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Hashtag Activism Isn’t a Cop-Out

An organizer of Ferguson protests argues that social-media tools encourage demonstrations, rather than deflating them.

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Mainstream-media figures often portray social media as a buzzing hive of useless outrage. Thinkpieces present hashtag activism as vanity activism, in which narcissistic pronouncements substitute for actual engagement, and anger is leveraged at best for petty entertainment and at worst for coordinated harassment.

Yet activists themselves often argue that social media is important to their work. DeRay Mckesson, who has emerged as one of a number of leading organizers and activists against police brutality, has spoken on his feed about how vital Twitter is for boosting a movement. When he first drove from his home in Minneapolis—where he works as a school administrator, traveling for protests mainly on weekends—to Ferguson to participate in the protests, Mckesson knew no one; he didn’t even know where he would sleep. Facebook networks found him a couch, and social media was vital in connecting him with the community of protestors. Mckesson reports live from protests through Twitter, where his following has ballooned from 800 followers to more than 61,000 since he began his activism. He’s also used social networks to raise awareness and to organize, by for example creating a text-message alert that informed thousands the instant the grand jury in Ferguson returned a no-indictment verdict in the Michael Brown case.

I talked to Mckesson about social media, protest, and the connections between the two. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Noah Berlatsky: What role has social-media activism played in the movement against police brutality that started in Ferguson?

DeRay Mckesson: Missouri would have convinced you that we did not exist if it were not for social media. The intensity with which they responded to protestors very early—we were able to document that and share it quickly with people in a way that we never could have without social media. We were able to tell our own stories.

The history of blackness is also a history of erasure. Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people. The black people in the struggle haven’t had the means to tell the story historically. There were a million slaves but you see very few slave narratives. And that is intentional. So what was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded.

The other thing I will add is that Twitter specifically has been interesting because we’re able to get feedback and responses in real time. If we think about this as community building, and we think of community building as a manifestation of love, and we think about love being about accountability, and accountability about justice, what’s interesting is that Twitter has kept us honest. There’s a democracy of feedback. I’ve had really robust conversations with people who aren’t physically in the space, but who have such great ideas. And that’s proven to be invaluable.
Berlatsky: The civil-rights movement of the ’60s obviously didn’t have Twitter or social media or the Internet, but it was able to get its message out to the media in other ways. Why wouldn’t traditional media be adequate now?

Mckesson: Ferguson exists in a tradition of protest. But what is different about Ferguson, or what is important about Ferguson, is that the movement began with regular people. There was no Martin, there was no Malcolm, there was no NAACP, it wasn’t the Urban League. People came together who didn’t necessarily know each other, but knew what they were experiencing was wrong. And that is what started this. What makes that really important, unlike previous struggle, is that—who is the spokesperson? The people. The people, in a very democratic way, became the voice of the struggle.

Our access to information is also so much greater than in the past. For instance, there’s an officer in Ferguson who is really aggressive with protestors for no reason. And I was able to take a picture of him—he would cover his badge with his hand, he would not show his name. So I took a picture of him, put it online, and within 30 minutes they knew everything about him. And that’s a different way of empowering people.

Berlatsky: It sounds like you’re saying that Twitter allowed the movement to be a lot more decentralized. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage? It seems like it might be a disadvantage in terms of settling on specific goals, for example.
Mckesson: It is not that we’re anti-organization. There are structures that have formed as a result of protest, that are really powerful. It is just that you did not need those structures to begin protest. You are enough to start a movement. Individual people can come together around things that they know are unjust. And they can spark change. Your body can be part of the protest; you don’t need a VIP pass to protest. And Twitter allowed that to happen.

I think that what we are doing is building a radical new community in struggle that did not exist before. Twitter has enabled us to create community. I think the phase we’re in is a community-building phase. Yes, we need to address policy, yes, we need to address elections; we need to do all those things. But on the heels of building a strong community.

A screenshot of Mckesson's Twitter profile (Twitter)
A screenshot of Mckesson’s Twitter profile (Twitter)

Berlatsky: You also publish—along with Johnetta (Netta) Elzie—an online newsletter about the protest movement called Words to Action. Do you see yourself as a journalist? Or as an activist? Or both? How important is social media to those roles, or to combining them?

