What Ferguson Tells Us About Protest Culture In America

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

As the media focuses on the protests and residents of Ferguson, and outrage over the incident goes viral, it is important to understand the shooting, protest, and police response as one aspect of a larger social, cultural, and historical moment. The civil unrest in Ferguson is not a random, isolated event, but the product of “racial segregation, economic inequality and overbearing law enforcement” in the town. And it is a continuation of a legacy of civil unrest in communities of color throughout America.

I spoke to Duke Professor Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American Studies scholar with an emphasis on pop culture representation, about racial discourse in America, and how culture helps us define and shape historical moments as they unfold.

When we talk about culture and social movements, it’s easy to jump right into the realm of celebrity and limit the discussion to which artist or actress said xyz. But culture is obviously about customs, and social groups, and how we develop beliefs and ideas that define us. It isn’t just about celebrity. So in looking at Ferguson, what elements of culture should we really hone in on?

I think the idea of community. One of the things we’ve seen in the aftermath of the shooting of Mike Brown is this idea of the community coming together, and in part of that community is the idea of protecting children, and the idea of protecting black masculinity. So when you see the posters of “I Am a Man,” which immediately takes it back to moments during the Civil Rights Movement, there’s this whole idea that a community is going to protect its children. And when their children get shot in the streets, particularly the kind of kid that the community views as someone who’s going to go on to greater things, what you see is this idea of the community closings links and coming together in ways that are very distinctly cultural — that we’ve seen whether we’re talking about Watts in 1965, thinking of the riots in Miami in 1980, and in recent history, what we saw in Los Angeles in 1992.

police advance

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Last night social media erupted because the journalists and alderman were arrested, two of whom were black and one of whom was white. Let’s talk about the idea of ally-ship. Right now, it seems like journalists are the strongest allies of the black protesters. What do they need to do to raise awareness about what’s going on without detracting from the black voices that are on the ground?

Because it was a white journalist. It almost takes us back to Freedom Summer and Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. The fact that two of them were white brought attention to the case. The role of white journalists as allies, particularly in this case, is to make sure that they provide access, and make sure that they get the right voices that are there. And I think white journalists, who perceive themselves as allies, have a particular responsibility to make sure that the people who are on the ground, who have the best information, are able to represent their communities. When i think about the alderman, he’s an interesting case, because he’s not from Ferguson. He’s from St. Louis. So it begs the question of “Where are the city council members and other elected officials actually from Ferguson?” But in his case, you wonder if he would have even emerged as the voice he’s emerged as if he didn’t have access to Twitter or Vine, and all these other modes of social media that he’s been able to employ.

Talking about social media, how do you think people of color should capitalize on digital media to convey the message and actually be heard?

I think it’s already being done. When you think about the hashtag that emerged very quickly around #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, and folks posting those photographs, it’s such a critique of how mainstream corporate media covers race in America. It was quick. It was effective. It was not so subtle. It really has to be a kind of marriage of traditional grassroots organizing on the ground, and those folks being willing to sit down with others who have an affinity for the technology, to do effective work. Beginning with Trayvon Martin and going forward, we’ve seen young black folks under thirty, and black and brown folks if you consider some of the organizing around immigration in this country, effectively use social media to push conversations places they would not have been pushed without social media. But again, there also needs to be on-the-ground, grassroots organizing.


CREDIT: Twitter

If we look at riots that have happened in the past, social media wasn’t a factor.

Well social media as we understand it wasn’t. I would argue that social media has always existed. When you think about the Watts Riots, it was word of mouth. When you think of the role of the “stoop” in front of black tenement buildings in New York, Baltimore, and other cities, the stoop was Black Twitter. What you see now is this element to have voices that are on the ground, to counter more traditional narratives about what’s happening. It’s the most important difference in terms of the use of social media in this moment, as opposed to what we saw 50 years ago in Watts.

