Social media and the police killing of Michael Brown

By Pat Watson Wednesday August 27 2014 in Opinion
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“We have had enough of the senseless killing,” said the uncle of Michael Brown at the funeral for the 18-year-old on Monday in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, as the world now knows, is the college-bound youth shot and killed by Darren Wilson, 28, a White person entrusted by the St. Louis area law enforcement system, which includes the segregated suburb of Ferguson, to serve and protect its citizens.


The public information is that six bullets were fired into the body of the unarmed youth wearing flip-flops. It was an incident that has been repeated countless times across the United States and Canada. The image coming away from this tragedy, drawn along racial lines, is that of Michael Brown in the universal stance of surrender, with his arms held high in the air.


This is the most high profile fatality along racial lines since the killing of 17-year-old unarmed youth Trayvon Martin in February 2012, in a gated community in Florida.


Following the shooting death of Martin, the social media activity started by his parents mushroomed into nationwide attention. Indeed, anger over the youth’s murder went viral, taking it well beyond Florida.


Adding insult to murder, a jury trial verdict let the perpetrator get away with the killing because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground rule. That’s where a person is legally allowed to shoot at another if he believes his life is being threatened. But, it was the shooter, George Zimmerman, who, against the advice of area police whom he had called to report his sighting of Martin returning home from buying snacks from a convenience store, confronted the youth, and then shot and killed him.


Apparently, Brown was also returning from a convenience store.


But the point here is the power of people organized to take hold of these terrible police confrontations with Black youth and let the world know through social media what is happening. There had been many lessons learned by such activists coming out of their involvement with the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. It was their persistence that led to the resignation of the Sanford police chief who had not laid charges again the shooter George Zimmerman.


The level of public awareness and activity that came through social media saw the issue of racial profiling and the stand your ground law rise to the level of national debate. There was more attention paid to that case than the presidential election campaign that was also taking place at the time.


Social media, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have become the means for everyday people to organize more effectively. Witness the masses that gathered in Ferguson to protest the killing of Brown. Protests began within days of that fatality. In the case of Martin’s death the lag between his death and the rise in public response was longer. What a difference in just two years.


Another aspect of the insertion of social media following this tragedy is that of controlling the narrative. Before the powers that be could put their spin on what happened, activists in the social media sphere told what happened from their point of view. Before Brown could be branded in the mind of the public as someone who, for instance, was ‘known to police’, activists let it be known that this was a youth who was just days away from beginning college. Then they let it be known with the help of video that Brown was shot with his hands up. Protesters in Ferguson were not only local, they were there from as far away as New York City and Chicago.


The revolution may or may not be televised, but it will be aided and propelled in no small part by social media. Here then is our brave new world.


A note on where to place a shelter…


The decision on whether to approve the relocation of a shelter for homeless men to the Vaughan and Oakwood neighbourhood will come from Toronto City Council this week. The reaction from the residents has been predictably one of unease. But if not there, then where? The notion that these types of social housing are a problem is more fear than reality since they are supervised and well supported. We will have to wait for the council’s decision to know what comes next.


Pat Watson is the author of the e-book, In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.


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