Mckesson: I see myself as a protestor who is also telling the story as it happens. The newsletter started—I remember when Trayvon died, I wanted to follow the case, but I didn’t know what was fact or fiction. I didn’t want that to be the story of Mike Brown. There was so much news; there was so much stuff that was unclear. There were so many questions. The goal was to create a space where people could go to get true news.
Now the movement has spread beyond St. Louis, we cover stories from around the country. So the goal was to be a hub of information. I think the first newsletter that went out had 400 subscribers, and we’re at a little bit less than 14,000 now. And we did a text-message alert for the no-indictment—you could sign up to get a text when the decision came out. And 21,000 people signed up in 10 days, which was wild. So the work is focused on, how can we use the tools we have access to in order to create infrastructure for the movement.

And that’s what Netta and I have been focused on. None of this takes away from our protesting. We don’t put the newsletter out when we’re out until 4 in the morning protesting. The trade-off always veers in the favor of protest. It’s rooted in the confrontation and disruption that is protest. We want to make structures to empower people. The newsletter is a way to empower people. Because we believe that the truth is actually so damning that we can just tell you all the news that’s happening and you should be radicalized. We believe that.

Berlatsky: I saw you talking about Iggy Azalea and issues of appropriation on Twitter a little bit back. That’s the sort of cultural issue that I think many people would say is just a distraction, or is just a way for people to express outrage without working for social change. Do you see cultural conversations around Iggy, or similar issues, as a distraction from your work as an organizer? Or are they complementary?
Mckesson: Good lord. Iggy. (laughs) You’re really trying to get me in trouble.

When people think about protest, they think that protest is always confrontation, protest is always disruption. But protest is also intellectual confrontation and disruption. So part of what we do when the police speak is that we question. The thing about people like Iggy is that we also question. We question what it means to have your success be on a medium and a platform that was born of black struggle, like hip-hop or rap, and what does it mean that you identify with everything but the struggle part? Which is the Iggy issue.

We question these issues of race and struggle and white privilege, because we know that those issues are real, and because those issues have real implications in black communities. And white supremacy is not only dangerous but it is deadly. We know this to be true.

Berlatsky: Do you get a lot of harassment on social media?

Mckesson: Yeah, the death threats aren’t fun. They put my address out there, that’s not fun. I get called a nigger more than I’ve ever been called that in my entire life. I’ve blocked over 9,000 people, so I don’t personally see it as much anymore, but my friends do. So that sort of stuff I don’t love.

But what social media has done is that it has exposed the intensity of hatred in America. People who you wouldn’t expect to be racist … some of the tweets are from people who are well-intentioned but racist. And I appreciate that that’s exposed. People now understand where you’re coming from. And it’s deeply problematic. But we don’t have to guess anymore; we get it.

The harassment is never a good thing. But there’s something valuable in making sure you’re not surrounded by people who think like you. It helps you understand what you think better. And I appreciate that about Twitter. It’s a cacophony of voices. Even when you don’t agree, you at least understand different perspectives. The medium itself sets that up.

The Day President Kennedy Embraced Civil Rights—and the Story Behind It

50 years ago, the president gave his now-famous Civil Rights Address. But it was Martin Luther King Jr. and the Birmingham protesters who deserved the credit.

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JONATHAN RIEDER   JUN 11, 2013

“Can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!” That was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s private verdict on President John F. Kennedy’s famous Civil Rights Address, delivered fifty years ago on June 11, 1963.

If King’s elation made sense, so did his incredulity. Kennedy had hardly been a beacon of moral resolve on civil rights. It required the Birmingham civil rights movement — and the tough-minded theory of social change that King spelled out in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — to provoke his speech into being. And once pushed into taking a stand with the address, Kennedy and his speechwriter Theodore Sorensen filled it with rhetoric often remarkably similar to King’s. Though the address came, ostensibly, in response to a different event — the fight over the integration at the University of Alabama — it was full of echoes of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In a powerful sense, King and the movement were the authors of the president’s oratory.
The speech was a dramatic moment in a season jammed with dramatic events, as America staggered toward non-racial democracy. In his fiery inaugural speech in January of 1963, the new governor of Alabama, George Wallace had pledged, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In defiance of Wallace, King and the local movement launched civil rights protests in April in the furiously racist city of Birmingham. With the movement faltering, King decided to violate an injunction banning protests of any sort, and was, as a result, jailed on Good Friday, April 12.

