With the advent of social media, a lot of older folks smugly turn up their noses and exclaim that these millennials focus too much on what’s happening on their phones than real life. However, these same folks fail to consider the impact social media has had on various social justice movements and the overall betterment of lives. My first thoughts of the success of social media in movements harkens back to freshmen year, not very long ago, learning about the self-immolation images of Mohammed Bouazizi which, for many, sparked the Arab Spring.
Looking back on that day, we realize that the dissent and dissatisfaction with the governments in the Middle East can be traced further back than the young man who set himself alight. The spreading of that image, and the message behind that on social media platforms not only brought this young man’s story to the fore but it helped create a sense of unity and solidarity among others who have faced similar situations. Thus, social media is not just millennials aimlessly staring at their phones. It has larger implications.
This was thus the sentiments behind the Rutgers Symposium, Media, Techno-political Action & Social Justice Symposium, on Friday February 16, 2018, which considered the impact of social media on social justice movements. Five brilliant scholars shared their work and their insight, all taking very different approaches but ultimately highlighting these effects.
One of these brilliant scholars is Professor Christopher Robé. I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Robé and a complete transcription is attached.
Weave News: It’s Wednesday, February 28th, I am here with Professor Christopher Robé and first off, I would just like to thank you for giving me your time. I would like to ask if you could tell me a little more about the work that you do, and why you chose to do it.
Christopher Robé: So, I write about media activism and how grassroots groups use media in their struggles for social justice. I didn’t originally set out to do this, but it kind of moved towards it in my career- I’m a film and media studies professor- I’ve always been concerned with art and politics. So, my first book was on the 1930’s radical film culture in the United States, which came out in 2010.
When I was touring around for it, people were asking. “So, what’s going on now?” And there are some things here and there, but I didn’t know exactly what was going on so, the more I did research on it, the more I realized that people weren’t writing about it, particularly in my field. I’ve also always liked doing ethnographic work, meaning going out into the field and talking to people and seeing what’s going on, meeting new folk. A lot of scholars aren’t comfortable with that so it also made sense in terms of taking advantage of that skill set and using it in my research. That started leading me into the work that I do and friendships through the people who I’ve spoken with and, kind of, this thick network of scholars who do it- a lot of people do it in Communications Studies, I come, as I said, from Film and Media Studies.
I don’t know, I have a very kind of Cultural Studies background, meaning that I like to understand culture in a relationship to practices and to historical context and media activism requires – to understand it, you have to understand what the groups are trying to do, what the historical context is- so I find it interesting, the way media, particularly digital media- but I also use, I should say, I also write about old form media, you know, newspapers, fliers, I mean that’s still important.
Digital media doesn’t trump that but the way in which new media or digital media intersects with older forms of media and other practices. To be honest, people aren’t writing about it, but this is where a majority of media is being produced, although we focus on Hollywood or Bollywood, or Nollywood and all these various things that are important in their own right. I mean, people, every day are making media on their phones, on convergent stuff that gets overlooked by a lot of scholars because it’s so ephemeral or so disposable and I think it’s important to think about those moments where people are using it in particular campaigns- I try to select case studies which speak more about themselves or speak to bigger issues.
So just to take it back to the symposium and some of the things I picked up there from the other scholars who were there. Professor [Clemencia] Rodriguez spoke about triggers and that those happen at random but that they spark, not necessarily spark a movement but they add more fuel. So, I think about Black Lives Matter and how the trigger was, you, know an actual trigger against Black men and women, so I would like to ask, specifically about the cop watchers you presented on, El Grito de Sunset Park, what was, in your opinion, the trigger for them.
I think Clemencia- her and my work are, sort of similar because we have a very ethnographic approach to stuff and we both have a skepticism toward digital media, to a certain degree. Not that we are hostile to it, but we think things get effaced by it. So, with them, I talk about a bunch of groups but during that talk only focused on El Grito. There’s a slew of cop watching groups in New York City but I guess the way I would think of triggers is not so much- you know they were already doing what they were doing, prior to- if anything their own catalyst to get engaged was the Puerto Rican Day Parade, I think, and the harassment by the police. It’s hard to pin down but they, sort of, started cop watching the parade, I believe, in the early 2000’s.
I’ve never gotten an exact date from them and out of that gradually developed a more community organizing approach. So, they were already doing this before the more spectacular- in a bad way- deaths of Eric Garner going on. What happened was they got more press and more public attention, after the triggers of Kevin Moore, Eric Garner, Sterling et cetera, all of these horrific deaths that were taped, so the trigger is now they have more attention and potentially more resources to, all these groups do.
What they are going to do with it, I don’t know exactly, you know, what’s happening. If it’s going to coalesce into something bigger or if they are going to maintain doing their smaller thing.
