"#Pray For ____": Searching for Meaning in 21st Century Activism

By Gabriel Greschler

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In a recent New York Times article titled, “Are We Unraveling?”, columnist Ross Douthat proposes that one can draw parallels between the social upheavals we are seeing in the news today surrounding police brutality and race relations to those of the 1960s and 70s. What I found Douthat failed to mention is the tangible difference between these two eras: the role camera phones and social media have played.

Each generation’s issues are shaped and molded by the innovations that exist within it. The essential question is, will our unique context of technology help bring us closer to what many are demanding: a wide-spread recognition of the racial inequities that exist, and ultimately policy to change the system? Or will we see a false sense of action being promoted, which could lead us to a never-ending cycle of complacency?

When Rodney King was severely beaten in 1991, it was one of the very first times police brutality was caught covertly by an individual, also known as “sousveillance,” or the recording of activities by wearable technology or smartphone. Apart from providing proof of the abusive nature of police in L.A. for an investigation, the video broke a much more important barrier: revealing to vast swaths of the public that police brutality did exist, and it was racially motivated.

Before this era, deniers of such activity before could push it off as fiction. Now, the evidence was right in front of them. This has only increased in years since with the stunning speed at which videos can go viral, and how many people currently have cameras with them at all times. There has even been a small turning point with the two videos of Atlon Sterling and Philando Castle. You are now seeing high-level Republican leaders come out and at least say, yes, there is a problem, whereas before they may have denied racial bias in the criminal justice system. Whether the party is willing to take action is another conversation. Watching the speeches from the Republican National Convention makes me doubt it.

The democratization of sousveillance starting in the early ’90s with handheld cameras, and ever increasing with smartphones, has led to a vast amount of undeniable evidence. Sousveillance has served as a “self-checking” power against law enforcement to counteract against malicious police. Where photos and eyewitness accounts could only go so far, one could argue every smartphone owner is an investigator against police brutality. That is powerful.

Will this naturally weed out those police officers who possess racial bias? That’s a question that can only be answered with time, as the technology is only at its inception.

It’s also worth mentioning how this technology has potentially created an environment where less will be done about the issue of police brutality.

It’s clear social media played an essential role during the Arab Spring in spreading information that toppled dictators and demanded reforms within governments. In a discussion I attended at the World Affairs Council in downtown San Francisco, Robert Worth, a contributor for New York Times Magazine, described the not-so-obvious, negative roles Facebook and Twitter played in the revolutions.

There was much excitement starting in 2011 when the revolutions were just starting to get off the ground, with a large amount of its activity present on social media. However, this enthusiasm was not sustained. As Worth revealed, there wasn’t a large enough group of protesters involved for the long fight. While large majorities of populations in the Arab world participated online initially, many were not ready for a prolonged battle against the government.

Worth exposed a very crucial pitfall of social media: its ability to create a artificial perception of action, and garner a measured amount of complacency. Many now agree that the Arab Spring was a disaster, with many of the countries involved either in a state of civil war or unrest. While there were other factors that contributed to the current chaos, it raises a question that all of us who care deeply about police brutality and racial tensions in the United States must ask ourselves: are we committed to changing the multi-layered and complex institutionalized system that has a bias against those of color in the country, get out on the street to demand our representatives that they finally do something about this unforeseen violence, continue to pressure those in power for perhaps years and years to create better policy, or will we sit in the comfort of our homes while sharing a video of it?

I’m just as guilty when it comes to the latter, and I have repeatedly questioned myself when responding to these issues. If you looks at it hard, what good does it do to condemn an act over Facebook? Countless times I have posted paragraphs that voiced my strong opinion on a terrorist attack, or the shooting of another black male. It’s summed up by a diagram shared by one of my favorite political commentators, Ian Bremmer — “Tragedy strikes. #Prayfor____. Change Facebook profile pic to overlay of flag. Life goes back to normal. Repeat.” And after so many of these cycles, you hear again and again, something has to be done.

Hard to swallow.

I was originally going to write that my hope for a solution lay in the continual exposure of issues. That after so many posts, tweets, and hashtags we would finally say, “enough is enough, goddammit!” I’ve thought about this for some time now, and I think I was wrong.

There is no amount of coverage that can change us, no apex we have come to, no video that can make us all of a sudden jump off our couch. A largely held belief is that social media can be a force that brings great change, and where so many want this to be the case, I tend to see this as an exaggerated claim. It can accommodate those pictures you took on a spring break trip to Cabo, but does not act as a place to have real dialogue on institutionalized racism.

I have found that social media’s thick air of instant gratification has kept me waiting for the day that I log in and someone, somewhere, has found the formula to ending racial inequality, police brutality, or even terrorism.

This moment, I have slowly come to realize, will not come so fast. My (and our) distorted perception must catch up to the reality at hand: that real change and a Facebook page run at two different speeds.

Gabriel Greschler is a sophomore at the University of San Francisco, and the Opinion Editor for the school’s student newspaper. He thinks we are all doomed this November, but will stay around for it to watch the fun.