Kennedy’s speech constituted an about-face, and King grasped that the Birmingham campaign had instigated it.
While in jail, King read a statement by eight of the leading moderate white clergy in Alabama, condemning the protests and branding King an extremist. The indignant, frazzled leader poured his rejoinder onto newspaper margins and toilet tissue. The iconic document that emerged from those jottings, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was always more than a spirited defense of civil disobedience. It was an indictment of white indifference. “Few members of the oppressor race,” King insisted, “can understand the … passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.” It was also a declaration of black self-sufficiency (“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”) and a stirring refusal of patience. “The word ‘Wait!'” wrote King, “rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.” The “Letter” was radical in the scope of its rebuke. King’s key targets were not the Klan and Wallace but the very core of American culture, every sort of moderate “who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Neither King’s sacrificial act nor his roiling anger was enough to jumpstart the movement, even after he got out of jail on April 20. But in early May, the city’s black youth renewed the insurgency. After singing rousing verses of “I Woke Up With My Mind Stayed on Freedom,” they burst through the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and faced down Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses. Within days, an agreement was forged to desegregate the city. The nation had begun its lurch toward the March on Washington, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Meanwhile, the federal court-ordered integration of the University of Alabama loomed on June 11. Governor Wallace vowed to stand in the schoolhouse door to block the mixing of races. Kennedy’s speech, the one that so impressed and surprised King, came just hours after forcing Wallace to step aside. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he declared. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” The president was finally using language the demonstrators could appreciate: “We preach freedom around the world,” he said, “but are we to say to the world, and . . .to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes …?”

Throughout the speech Kennedy seemed to be channeling the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King had invited white people to put themselves in a black person’s shoes: “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will,” or ” when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy,’ … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Kennedy, too, used the place-trading device: “If a Negro can’t enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
The president’s address also resembled King’s “Letter” in rejecting the idea that blacks should have to wait for equality. “Who among us,” Kennedy demanded, “would then be content with counsels of patience and delay?” He mimicked King’s critique of “appalling silence”: “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence.” The president even picked up the mass meeting chant — “Now is the time!” Said Kennedy, “Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise.”

Despite that drumbeat of immediacy, Kennedy’s call to conscience was belated as well as brave. The president had long epitomized the moderates whom King had blasted in the “Letter” as the true “stumbling block” to justice. In his inaugural address, Kennedy promised to “pay any price” to spread freedom around the globe but he hadn’t been willing to do that for black people in the United States. Kennedy, the ever risk-averse pragmatist, kept telling King to “wait” — exactly the reaction King deplored in the “Letter.” When Attorney General Robert Kennedy, afraid that a black child might be maimed in the protests, called King to get him to call off the insurgency of the young, King retorted, “[Black children] are hurt every day.”

So Kennedy’s speech constituted an about-face, and King grasped that the Birmingham campaign had instigated it. In the May 10 mass meeting at which the victory in Birmingham was announced, a jubilant, downhome King recounted,

Those business and professional leaders were sayin’, “We’re tired of these niggers, and there’s nothing to do but tell the government to send the National Guard here and get this thing under martial law. . . . These niggers are just not gonna stop.” And when they got out for lunch, and saw all those Negroes standing on the sidewalk singing “We shall overcome” and they “Won’t let nobody turn me round,” I heard that when they got back in there after the lunch hour, they started sayin’, “Now, let’s see, I think we could grant part one,” and they moved down to part two and extended that.

NEWS FILE/ANTHONY FALLETTA June 15, 1963 Protests in Birmingham spread to other cities including Gadsden where these demonstrators gather on a sidewalk under the taunts of whites. The protests in Gadsden were not widely reported in Birmingham. Earlier the same week Gov. George Wallace came out against Vivian Malone's enrollment at the University of Alabama.
NEWS FILE/ANTHONY FALLETTA June 15, 1963 Protests in Birmingham spread to other cities including Gadsden where these demonstrators gather on a sidewalk under the taunts of whites. The protests in Gadsden were not widely reported in Birmingham. Earlier the same week Gov. George Wallace came out against Vivian Malone’s enrollment at the University of Alabama.

King had no doubt that the protests were working the same magic on the president and nudging him toward a more energetic stance on civil rights. “When things started happening down here, Mr. Kennedy got disturbed . . . He is battling for the minds and the hearts of men in Asia and Africa. . . And they’re not gonna respect the United States of America if she deprives men and women of the basic rights of life because of the color of their skin. Mr. Kennedy knows this.” On May 3, a photographer captured the iconic image of a German Shepherd that seemed to be lunging to bite a young black boy. “And when that picture went all over Asia and Africa and England and France, Mr. Kennedy said, ‘Bobby, you better get your assistant down there and look into this matter. It’s a dangerous situation for our image abroad.'”

