October 19, 2015, by Michael Jennings
“Twitter is the revolution”: recycling Panther protest for #BlackLivesMatter
Hannah Jeffery is a PhD student at The University of Nottingham, working with Professor Zoe Trodd on the AHRC-funded Antislavery Usable Past Project. Her project examines the antislavery usable past in 1960s protest movements, as a model for contemporary abolitionism. In doing this, she seeks to understand how Black Power advocates used the memory and legacy of abolitionists in order to further their own goal of achieving black self-determination. This will further our understanding of memory’s protest possibilities around global slavery and human trafficking. She is also a member of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Research in Race and Rights (C3R).
The model of the modern-day protestor is part organiser and part citizen journalist, marching through cities globally while texting/tweeting/posting. With a wealth of social media platforms quite literally to hand, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Vimeo and Flickr are used to shed light on otherwise veiled racial stories. Although archetypal protest methods give physical expression to frustrations when protestors march onto highways, disrupt traffic, link arms on railroads to stop trains and delay sports events, an alternative protest front-line is digital and fought through the rhetorical slogans that decorate the Internet. A mobile phone becomes an instrument of protest when it forges a connection between the outrage on social media and the actions in the streets.
Encompassing hashtags become contemporary protest declarations, altering roles of charismatic leadership. Coded under a variety of hashtags, in August 2014 during the first week of Ferguson protests, over 3.6 million tweets around the world documented the emerging details of Michael Brown’s death. Although criticised for its ephemerality when producing fleeting ‘nanostories’ of broader social movements, social media platforms offer a continual newsreel experienced from outside the borders of its geographical location. Hashtags, like #Ferguson, #HandsUpDontShoot and #BlackLivesMatter become protest tools when bringing global attention to corners of the world by exposing repressive forces that are ending Black lives.
On July 13, 2013, Alicia Garza tweeted a profound protest statement with the embedded phrase ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Responding to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, Garza’s commentary on the judicial oversight found traction on social media. Placards and banners with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ decorated Floridian cities and various cities nationwide, as well as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook newsfeeds. The statement inspired activism amongst discouraged citizens throughout the country, and by watching the reaction to Garza’s prophetic statement, a trio of female activists – Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors – officially formed #BlackLivesMatter. #BlackLivesMatter underscores the usability of historical protest strategies when borrowing from a 1960s revolutionary treatise. Whilst transient in nature, the plethora of tweets and hashtags under BlackLivesMatter is married to a concrete set of demands listed on the official #BlackLivesMatter website — demands created in the image of the Black Panther Party manifesto, reframing Black Power activism by using aspects of the Panthers’ Ten Point Programme.
In 1966, shortly after the Panthers inception, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale created a programme to incorporate the Party’s main aims. Consulting with Oakland residents about community needs, Newton and Seale created a mission statement that delineated the main problems in African American communities, remedying them with potential solutions. The titled ‘Ten-Point Programme: What We Want, What We Believe,’ demanded the right for Black communities to determine their own destinies; full employment; equal economic opportunities; decent housing and education; an end to police brutality and murder of Black people; a fair trial; the release of all Black men from federal, state and local jails.
To gain “Justice for Michael Brown” and “Freedom for our Communities”, #BlackLivesMatter uses an almost identical structure to the Panthers Ten-Point Programme, borrowing verbatim from points 2, 4 and 8 when it demands: ‘We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And the Murder Of Black, Brown & All Oppressed People,’ (#BlackLivesMatter have added “Brown & All Oppressed” to the demand), ‘We Want Full Employment For Our People’ and ‘We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.’ As Professor of American Studies, George Lipsitz acknowledges, through shortening the distance between the past, present and future, #BlackLivesMatter revises existing histories by supplying new perspectives about the past. The contemporary movement editorialises elements of Panther protest literature by adapting strategies to service the racially turbulent present. It illustrates how a Black Power manifesto, contextually crafted for the racial climate of the late 1960s, is, with a few changes, still applicable in 2015.
Although each overarching statement remains exact, #BlackLivesMatter updates the accompanying captions. Number 7 of the programme demands:
We can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
When recontextualising 1960s issues, #BlackLivesMatter instead creates quantifiable goals that can be measured with an end to police brutality, and in order to make palatable for a contemporary cohort, the updated manifesto removes the call to arms. By focusing on shocking statistics, it instead asks for an immediate end to state sanctioned violence against their communities: “Every 28 hours a Black person in the United States is killed by someone employed or protected by the government of the United States.” By co-opting Black Panther protest literature, the new movement reframes Black Power historical activism, illustrating methods of upcycling history for a contemporary protest movement. As the names of individuals like Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray are etched into America’s psyche, they are engraved alongside the hashtag BlackLivesMatter. The act of violence against Black men and women is not new, but if “Twitter is the revolution,” as social activist DeRay Mckesson purports, then combining 1960s activism with modern-day protest methods illustrates the value of using history to create contemporary movements.
For more information and to engage with the Black Lives Matter Movement, please join us for the annual C3R October Dialogues conference on Wednesday 28 October at Nottingham Contemporary. Although it is now sold out, you can add yourself to the waiting list or follow the live stream.