I think Clemencia, and maybe I shouldn’t speak for her but – we did talk about this, I should say, informally about this afterward, the trigger is sort of the thing that galvanized things nationally or internationally so that’s how I think we are conceptualizing it. For example, after I did the symposium, I was in New York City the next day doing a screening, and I met someone from this group called Witness. I don’t know if you know this group. They are an international organization, an NGO, that goes around supplying cameras to people who are under very hostile conditions, like Palestinians or- It doesn’t matter. They were working with El Grito De Sunset Park. Here’s an example- I’m thinking through my response to you. One way the trigger worked in the states, it feels, and this is just based a conversation recently, on that Saturday as well as what I have heard before, is there’s always been a desire to have a national data bank about police harassment in all of the cities where the data can be centralized. People can look at it and have access to it. This has been a long-desired goal. Andrea Pritchett, who is a part of Berkeley Cop Watch mentioned this to me when I interviewed her a while ago, Denis Flores, who’s in charge of Sunset Park.
Anyway, long story short is, after the triggers of these various deaths, Witness, that group that I mentioned, started contacting various cop watching groups to correlate that data and they are working on creating a database out of that. So, that’s a good example of how that probably would have never happened had this not become visible on the national scene and Witness became suddenly aware of it and then started working with these groups. This will help everybody, I don’t believe it’s online, I mean they are still working on it. So, that is a good way to think about it.
People are already doing their on-the-ground activism- Berkeley Cop Watch has been around since, I think, 1989, they have been institutionalized. They have a class there at UC Berkeley that students can take for credit and help out with cop watching. I think they are the first official self-named cop watch group, although people have obviously been doing cop watching prior to them like the Black Panthers and the stuff like that. Like I have mentioned, too, cop watching in New York City has been going on for a really long time, all the way back to the 70’s with the Young Lords.
It’s not like people weren’t already doing their community organizing but that trigger suddenly allowed for various groups to speak to one another and start organizing. That, to me, like I said the Witness Project are trying to create this centralized database strikes me as one of those productive elements that can maybe, particularly develop out of this.
So, these may be two unrelated things but thinking about giving people recording devices and videoing people’s experiences, which you talk about and the video that you showed about the conditions that people live in. The question I am trying to ask is to what extent does recording everything bring justice to people who have experienced oppression? I know you mentioned that building managers and owners flip the buildings so trying to find someone to be held accountable is hard, so I was just wondering, there’s obviously evidence and you can say look this is how people are living but there is still this evasion of accountability and taking responsibility for these people. So how does social media then add to the justice portion of social justice?
Obviously alone I don’t think it does anything. Just by posting something, because it can be re-contextualized, and it can re-traumatize too, you know, like the endless pictures of people being killed. I don’t know how productive that is. So, it’s all, to me, about how it’s being mobilized upon, right. What networks and what community organizing is being done at the grassroots level. That’s why, to me, the ethnographic part is really important. Talking to people, interviewing them about what they are doing because if you don’t do that, you miss the way in which they are organizing in really invisible ways that you don’t see on the screen.
This often gets effaced with what’s happening and a lot of writers, particularly reporters, I mean there are some good reporters about this stuff, but in general, they tend to fetishize the social media. So, if you hear about the uprising in Tunisia in 2011, it’s like the Twitter revolution. They don’t look at the older, longer history that built upon that itself. Egypt was known as the Facebook revolt or something along those lines. It becomes really sloppy shorthand. So, I know, this is again where Clemencia and I are pretty much in agreement with things, that this media builds off of bigger, kind of, social movements and practices that have been going on prior to it.
I mean, in a good way it makes the evidence incontrovertible if you have, not even just one shot, but like one group that I didn’t talk about which is called Copwatch Patrol Unit and they are sort of out of Harlem and the Bronx and various chapters. They post everything on their website for the sheer fact of just having an aggregated amount of stuff that makes it overwhelming. Some groups are more selective with what they are going to publicize, right? In other words, how they are going to promote it and utilize it.
CPU (Copwatch Patrol Unit), just says we post everything because just the sheer weight of all that, the minor harassment- I should just be clear too, when people think of cop watching, they think of these kinds of horrific climaxes of somebody dying but it’s, most of the videos are about the little abuses; vendors being harassed, people being silenced. It isn’t necessarily overt physical violence, but it’s, kind of, psychological warfare you see and that’s one thing that CPU does in showing those minor things because their argument is, it’s these minor things that lead to the deaths and the normalization of this, kind of, occupation of people.
So, there are significant ways it intervenes, right? That social media intervenes but it’s how it’s being deployed by those groups, I think, that depends on how effective they are. Also, we should just talk about too, on what level are we talking effective? There’s ways in which things may not be effective nationally, but they might be operating in a really good way locally, or city-wide. So, there is different gradations of the ways in which, you know, this operates. I mean, I would argue even if nothing results of it, going back to El Grito de Sunset Park, the very fact that they screen their videos on public walls in Sunset Park Brooklyn and people gather around, sort of reclaiming their space is an important step of self-determination. Even before they are talking with the police or city government or local municipality, the very act of them reclaiming their space away from being criminalized is significant.