The truth went further than King imagined, though. The picture had in fact aroused something in Kennedy beyond concerns about America’s image. At a private but recorded White House meeting on May 4, he said the picture “made him sick.” Kennedy sounds befuddled: he decries the black situation in Birmingham as “intolerable”; he exudes frustration (“what law can you pass to do anything about [local] police power”); he concedes “we have done not enough [on civil rights]”; yet he careens, “but we have shoved and pushed . . . and there’s nothing my brother’s given more time to.”

“If I were a Negro, I would be awfully sore,” the president acknowledged. And then, as if responding to King’s argument in the “Letter” that when whites said “wait” they really meant “never,” Kennedy added: “I’m not saying anybody ought to be patient.”
In the end, Kennedy’s turn-about vindicated the key premise of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Blacks could not bank on moral appeal or empathy alone, let alone some intrinsic force of “American exceptionalism,” to awaken the conscience of whites. The unruliness of “creative tension” was required to galvanize the state to act on behalf of the suffering. As the president put it on June 4, “And this may be the only way these things come to a head. We’re going to end up with the National Guard in there and all sorts of trouble.”

“All sorts of trouble” underscores an ironic, unsettling truth: the white fear of violence pushed events forward too. In his June 11 address, President Kennedy observed, “The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South … Redress is sought in the streets. . .which create[s] tensions and threaten[s] violence.” Surely, that specter of mayhem ran counter to King’s faith in nonviolence. And yet its power to transfix a president confirmed the “Letter’s” recognition: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Fifty years ago today, as the president delivered his address, Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrated a victory wrought by that hardboiled truth.

*The recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks on May 10, celebrating the victory in Birmingham, is posted here courtesy of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The recording was made by Reverend C. Herbert Oliver.

Reverend C. Herbert Oliver was a pioneering activist for racial justice in Birmingham beginning in the 1940s. He was one of the founders of the Inter-Citizens Committee, which gathered affidavits to document racist violence and police brutality. He was preparing to testify before the United States Commission on Civil Rights at hearings scheduled for late April 1963, which were cancelled when the SCLC-ACMHR campaign was launched.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JONATHAN RIEDER is a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of the recently published Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Past and Future of America’s Social Contract

In the 20th century, the United States moved from an economy based on high wages and reliable benefits to a system of low wages and cheap consumer prices, to the detriment of workers. What’s next?

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By JOSH FREEDMAN AND MICHAEL LIND

The problem of low pay has dominated headlines this year thanks to striking fast food workers, tone-deaf employers, and a spate of successful campaigns to raise state and local minimum wages.

Behind the news cycle, however, there’s a deeper issue than what Walmart or McDonald’s pay their workers today. Americans are once again wrestling with what they fundamentally want from the social contract—the basic bargain most of us can expect from the economy throughout our lives.

A generation ago, the country’s social contract was premised on higher wages and reliable benefits, provided chiefly by employers. In recent decades, we’ve moved to a system where low wages are supposed to be made bearable by low consumer prices and a hodgepodge of government assistance programs. But as dissatisfaction with this arrangement has grown, it is time to look back at how we got here and imagine what the next stage of the social contract might be.
The story of the modern social contract can be divided into two parts, with the first beginning in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The New Deal era of the 1930s through the 1970s was largely defined by high and rising wages, which were pushed up by strong unions, limited global competition, low energy and commodity prices, and more stringent regulations on businesses. At the same time, the ability to automate and innovate in the dominant manufacturing sector made it possible to offer workers high pay while keeping prices on consumer goods low.

But the social contract didn’t just encompass paychecks. During the mid-century boom, many employers—led by industrial giants like General Motors and General Electric—acted as “welfare capitalists” that were also primarily responsible for providing benefits like a pension to workers and their families. Part of the motivation was cultural: Before the notion of shareholder capitalism took root in the 1980s, companies viewed it as part of their mission to act in the interests of all of their stakeholders, including workers and their communities, rather than in the interests of investors alone. However, companies also favored the arrangement because providing benefits to workers directly gave them some leverage against labor unions. Ultimately, the welfare-capitalist social contract became the norm.

