On Saturday afternoon, two days before he was set to start college, Michael Brown was shot and killed. The teenager, who was unarmed, was walking with a friend when they encountered a police officer. Exactly what happened during this encounter is unclear, with police and residents offering different account, but the result was clear. Brown was shot “several times” by the unidentified officer, according to Jon Belmar, the chief of St. Louis County police, and he died on a street in Ferguson, a small city outside St. Louis.
A crowd quickly gathered in the area. And almost immediately, they began documenting what they were seeing and hearing, spreading rumors and countering falsehoods, expressing outrage and calling for calm, offering the entire world an unblinking live feed of Ferguson that has not let up in the days since the shooting was followed by outrage, protests, looting and a long-simmering tension surging to the fore.
The notion of something “playing out on social media” (or, even worse, people “taking to social media”) in this day and age is a tiresome platitude suffused with cliche. We get it. Things happen, people tweet. We know that people act and react online, because we know that people live online, because we long ago crossed, drained and paved over whatever Rubicon separated our digital selves from our physical lives.
Yet the situation playing out in Ferguson, owing both to the paucity of confirmed information and to the repeated confrontations between hundreds of frustrated protesters and heavily armed police officers, seems different and feels particular. In a way that evokes situations that have happened in other parts of the world as countries rebelled against dictators, the people in and around Ferguson are using social media to capture and broadcast minute-by-minute updates, photos and videos of the protests, comments from elected officials and offer a view of the scene there that simply would not have been able to spread to so many people so quickly until very recently.
It took a little time for the attention to spread beyond the St. Louis area and some pockets of the Internet. Not long after Brown’s death, as his body remained on the neighborhood street, people began to spread sending the message out about what had happened.
As is often the case in the immediate aftermath of an event where few people know for sure what happened, information was mixed with misinformation. There were false reports of police officers getting killed and of the person who was with Brown when he died being found dead himself. Brown was identified, his name beginning to spread beyond merely those who knew him:
During several tense hours on Saturday, hundreds of angry residents — some shouting “kill the police,” according to witnesses — faced off against police officers. They shared images that were bracing in the historical comparisons they evoked:
Things continued on Sunday, as protesters gathered, but these protests were tinged with violent streaks on Sunday night (when looters set fire to buildings and left a trail of debris and broken glass in their wake) and again on Monday night (when the police used tear gas and rubber bullets, something documented by my colleague Wesley Lowery as it occurred). This imagery seemed to many to resemble something unthinkable in the United States in 2014.
These confrontations evoked Tahrir Square for some, if only because the scenes look like what Americans associate with revolutions on the other side of the world, rather than protests occurring down the street from a shopping center anchored by a Target.
The most shocking images continued to reverberate around the social web, cropping up on scores of feeds:
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, has been perhaps the most vocal and prolific local presence documenting what has been happening in Ferguson. His words, images and videos have provided some of the most timely accounts of the situation in Missouri since Saturday. He posted the confrontation between police and the crowd in the hours after Brown’s death:
And on Sunday, as the protests of the day gave way to the looting at night:
And he continued through the clean-up efforts on Monday and the tension to follow that evening:
Authorities have also cited the effect of social media on the situation in and around Ferguson. Police had planned to release the name of the officer who killed Brown, but on Tuesday they reversed course and said they did not know when the officer would be identified. The decision was made because of “threats being made against all Ferguson officers on social media sites,” Timothy Zoll, a spokesman for the Ferguson Police Department, told The Post in an e-mail.
There were also attempts made to quickly counter the narrative that builds after these incidents, the idea that people can be summed up and summarily dismissed with a single photo. In the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was shot by a neighborhood volunteer in February 2012, the notion of how he was perceived became fodder for people who sent around photos that purported to show the “real” Martin. The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown (warning: there is some graphic content) emerged fairly quickly, fueled in part by images of Brown like this one:
In response, people shared reams of images like these:
The strength of this hashtag was due to Black Twitter, college student Brittney Gault told the New York Times. “Everybody is tapped into Black Twitter,” she said. And it caught on due to the larger problem of summing up a person’s life in a single image, particularly when that person is dead and unable to speak on their own behalf as their name becomes a cudgel wielded for arguments across the cultural and political spectrum. But it also spoke to the fact that as our attention is drawn to different stories, and as the eyes of the world turn to places like Ferguson, the story is shaped and told by the people living in and among whatever is happening.