marches, die-ins, and anger around the country — by announcing a “no indictment” verdict for the officer who shot unarmed teen Mike Brown to death in Ferguson Missouri, prosecutor Robert McCulloch had a message for the media.

“The most significant challenge in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything, to talk about, following closely behind with the nonstop rumors on social media,” he said. He was speaking of the tweets and Vines and homemade videos that first brought attention to Mike Brown’s death, and then to the insane level of militarized force that was used against those who protested that death.

In Ferguson and the St. Louis area, social media has been there to document outrageous moments, large and small, from awful press conferences to terrifying nights of tear gas clouds, arrests and guns pointed at protesters. Social media brought the “mainstream media” to town, kept the nation’s eye on their city, and rightly turned this story into one with national, even global, symbolism and ramifications.

And social media put the spotlight on McCulloch, a man who has quietly let cops walk away without indictments over and over again. This time, he wasn’t allowed to do it quietly.

As James Poniewozik wrote this morning:

While McCulloch argued that social media made it harder to get to the truth in Ferguson, it was often social media that first got out the truth on the ground–and that raised questions that reporters on site were not always asking first. If prosecutors and police now have to deal with the public surveilling them on social media, so does that 24-hour news media that McCulloch described.

In the larger scope of this story, McCulloch’s blaming the media was just one small outrage in a so-called justice process that has been a parade of outrages. Over the course of his grand jury process, McCulloch’s fellow authority figures have upheld myths of racialized fear that stem from slavery and lynching (Darren Wilson’s testimony says the officer saw Brown as a “demon”), focused on a small group of property-smashing protesters rather than the utter destruction of life and dignity occasioned by police brutality, reaffirmed police impunity to kill citizens of color, and opened old and new wounds in communities around the country.

We have watched it all happen on social media, shared pictures of peaceful protesters confronted by militarized cops. Today, people of color on social media are expressing pure pain on behalf of their children, their families, their neighborhoods.

Similarly, social media has shifted the focus on a number of other pressing issues, essentially creating a pipeline between localized instances of injustice on the ground and the national dialogue. Thus, Mike Brown’s killing and the ensuing protests became a national story. Wendy Davis and grassroots activists fighting the closure of abortion clinics became a national story. Campus rape’s persistence became a national story. As they all deserve to be, because each local outrage is an example of a disturbing macro trend. Yet such genuine outpourings contrast with the stalwart refusal of actual authority figures to listen to people’s demands and hear their testimonies.

Yes, America has begun talking about state violence against men of color and its persistence throughout American history. Yes, social media has forced the narrative around Brown’s death to encompass the fear and anguish of people of color whose lives are threatened by killer cops. But despite this progress, the narrative of the actual court case — officials clearly sympathetic to the police, no indictment, Darren Wilson walks free, Mike Brown’s family cries in agony — remained exactly the same as it might have been in a different era, with the only exception being a little bit of lashing out at the Twitterverse from McCulloch.

Similarly, abortion clinics continue to close despite viral protests and “War on Women!” banner headlines. Many institutions, like The University of Virginia, ignore buzz about the campus rape epidemic and mistreat victims until they’re directly called to the mat.

In all these instances, a gaping chasm has opened up between the media narrative which has used on-the-ground information to illuminate the appalling behavior of institutions (like universities and police departments) and the institutions themselves, which simply act as if time has stood still.

In this situation, McCulloch is handling Brown’s case in exactly the same way as he did with previous cases of police killing citizens — flying in the face of the protests, the media, the pressure of thousands upon thousands of people of color bearing witness about how this terrible injustice affects their existence.

McCulloch told the protesters that the whole world is watching. Yet the whole world was watching him and his prosecution of the case, and he still ended up acting exactly like a defense lawyer. Not just a defense lawyer for Darren Wilson, but a defense lawyer for the status quo.

So the question for activists and media makers is: when media narratives don’t alter power structures or the situation on the ground, do we need to simply up the pressure on the powers that be? Do we need to find more creative ways to tell stories?

Or do we need to begin doing the more difficult work? Do we need to be starting a conversation around envisioning a different power structure entirely?