So fleshing out the idea of the stoop, you have to get the message that’s passed around on the stoop to the larger public. So in the past, how was that most effectively done? Was it tv, was it radio? Who was listened to?

Before white newspapers, for lack of a better way to describe them, began to hire black journalists en masse, it was the black press. When you think about newspapers like Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, these were the ways folks got information. They obviously were not as quick as some daily newspapers or social media as we understand it. The other piece that was much more effective and quicker in terms of getting the information was black radio. Say Martin Luther King was coming into a community and was going to have a meeting, it was not unusual for him to go to the local radio station the day of or day before and just talk for 10 or 15 minutes on the radio, to let people know what was happening. In most cases, black-owned entities — radio stations and newspapers –really spoke in this earlier era to the power of black independent media. And while we do have black independent media in some sense in 2014, very often they are just extensions of larger white corporate entities. So how far they can go into narratives gets a little lost, which is why social media and bloggers have become so important.

To pivot off of the radio and talk about actual pop culture, do you generally think that rebellion and revolution is accurately represented in the movies and shows that we watch?

No, because the folks who are starting the revolution aren’t making the films. There’s so much romanticization about both what happens and the figures who were involved. The only thing that you can hope when these things do get represented in popular culture is that they they do represent some of the truthfulness, if you will. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of getting all the facts right, but the truthfulness of the intent of these social movements. What were they trying to achieve? What were the energies behind them? As long as representations, film or otherwise, represent that truthfulness, I think they’re important.


CREDIT: Shutterstock

Can you talk about the importance of music in revolutions? It’s clear that music carries social movements, but do you think that we have a musician today that’s big enough to make a difference?

The historical example that I’m most familiar with is the Civil Rights Movement. There’s an argument to be made that so much of what becomes popular around the Civil Rights Movement happened around the music. When you consider that in the late 1960s, when Aretha Franklin was at her commercial peak, she decides to record a song like Young, Gifted, and Black (an old Nina Simone song), those kind of figures have a tremendous impact.

It’s hard to say what kind of artist would do that in this particular environment. And this is not necessarily a critique of them, but this is a generation of artists that are built around building brands. Brand can be controversial, just think about Kanye in this context, but your brand can’t be political in that kind of way. The political brand is seen as just that: a political brand. It doesn’t cross over. If there’s one figure that stands out, it’s probably Beyonce. Jay Z and Beyonce are so deliberate in how they roll things out. I can’t imagine that this is stuff that does not come across their desk at some point, and that they aren’t trying to figure out what the right response or approach would be. But you see so much more activity in this movement from more independent artists. If you look at the career of someone like Jasiri X over the last decade, he’s just been able to bombard folks with good music and music that’s progressively tied to what’s happening politically in this country, because he has that kind of freedom. Most of these mainstream superstars simply don’t have that kind of freedom, and the folks that do have that kind of freedom don’t have that following anymore. Chuck D could say whatever he wants at this point in time, but in some ways it doesn’t really matter because Chuck D fans are Chuck D fans, and they’re already locked into this.

The only person who comes to mind for me, other than a Beyonce, is Questlove. Colorlines compiled a list of rappers who have said something. It consists of the usual suspects: Talib Kweli, Questlove, Childish Gambino.

Quest would be interesting, not even from a musical standpoint, but how he could utilize the incredible visibility that he and the Roots now have on Jimmy Fallon’s show. For me, the wonderfulness of the Arsenio Hall Show (the first version), was that he had a certain kind of independence and sensibility that it wasn’t unusual for him to bring “controversial”. This is somebody who sat Farrakhan down on the couch and just had a conversation. Even though I think Jimmy Fallon’s politics are good, I’m not sure he’s going to sit Questlove and Black Thought down on the couch and say, “let’s have a talk about race in America.” I think it would actually have to be a whole other level of prices for someone like Jimmy Fallon to go there. And if Jimmy Fallon’s not going there, there are a bunch of other folks who aren’t going there.