It was one o’clock in the morning on August 16th, 2014. In Minneapolis, DeRay Mckesson watched the news on television and scrolled through Twitter. “I saw what was happening on CNN; I saw what was happening on Twitter, and they were telling two different stories. And I said, ‘I just want to go see for myself.’” Exactly one week before, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson had killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager. The television narrative highlighted protesters’ supposed unrest and Wilson’s self-defense claim. The narrative on Mckesson’s Twitter timeline was quite different: police brutality and murder.
That morning, Mckesson drove nine hours from Minneapolis to St. Louis to protest in the streets. The Ferguson protests not only propelled to the national stage the Black Lives Matter movement — originally sparked after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, another unarmed, black teenager, in 2012 — it also launched Mckesson’s political activism career — one which he amplifies via social media.
Mckesson makes news in every direction. In March 2015, he quit his job in human resources at Minneapolis Public Schools to devote himself to full-time activism. He helped launch a police-reform initiative called Campaign Zero. He ran for mayor in his hometown of Baltimore. He started a podcast about policy and social justice called Pod Save the People, for which he recently interviewed Edward Snowden and Katy Perry. And he is currently finishing his term as interim chief human capital officer at the Baltimore City Public School System.
He has been tear gassed and arrested during a protest (with charges later dropped). His Twitter following, at around 1,000 in 2014, is now over 800,000 today, and he has become a sought-after guest and speaker. The only constant: Mckesson’s puffy, blue Patagonia vest — his sartorial trademark. But the question on everyone’s mind for the 31-year-old is simple: what’s next?
A police officer in Detroit, Michigan during the race riots of 1967. (AP Photo)
A man named Carl Ingram told the council that police officers had forced his fiancée to strip during an illegal search on December 7. “There ain’t no man hiding in her clothes!” he said. “If I had had a gun, I sure enough would have used it.” John Reynolds, the chair of a city task force dedicated to improving police-community relations, testified that his son had been stopped and beaten by police on New Year’s Eve. Kenneth Cockrel called on Mayor Gribbs to remove Nichols from his post and shut down STRESS.
But as with more recent debates over initiatives like stop and frisk, police brass countered with reams of crime statistics. The purpose of STRESS was to reduce robberies, they insisted, and the unit had been a resounding success. During their first year on the job, STRESS officers made 2,496 arrests and seized 600 guns. Robberies were down for the first time in a decade—by nearly 30 percent in two years.
Officers, meanwhile, discovered that killing unarmed civilians was a badge of honor within the department. “I was still lauded for what I was doing, even after the community started to get heavy on STRESS,” Peterson recalled. “They were happy with me. Whenever I shot someone, I would have to go to headquarters to fill out a report and the guys would cheer me when I walked in. The brass… went out of its way to encourage me. I was a proud boy, you know? I was the fair-haired boy—as long as everything worked their way. Who doesn’t like to be the fair-haired boy? Who doesn’t like applause?”
In a new story for Wired, Bijan Stephen looks at how the Black Lives Matter movement uses social media to organize and fight for change. As Stephen writes, “any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it,” tailoring their goals and tactics to the media of their time. For the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, that technology has been platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But civil rights organizers were using technology to mobilize long before the advent of social media. Here’s what that looked like in the Jim Crow South:
In the 1960s, if you were a civil rights worker stationed in the Deep South and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world—word of a beating or an activist’s arrest or some brewing state of danger—you would likely head straight for a telephone.
From an office or a phone booth in hostile territory, you would place a call to one of the major national civil rights organizations. But you wouldn’t do it by dialing a standard long-distance number. That would involve speaking first to a switchboard operator—who was bound to be white and who might block your call. Instead you’d dial the number for something called a Wide Area Telephone Service, or WATS, line.
Like an 800 line, you could dial a WATS number from anywhere in the region and the call would patch directly through to the business or organization that paid for the line—in this case, say, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On the other end of the line, another civil rights worker would be ready to take down your report and all the others pouring in from phones scattered across the South. The terse, action-packed write-ups would then be compiled into mimeographed “WATS reports” mailed out to organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country.
In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.