Ferguson--America's Arab Spring

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Date: Spring 2016
From: Gateway Journalism Review(Vol. 45, Issue 341)
Publisher: SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,452 words
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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Ferguson was Americas Arab Spring moment, spawning a new civil rights movement and stoking a national debate about race, privilege and the American character.

A social media tsunami of 35 million tweets dominated the media narrative and public debate about the killing of Michael Brown Aug. 9, 2014. No previous event in American history had led to that kind of outpouring of righteous anger and social media connection.

It was the incubator of a new generation of civil rights activists, among them DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie. They and others met on Twitter in the days after Aug. 9 and used their natural language of 140 characters to grab the world's attention as they shouldered past the previous generation of civil rights leaders. From the spontaneous combustion of the Ferguson moment, Black Lives Matter burgeoned into the new face of the civil rights movement. Social media activists from Ferguson were in the lead.

Questionable police shootings that once didn't make the front page of a local newspaper, now are national news within hours of the posting of a new viral video from Baton Rouge or St. Paul or Cleveland or North Charleston or St. Louis. In the blink of an eye, a national jury of social media users is ready to convict, and legacy media sometimes follow suit by re-reporting social media's unverified "facts." Events that once took days and weeks to digest flash by in a Twitter instant faster than the eyes can read and far faster than the national consciousness can comprehend.

Elzie posted influential tweets about Brown's death within hours, including one six hours after the shooting. She was one of the most active and influential users of Twitter in the days that followed. Mckesson, a school teacher from Minneapolis, followed those and other accounts on Twitter. A week after Brown died he announced on Twitter he was quitting his public school job and moving to St. Louis to help with the protests. There he connected with Packnett, Elzie and other young, social media activists, who became the core of the rapidly growing Black Lives Matter movement.

The three have developed Campaign Zero, which maps police shootings around the country and calls for reforms in police policies. Packnett, who heads the Teach for America program in St. Louis, also served on the Ferguson Commission and President Obama's task force on 21st Century Policing, two government inquiries into how to curb police shootings.

All three activists traveled to Baton Rouge last month to protest the police killing of Alton Sterling. Mckesson's arrest for protesting on a highway (he says he was on the shoulder) was a national news bulletin pushed out by the Washington Post and The New York Times on the tense Saturday night after the killing of the Dallas officers.

True to his social media roots, Mckesson captured the arrest on the live streaming social media platform Periscope, which instantaneously gives people all over the world a front-row seat to far-flung events. The arrest...

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