In 1991, Rodney King, a young black man, was brutally beaten by LA police following a high speed car chase, and the video capturing the beating notoriously failed to prevent the acquittal of the officers involved. Fast forward 25 years, and Eric Garner, a black American, was killed at the hands of an NYPD officer after being placed in an illegal chokehold during an arrest; the on-camera recording again failing to ensure a conviction against the perpetrator.
You could be forgiven for thinking no progress has been made since 1991, but the reality is in fact quite the contrary. The infamous video of Rodney King marked the beginning of a new era of ‘citizen journalism’, paving the way for attacks that were once hidden and denied to be dragged increasingly into the open. And whilst police brutality remains a serious blight on American society, the black community are embracing new tools to protect themselves, and are becoming increasingly able to fight back.
The explosion of social media has a significant role to play in this. The advent of sharing images and videos instantaneously now allows everyone with a smartphone to bear witness and call out wrongdoing, and the possibility of such media to go viral has dramatically widened their reach. This was demonstrated recently when a video of a young black schoolgirl being forcefully dragged to the ground spread quickly on Twitter, eventually catching the attention of several major news institutions including CNN, the BBC and The Huffington Post.
Another effect of the social media revolution is that the shaping of the narrative around these attacks no longer remains solely in the hands of the media and the traditional authorities, as in the days of Rodney King. Not only are ordinary citizens able to access and share these videos themselves, but the participatory nature of social media means that users are invited to engage actively with the media, by adding their own thoughts and comments. In doing so, they are able to construct alternative dialogues, with evidence to support their viewpoints.
The savviest individuals, campaigning groups and political movements have been quick to recognise and harness this, seeing social media as a tool that can be used to raise awareness and politicise vast numbers of users. For example, the incredibly popular #BlackLivesMatter twitter hashtag, created after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, was being used as many as 92,784 times a day by the following November, during the second wave of Ferguson riots.
However, it is unclear as to whether this has had any positive effect on the racial tensions and abuses of power that persist in the US, and whether there has been any decrease in incidences of police violence committed against black people in the US. As numbers of those killed or harmed by US police are not systematically recorded, it is currently impossible to find this answer.
However, the spread of citizen journalism has certainly catalysed some positive changes. Firstly, we could argue that it is becoming harder for users of social media worldwide to ignore these and other issues, as by bearing witness to the glaring evidence, we cannot help but to become implicated; and greater awareness means greater numbers of people willing to take action.
Secondly, the increasing documentation and sharing of evidence strengthens victim and witness testimonies, and goes some way towards levelling a playing field that has for so many years favoured the narrative of the system. Although this failed to help Rodney King, Eric Garner or countless others, in an age where damning visual evidence is increasingly accessible, defending perpetrators is becoming increasingly indefensible.
Finally, we must recognise the power of social media to give a platform to everyone, even those traditionally denied a voice in society. On Twitter, every user, regardless of their socio-economic standing, is given an equal opportunity to express themselves on a democratic platform; and this opportunity to make oneself heard is being embraced by millions of users around the globe. What’s more, even though those with more power and money are better able to exploit this opportunity, campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter remind us that even the most disempowered have the potential to reach millions of people.
Although we cannot measure the true and tangible impact of social media on incidences of police violence against minorities in the US, the era of social media has certainly mobilised a new generation of political activists, and placed a powerful tool in their hands. The big unknown of the coming years is just how long it will take for the progress online to be matched in the corridors of power.