Speaking of criminalization, another thing you said that stood out to me was that where the cameras are located on police officers-- that already puts whoever they are speaking to in a subjective role and criminalizes them. And that’s perpetuated further by the fact that you cannot see the face of the officer but you can see the face of the person they are talking too. Could you just expand on that a little bit more for me?
Yeah, as I mentioned during the talk, too, Cop watchers are pretty against it. I mean, let’s put it this way, they are against body cameras just alone being used. They feel it has to be complimented if it’s going to be used with cop watching. Precisely because, one guy who is not attached to El Grito, he is, kind of, an independent filmmaker and a cop watcher too, Andrew […], he is out in East Harlem. He calls it, explicitly, anti-cop watching. That this puts the power on the police’s side and that they have the discretion of when to release this material and when not too. Also, the latest trend is that if people want this material, they want to charge you an exorbitant price to get it, right? So, I mean I’m just making up this number but it’s something just ridiculous, like $10 every ten seconds you are paying for this. It makes no sense but it’s just there to create a barrier to from it. There is also various legislation, I believe in North Carolina it got passed already, of making it not public record.
In other words, which is ridiculous because it is a public record request- that’s how people tend to get the footage, they make a public records request for disclosure- now they are claiming it’s part of a case or something therefore it shouldn’t be available to the public. Anyway, there is all these nuances in which the police do not want this stuff to be available as well as who controls it, like is it on all the time? Is it not on all the time? Is it at the discretion of the officer to put the camera on or off and, as I mentioned during the talk, the belief that- the whole argument, hinges in many ways for body cameras on the fact that there is a belief that when they are on, it tends to reduce brute force by the police, except when they are off they are supposedly more violent encounters by the police itself.
But this is all based off one study, literally. So, it is deeply problematic and there’s other studies that contradict it such as one that says, if the police officer has the discretion of turning the body camera on and off actually physical violence goes up with the body cameras, rather than down. Really, nuanced stuff. It’s so new but Axion, who’s a derivative corporation of Taser, really promoted that first study because they want to sell body cameras. There’s a lot of money to be engaged here with body cameras.
New York City spends a tremendous amount on body cameras that they aren’t using. It’s interesting, the city government actually made a commitment to purchase these things in light of the stop-and-frisk stuff that went on, but the police are fairly resistant against it. So, it’s interesting, they spent, you know, a couple hundred thousand dollars on these things that they are not even using.
As I mentioned too during the talk, one of the big concerns of a lot of cop watchers and community organizers is that it directs the attention the wrong way, both by just fetishizing body cameras as solving everything and overlooking, you know, deep seated, racist practices of the police. That this is not necessarily going to correct but similarly, diverting funds to technology rather than other resources like schooling, welfare, food, et cetera, housing, all these things that it many ways are the precursors that lead to crime, right? Or might lead to the criminalization of people themselves.
It’s a very, you know, I’m not necessarily totally against body cameras but I am against the way in which they are, kind of, framed, often in really simplistic way, don’t look at all the elements. Again, I think Clemencia and I mentioned this during our talks, we learn a lot through the people we interview and the communities we engage with so, it’s not like- I was sort of, when I first went into the research, I was skeptical of body cameras but didn’t know, really, pro or con, what I should think until I was actually talking to cop watchers and community organizers that made me realize there’s deep problems.
Based off of Professor Paulo Gerbaudo, he showed a picture of, I think she’s a politician of sorts that people don’t really like, and there was a Facebook live video. People kept clicking the angry emoji which then covered the whole screen. He then talked about how the individual is no longer as central to a movement, but the group is. I was just wondering what you think the potential for the mob mentality is because people can hide behind their screens, not having to show their faces when they use social media.
I mean there is that. I think of, it’s sort of along the same lines of what does it mean to organize over social media if you don’t have a, kind of, physical presence? There’s a difference between organizing on the ground and meeting people, kind of talking and developing relationships which creates a sense of collectivity and accountability and all that.
But you’re right, going online, particularly if you’re anonymous, it leads to all of these problems like mob mentality or trolling, things like that. There’s even this notion that, I don’t know if that’s a really- I sort of have my debates with Paulo about this- I don’t really think of it as collective organizing, online. I think of it as aggregate.
In other words, everybody goes online to do something, but it doesn’t make them a collectivity. It’s just still them all individuals doing the same thing at the same time which is a very different, kind of, relationship to me. I mean, people can debate that but what I’m saying, you know, being both an academic who studies this stuff and also, I am an organizer, I work for my faculty union, and mobilize people.