Starting in the 1980s, however, the social contract underwent a profound change. Deregulation of industry, increasing global competition, and the increasing cost and volatility of raw materials all led companies to move away from the New Deal era consensus. In its place grew what we term the “low-wage social contract” that has dominated through the current day.

After the New Deal, a Worse Deal

The low-wage social contract seeks to balance poor private sector pay with cheap consumer goods, low taxes, and government subsidies that boost after-tax incomes. What does this mean in practice? Cheap imports from countries like China are one big part of it, as are policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that allow Washington to supplement low-income workers’ pay through the tax code.
Proponents of the low-wage social contract on both the left and the right have argued that the combination of inexpensive goods and low taxes should give consumers more spending power than they would have in a high-wage, high-price economy. In a famous paper entitled “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story,” Jason Furman, now Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, argued that the low-wage model actually made low-income consumers better off overall.

For many, though, the bargain has clearly failed. It is true that tax credits and cheap goods have boosted the standard of living for otherwise impoverished workers. Yet, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account wage subsidies and additional costs like taxes and medical costs, almost 10 percent of the total working population still lives in poverty. This includes roughly 5 million Americans who work full-time, year-round.

A key reason for this is that the low-wage social contract does not do much to help families in the areas they need most. Clothing, food, and other items found at Wal-Mart might be cheap for low-wage workers. But other necessary services—health care, daycare, eldercare, and college—have simultaneously become less affordable and more important as most mothers work outside of the home and the wage premium for college remains high. In 1960, the average family spent about $12,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars on childcare, education, and healthcare over the course of 17 years raising a child. Four decades later, the average family spends almost $63,000 per child. Medical out-of-pocket expenses now push more people below the poverty line than tax credits can lift above it.
The low-wage social contract has also contributed to a lack of aggregate demand. Because workers are also consumers, and because low-income households spend more of their money than do wealthier households, the low wage system limits the power of workers to help the economy grow by purchasing goods and services.

The Next Social Contract

That’s how we got here—but what might lie ahead?

While the “low wage” social contract may not be much of a bargain for many workers, there’s no pretending we can go back to the New Deal-era system of old. The combination of conditions that allowed for high wages, high profits, and low prices no longer exists in a service-based economy with more unstable employment and in which the declining number of manufacturing jobs are more subject to global competition. And while the welfare capitalist model did benefit many in the middle class, it often excluded African-American workers and was reliant on a family model based on a sole male breadwinner. The next social contract needs to adapt to these new economic conditions and further the huge strides we have made toward equality for women and minorities in the workforce.

What, then, would a better social contract look like?

First, we could accept the basic shape of the low-wage economy while softening its edges by asking government to do even more. With higher taxes on the wealthy, Washington could use the tax code to provide poor and middle-class families more generous means-tested subsidies to pay for childcare, education, and healthcare. Since the Clinton era, much of the Democratic Party has embraced this version of the social contract. It is essentially the model behind Obamacare.
The downside, besides the challenge of raising taxes, is that subsidies don’t guarantee affordability. They can even encourage industries to raise their prices; see, for example, the proliferation of cheap student loans, which have not made college much more affordable. What’s more, means-tested programs for the poor often lack the political support needed to keep them strong.

Another possibility, which would please many progressives, would be to nudge the economy toward a social democratic model such as that of Scandinavia. This social contract would entail high wages, a high cost of living, and a universal welfare state paid for with high, relatively flat taxes.

But transplanting the Nordic model as a whole to the U.S. would be difficult in the face of fierce resistance to higher levels of spending. It would also be hard to import a system of benefits paid for by broad and flat taxes, like payroll taxes and consumption taxes, on a country like the U.S. with much greater inequality.

In our own work at the New America Foundation, we have outlined a third idea we call the “middle-income social contract.” It assumes that many service industries won’t be able to offer their workers middle-income salaries, which means that, in addition to raising wages somewhat, the government will have to take a more active role in making essential services like education, child care and health care more affordable. The best way to do this is to provide these programs directly, such as through universal Pre-K, single-payer health insurance, or subsidies to the states for taking care of the elderly. Policymakers can begin to build a middle-income social contract by raising the federal minimum wage closer to a true living wage and expanding public early education, both of which are widely popular proposals.

The current low-wage social contract between American workers, employers, and the government has been a raw deal for most Americans. Just as the New Deal contract shifted to the low wage model, we need to shift once again to a system more suited to the current economy and needs of workers and citizens. The options for the next social contract are many—we just have to choose the right one.