From #JusticeForTrayvon to #BashMob — a cautionary tale for online organizing

At a rally for Trayvon Martin on July 24 in Los Angeles. (Flickr/Ryan Vaarsi)

At a rally for Trayvon Martin on July 24 in Los Angeles. (Flickr/Ryan Vaarsi)

Did you tweet about the George Zimmerman verdict? Are you sure that what you are saying is legal? As some social media users in Los Angeles found, the police are reading our tweets, and a tweet can land one in jail for inciting a riot.

The future of online organizing depends on innovating new ways to amplify our messages, but it also means keeping mindful of how we are being watched and manipulated. The revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are yet another reminder that what might seem private is never really hidden. Information that we share publicly, also, can be used in ways we might never have expected. By looking at the ways that information traveled online about the recent Trayvon Martin protests in Los Angeles, we can see a glimpse of how the police in the United States are counter-mobilizing, using protesters’ social-media practices to direct the narrative of protests. Moreover, tracking the flow of information online raises new questions for debates on diversity of tactics and proximity. If the police are holding speech online accountable for its effects offline, how can different tactical repertoires be separated within decentralized organizing?

Protesters came out in South Los Angeles soon after the George Zimmerman verdict was announced on Saturday, July 13. By 10 p.m., 500 people were roving around the area, both angry and determined. Tweets read: “#LeimertPark now! #Zimmerman #HoodiesUp” or, referring to an intersection in the city, “King and Crenshaw. Let’s March #JusticeforTrayvon.”

As the fever spread, plans for Sunday night’s protests in South Los Angeles solidified through tweets: a rally at 1 p.m., a march at 4 p.m. and a vigil at 7 p.m. Other hashtags included #J4TM, #TrayvonLA, #SouthLA and #TrayvonMartin. Even #OccupyLA was resurrected to draw in veterans of the Occupy movement. Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department meanwhile tried to start his own hashtag, #ProtestInPeace.

While there was talk in the media of “community leaders” at the helm of the protests, many of the people taking part expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of involvement from prominent organizations and public figures. It seemed that ordinary people were quicker to respond and organize themselves using social media than organizations that must convene, plan an action and consult with police.

After being shot at with beanbags and exhausted from several multi-mile marches on Sunday, protesters made a plan for a 6 p.m. meet-up on Monday. Monday evening’s rally started in Leimert Park, but it was smaller than the day before and featured a mix of people from all over the city.

Unbeknownst to those in the park, at the time a group of about 40 young people were running up and down Crenshaw Blvd. knocking over trash cans and blocking traffic. Because of the proximity to the rally and the events over the weekend, the local television media were covering the spree as if it were part of the protest. However, there were no signs and no chants. When approached by media some participants turned violent.

It was quite a spectacle. Police were giving chase, and losing, as youths sprinted through alleys and into stores. LAPD and media helicopters followed the group, whose members quickly ran into a Wal-Mart and back out within seconds. After two hours, a few windows were smashed. But the subsequent public-relations campaign by the LAPD was far more damaging.

Flyer distributed by the LAPD in advance of Trayvon Martin protests. (Twitter/@LATvives)

Flyer distributed by the LAPD in advance of Trayvon Martin protests. (Twitter/@LATvives)

On Tuesday, the LAPD combed South Los Angeles, knocking on doors and visiting local businesses, warning people not to let their children out that night. The public took heed. Activity on the hashtag #LeimertPark was relatively quiet. However, another group of teens gathered for a running riot through Hollywood. It’s not clear that the earlier acts of property destruction on Crenshaw were in any way related to this “Hollywood #BashMob,” as the LAPD Twitter account described these teens who stole phones and knocked down tourists on Hollywood Blvd. But the LAPD was quick to associate the two, and to use them as an excuse to aggressively police any further protest about the Trayvon Martin verdict.

Of the #BashMob, LAPD Capt. Evangelyn Nathan stated during a press conference, “It’s sounding more like wilding than a peaceful protest. Individuals basically want to stir up trouble instead of saying something about Trayvon.”

The captain’s use of the term “wilding” brought up another cultural scar to the minds of many: the case of the Central Park jogger who was raped during what the NYPD then also referred to as “wilding.” The term refers to a gang of teenagers assaulting people at random, and it invariably carries racial connotations. The four black men and one Hispanic who were wrongly convicted in the Central Park case were only recently exonerated.