I’ve seen first-hand, the difference it makes when you go sit in somebody’s office or you collect people together as a group. That way they feel freer and can connect and have a real, kind of, dialogue. That isn’t really the same thing online, that there can be real problems of that.
To me, I guess, the short hand is- I think Paulo was direct, suggesting this, somewhat- it always needs to be complimented with something offline. Online alone is not enough although it does- I don’t want to underplay it’s significance because groups like Anonymous which is a good example of them making some kind of impact, both good and bad depending on the campaign they are doing.
You know, its important. I guess I am more of an older school scholar, but I want to understand how it’s- that offline component is really important to me and I’m hesitant ever to look at just the online side and feel like it’s alone going to explain the significance of the thing, you know? I feel like there is often an offline element that is not looked at, no matter what-even Anonymous I’m curious about. Although, it’s a purely online thing. I don’t know, I’m not entirely certain about that.
Finally, you mentioned a couple of times that social media and recordings and all of these things need to be used in conjunction with other stuff. Not just used as one thing because then nothing comes of it. So, that being said, I was wondering what you think -what with social media, recording, Witness and all of these groups, together- is the future of social media in social justice movements and the effects it’ll have, moving forward?
Obviously, it’s already globalizing things in ways that have not done before, in a good way, right? Things can spread, virally in that trigger notion that you brought up in the beginning. It’s much easier to do now.
I mean, there are certain truths, about social media that I don’t want to dismiss, that does challenge traditional media – legacy media as they call it- in some ways by allowing people to express themselves. Although, it’s deeply troubling, the commercialization of it too, right?
About using the social media – it’s datamining you, it can surveil you, it can easily give your information to the NSA. I mean, I get a sense that one trend might be- and I think I might have mentioned this during the symposium- people are trying to think of more non-commercial platforms to develop ways in which – I guess- let me just move back from that and say so, the whole debate right now, is that you can use commercial platforms that have incredible access, particularly Facebook. That is the most accessible of them all- Twitter doesn’t have nearly as much.
So, the good side of it is you can actually connect with a wide array of people in ways that you have never done before. The downside is all that I mentioned; datamining, they control the information, surveillance, et cetera. It’s easier to round up people, it’s easy to see who is implicated. The flip side of the argument is creating an independent, non-commercial platform, right? That does not track where you are, that doesn’t datamine, that has anonymity if you want it and, sort of, safety but it doesn’t have the reach. Which is sort of the problem, right? It self-ghettoizes itself.
So, I think the big question in the future is how can these things maybe be combined? How can you have a massive reach that is non-commercial that the activist in the community themselves can use to control- is a thing that people are trying to think through. I think a lot of even younger generation is deeply skeptical of social media and the ways that they- I should say younger people who are engaged in community organizing and activism- are skeptical about it.
So, it feels like something has to give, you know, about this because it’s getting, kind of, repressive on the social media side. We have seen the bad side with the NSA and stuff like that. Even just recently, something like Trump, with the J20 when people protested the inauguration in the States. He now wants to get the data of the people on the site who were organizing the protest in many ways, probably not to do anything but to intimidate them- but that’s enough, right to scare people.
The court did decide- I forget who it was but you can get some kind of data but not identifying data- but it’s still a disturbing trend that they can still capture some data. So, I think a whole new, kind of, galvanized generation, in terms of political activism, is realizing the deep limits of using this, kind of, social media in some ways. But, it’s obviously going to be important.
Are we going to reclaim it more in grassroots way and challenge more commercial platforms. It’s always a push and pull going on, putting it in a longer historical perspective, I mean, the first social media site was this group called Indymedia.org that came out in 1999. It allowed people to post videos, post pictures, post their own articles online and it didn’t track you, had no cookies and all of that.
A lot of the people who were a part of that joined Indymedia, eventually became a part of the commercial sector like Twitter, WikiLeaks- which is not commercial- but nonetheless WikiLeaks. Anyway, my point is, social media developed out of that, out of the technology that was developed at the grassroots level and now, to me feeling like now it’s flipping the other way, somewhat. So, all this social media exists an and now we are having this hackers and texts thinking about how to create a non-commercial platform again based on the technology that we have now.
So, it feels like there’s always and oscillation between both grassroots non-commercial media and commercial media. They are often tugging at war with one another, trying to utilize each other’s capabilities indifferent directions. I think that’s going to, I mean that’s been a long trend of how commercial media operates in relation to independent. So, it will be interesting to see how it develops. As I mentioned during the symposium, I’ve been a part of a bunch of groups that have been talking about developing these independent platforms. It seems like its resonating, ive heard about this in Canada, I’ve heard about this in the States and when I was in the UK. So, clearly there is some kind of international conversation going on regarding this, but who knows where it will lead.
Hopefully, for the better. I would like to thank you so much for your time and the presentation at the symposium.