Social injustice on social media
The walk home from campus to my apartment beckoned after Monday classes ended, but first I wanted a quick news update. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw a YouTube link from activist DeRay McKesson showing Ferguson cops putting a choke hold on a woman for no good reason.
Since the killing of Mike Brown over a month ago, Twitter has driven worldwide attention to protests and ongoing abuse by law enforcement. The feeds of activists, including Antonio French and the Lost Voices, have kept focus and dialogue on Ferguson alive.
As St. Louis-based freelance reporter Sarah Kendzior tweeted Saturday after rumors of a Ferguson police officer being shot surfaced, “No local St Louis TV covering shootings tonight (allegedly of cop and protestor) in #Ferguson. Why Twitter vital.” Later, local media swooped in to clarify that, indeed, an off-duty officer had been shot, but it did not appear related to the continuing protests on W. Florissant Boulevard.
Several weeks ago, I groggily stumbled out of bed one morning to turn off my phone’s alarm clock. Not quite ready to wake up or even put on my glasses, I tapped that friendly bird icon and squinted through the 140-character information bursts.
On that particular morning, the notifications were buzzing about the video of Ray Rice striking his fiancee in an Atlantic City elevator. TMZ had released the latest and most incriminating footage after publishing a video of Rice dragging his fiancee’s unconscious body out of the elevator months before.
Over the summer, I was resting on the couch at my home in Los Angeles when my Twitter feed raised a fury over NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s remarkably lenient two-game suspension of Rice. Twitter, as it brought eyeballs to the injustice and militarization of Ferguson, drove the initial outrage at Goodell over his seeming indifference to domestic violence.
This column, contrary to what you may believe so far, is not really supposed to serve as yet another think piece about Twitter activism. Hashtags and tweets are meant to amplify awareness—not solve problems in and of themselves. But awareness is undoubtedly a first step to the manifold troubles of our American criminal justice system. And the larger question here, in the past months of alarming crises, is exactly where that criminal justice system has been.
A tape showed the seemingly lifeless body of Rice’s fiancee, Janay, and more video evidence was out there, implicating Rice, that no one could any longer consider uncertain. Yet the judge admitted Rice to a pretrial intervention program, an easy way out reportedly granted to only 1 percent of defendants in similar domestic violence cases.
“This decision was arrived at after careful consideration of the information contained in Mr. Rice’s application in light of all of the facts gathered during the investigation,” the case’s prosecutor said.
If video evidence is not sufficient to prove domestic violence, then what exactly is?
Meanwhile, the email newsletter delivered to my inbox each morning from Ferguson organizers tells me it has been 55 days without an arrest of Darren Wilson since he shot Michael Brown. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post has written that St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch is turning any case against Wilson into a “farce.” An acquittal or lack of charges against Wilson, who is still on paid leave, would mean that the officer walks away with over $400,000 in retirement money from the various crowdfunding campaigns that supported him.
Rice and Wilson may see no time behind bars, but thousands of defendants without access to adequate legal representation or otherwise abused by a biased process will live in overcrowded prisons. The legal system is supposed to provide closure and justice, but it is creating a vacuum of confusion and hypocrisy. For victims of domestic and racial violence, “due process” simply means complacency and injustice.
When the legal system so frequently gets it wrong—and the public assumes there’s a justifiable reason because of some false imagination about what due process means—Twitter can remind that what’s happening is in fact still wrong and still requires fixing. Twitter does not necessarily just amplify widespread consciousness toward an issue as it did with Rice, but it can also develop and sustain it.
Our responsibility is now to do the work and fix it. Twitter doesn’t solve police brutality, racial profiling or domestic violence, and no one actually thinks it does. People who condemn it as a means of activism are distracting from the more important argument, which is how to rectify more daunting issues that the stream of tweets is stressing.