The Power of a Hashtag
This Fall, #BlackLivesMatter, a powerful hashtag movement coursed through Twitter in response to the murder of an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri following a skirmish with a police officer. A grand jury acquitted the officer which led to fierce local protests.
At first, the story gained little mainstream media reportage, but online activism aided by significant citizen journalism coverage on Twitter and Facebook helped increase crowd size and brought international attention to the issue. This was one of a series of murders of black men that created a tipping point fed by social media that led to protests around the country, including Act-Up-style “die-ins” during Black Friday shopping season. What began with a hashtag has become a U.S.-based international movement co-founded by three black women activist/organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi following the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida. Trayvon Martin’s story gained worldwide attention in part due to the efforts of Martin’s parents, who created a Change.org petition to protest Zimmerman’s acquittal.
As of late at least 672 “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations have been held worldwide to protest the murders of Michael Brown; John Crawford III, a 22-year-old African-American shot to death by Beavercreek police officer Sean Williams on August 5, 2014, in a Walmart store near Dayton, Ohio, while holding a toy BB gun; the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Following the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New Yorker protesters took to the streets in December, adding #ICantBreathe to hashtag literacy, which echoed at national sports arenas in t-shirt solidarity.
The movement has led to meetings by group leaders with U.S. President Barack Obama and other officials to demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, mass incarceration, and demilitarization of many U.S. police departments.
This past week #MuslimLivesMatter became a new trending topic following the murders of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The victims were two sisters — 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha — and Yusor’s husband, 23-year-old Deah Barakat, all top students in their fields and committed to community service. Here is the story from Democracy Now!:
President Obama issued a statement this week denouncing the killings and the apparent religious freedom injustice the incident represents:
Yesterday, the FBI opened an inquiry into the brutal and outrageous murders of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In addition to the ongoing investigation by local authorities, the FBI is taking steps to determine whether federal laws were violated. No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship. Michelle and I offer our condolences to the victims’ loved ones. As we saw with the overwhelming presence at the funeral of these young Americans, we are all one American family. Whenever anyone is taken from us before their time, we remember how they lived their lives – and the words of one of the victims should inspire the way we live ours.
“Growing up in America has been such a blessing,” Yusor said recently. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here, we’re all one.”
The incident brings to the surface the culture of Islamophobia in many sectors of the United States, fed by mainstream media stereotypes, ignorance of non-extremist Islamic culture, the ongoing wars in the Middle East, as well as coverage of extremist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS
In the absence of social media’s amplification, stories like these would often be buried in back pages of newspapers, or offered as sidelines in local news. Through the power of social media, these news items have more recently gained significant global attention. What is your experience with hashtag activism in general, and these two movements in particular?