There seems to be little evidence that the protests and the acts of property destruction were linked in any way. There was, in fact, a similar rampage in Long Beach a few days before the Zimmerman verdict. Yet due the proximity of the flash mobs and the intense scrutiny of the South Los Angeles community, a particular narrative emerged from the LAPD: that black youth were using the Zimmerman verdict as a cover to commit crimes — white people, beware.

Next, the police claimed that they were able to identify how the Hollywood #BashMob was planned using Twitter. They singled out this tweet sent on July 16 around 2 p.m. as the flashpoint: “If niggas take the riot to Hollywood you won’t have to worry bout fuckin’ yo shit you’ll worry about fuckin’ they shit. Hollywood 7:30 Rt!” However, a quick look at the user’s profile showed that this “incitement to riot” was not retweeted by his 507 followers. Especially without a hashtag, this tweet was tantamount to yelling out a car window at 90 miles per hour. The user’s account has since been deleted.

LAPD officers held several press conferences stating that they had a minor in custody, but they could not reveal his name. Officers warned that they are searching social media for more such postings and will pursue charges in cases of “abuse.”

Sensitive to the over-policing of a minority community and the comments of Capt. Nathan, people circulated ideas online about moving the Trayvon Martin protests north “to the rich neighborhoods.” By Wednesday, July 17, a new organization emerged, Justice for Trayvon Martin LA, which promoted a march through Beverly Hills using the hashtag #J4TMLA and #BlackLifeMatters. A simultaneous protest put together by the ANSWER Coalition was staged downtown. Wednesday night’s protests involved no arrests. Still, earlier that day, the LAPD issued numerous tweets, press releases and printed warnings stating that they would not tolerate any rule-breaking. Thursday night, anarchists planned a “Smash White Supremacy Fun Run” in Westwood, a neighborhood near UCLA, which drew about 200 armed officers and approximately 15 protesters.

While the public was able to mobilize, strategize and organize within hours of the Zimmerman verdict, it took a whole week for the National Action Network to organize more formal protests. This is an effect of our communication environment becoming more and more one in which people are connected in a non-hierarchical manner. There are relatively low barriers to access, so the content can be queried by anyone from anywhere. National Action Network’s protest in LA was promoted through radio and television as well as online, reaching millions, but it failed to deliver the same number of protesters as the weekend before.

But this is not another story about social media as the hero of the day. Nor is ubiquitous computing taking over the role of formal organizations. It is undeniable that hashtags are increasingly becoming an indispensable tool for organizing distributed direct action. However, this is another piece of evidence that the police are reading, watching and pushing back against protesters using digital channels of communication. Most importantly, activists are well aware that introducing violence into protests not only puts those around them in physical danger, it can also blur the message. The case of #BashMobs illustrates that online speech will be treated just like any other act. Those who have an interest in muddling the facts have powerful digital surveillance and broadcasting tools at their disposal, and they are getting better at using them.

Social networking technology has helped us spread our campaigns far and fast without the need for formal organizations, but this comes at a cost to our privacy and our liberty. The validation of one’s identity online has become the norm on Facebook, which bans people suspected of using an alias, and on Gmail, which now requires phone activation for an account. While people can remain anonymous on Twitter, it takes a lot of know-how to set up secure mobile services. Apps like RedPhone and TextSecure get us closer to encrypted communication, but they do not link us to those we don’t already know.

For a social justice movement to be effective it must amplify its message. This privilege to broadcast was once only in the hands of the rich and powerful, and hashtags help us form unintentional networks by connecting us to strangers. The new groups that emerge from the use of hashtags are an important power-building element in our networked society, but, crucially, these are public channels with the capacity to store all transmissions. Just as the physical proximity of more violent acts has at times weakened nonviolent protest in the public eye, virtual proximity was used to discredit those who took to the street peacefully after the Zimmerman verdict.

Without leaders and organizations to describe protesters’ objectives, everyone’s speech online becomes equally weighted and evidently, for the LAPD, culpable. Social media can thereby expose our movements to manipulation and misinformation from those entrusted to serve and protect us. The turn from #JusticeforTrayvon to #BashMobs reminds us that while the tools for organizing may be in our hands, in the present media environment, governing the overall narrative of protest remains out of reach.

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