Ferguson, Social Media, and Visual Culture

On August 9, 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson shot to death unarmed young black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, many have taken to the streets to protest and speak out against systemic and institutionalized racism, as displayed and enforced through law enforcement–police officers shooting and killing black men and women at alarming numbers, usually without any rationale. On November 24, 2014, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Missouri Robert M. McCulloh announced that the grand jury had decided not to indict Wilson for the death of Brown. Protests occurred not just in Ferguson, but also in New York City, Baltimore, Atlanta, Portland, Oakland, and many more across the country. Protests also occurred around the globe; activists in London marched and protested outside the U.S. embassy hoping to rally up and incite a response. Activists on social media not only helped organize and tweet/give live updates on what was happening at the protests, but also used to the platform as a form of activism; they began protesting, sharing content, information, news, and opinions on systemic violence and institutionalized racism in America. Both on and offline generated many forms of visual culture that have transcended barriers and borders.


Lancet speaks about how social media creates a network of news and information that doesn’t go through institutionalized entities. He frames this as the democratization of information; the narrative is now driven by the people, or people who have access to the technology to tweet, update, and take photos and videos. This has facilitated the protests, public discourse, and discussion of Ferguson, black people in America, and systemic and institutionalized entities and powers. People in Ferguson, black people in America, people undergoing similar circumstances, and people who have experiences to share now have a platform in which they can vocalize their concerns, thoughts, and stories. This platform is also situated in a global context, and can reach out to people and communities across the globe.

In August, when protesters in Ferguson took to the streets to raise awareness to police brutality and seek justice for Michael Brown, they were confronted by police officers who were violent and aggressive. The city of Ferguson had enacted a curfew, and those who were peacefully protesting were attacked solely for being there. Police had thrown tear gas at the protesters as an attempt to dissuade them and “keep them in order.” Live tweets and updates allowed people who were directly present at the protests in Ferguson to inform others who weren’t at the protest within seconds as to what was happening. Because of social media, people across the globe have access to this sort of information, and were able to include themselves and stand in solidarity with protests. For example, protesters in Palestine began giving protesters in Ferguson advice about how to overcome tear gas. They also began to stand in solidarity with Ferguson and many Palestinians held signs showing their support. In this moment, two different protests came together, and people began to draw parallels between Israeli occupation and militarization and American police militarization.

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Something quite revolutionary about social media and activism is the plurality of voices that can exist in this given sphere. Instead of news institutions being the dominant form of information, people can now shape the narrative and discourse. Perhaps stories or beliefs that are left out by news organizations can merge itself into the mainstream through social media and globalization. During Ferguson, many people used imagery to convey long rooted historical implications of violence against black people in America. Photos from protests in the 1960s were juxtaposed against photos of protests from today. By comparing these photos taken in completely different eras, people began to see how perhaps not much has changed since the Civil Rights Era, and there may be hidden systemic discrimination and racism still pervasive in America. This sort of gave activism more substance, reason, and, in a way, a more thorough examination of race and violence; it facilitated in creating a fluid and dynamic conversation about the subject matter.

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Due to globalization and social media, we become more aware of issues and opinions that have dwelled underground or have been largely ignored. It also creates an environment in which struggles can unite and people around the world can suddenly have access to things occurring in another part of the world. Ferguson and police brutality are issues that must be addressed and social media and globalization facilitate and add nuance to these conversations.


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