The shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown by local police in Ferguson, Missouri Saturday gained national attention this week. Twitter hashtag activism was at the epicenter of the national protests, broadening discussions about media portrayal and police treatment of people of color.
Brown was shot multiple times by police with his hands above his head after police said he had a confrontation with another officer. Angered by the rise in police violence, many across the nation have taken to social media to protest his death. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was one of the first hashtags to emerge after news of Brown’s death broke and media outlets switched his picture from one in his high school cap and gown to a photo of him stone-faced, throwing up a peace sign, which many misconstrued as a gang symbol.
Users responded by posting two pictures of themselves: one that would be considered traditionally acceptable such as posing in a graduation cap and gown, and another that, if taken out of context, could seem menacing. Each then asked the question, “Which would the media choose if I died?”
A petition and other hashtags have also popped up, such as #IGotTheTalk, elevating the conversation surrounding Brown’s death to how people of color are taught to handle themselves when confronted by the police and racial profiling. Users shared experiences from when parents or role models took them aside and explained that the color of their skin dictated whether they would get stopped by police and that those confrontations frequently resulted in violence or death.
Hacktivist group Anonymous also joined the protests, declaring that it would shut down Ferguson’s servers and release the names of its police officers if protesters were harmed. The group took down City of Ferguson websites Sunday night and posted private photos of the St. Louis County police chief.
Similar Twitter and social media discussions arose in the wake of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012.
But the furor over Brown’s death online has shown the strength of social media activism in raising awareness of issues that may fly under the mainstream media’s radar. “One of the things that often comes up in the wake of one of these deaths is an effort to explain away the police’s decision to shoot,” Mikki Kendall, a Chicago-based writer, feminist and civil rights activist, told ThinkProgress. “This time it’s very difficult to do that as Mike Brown was unarmed and social media has been quick to debunk many of the usual rumors. So now, the conversation is really being pushed in the direction of ‘He was innocent and they killed him anyway.’”
Public response to Brown’s death has been a culmination of several police-related deaths of African Americans. Twenty-five year old Ezell Ford was shot dead by police Tuesday in Los Angeles after police ordered him to lay on the ground, KTLA first reported. In July, Staten Island, New Yorker Eric Garner died after a police officer illegally used the choke hold maneuver to subdue him. Brown’s shooting also comes after a high-profile “stand your ground” case in which an African-American women, Renisha McBride, was shot and killed by a white homeowner for trying to get help after a car accident.
“Media narratives that demonize victims of police brutality are harder to sustain when hundreds or thousands of people are publishing counter narratives. Many hashtags from this weekend alone include people saying ‘I never knew this was happening’ or ‘I had no idea the police could act this way,’” Kendall said. “Hashtags can’t change policy immediately, but they can absolutely impact the perceptions of people who will one day make policies.”
“I think that with the sheer number of these cases coming to light in the last few weeks, there’s no way that a national conversation focusing on police brutality won’t happen now,” Kendall said. “How it will play out remains to be seen, but the reality is that the problem is getting worse, and the old cover ups won’t work any more.”