Black Digital Power in the 21st Century
This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
"Super-predator." "Crack baby." "Welfare Queen."
It was 1987, and my 13-year-old interaction with mainstream news and entertainment media was a martial one. I felt it as a daily pain, the way each and every criminalizing descriptor peeled back my dignity to the raw shame of being found perpetually guilty. Like many Black children, I lived with the cognitive dissonance of being either stereotype or subject, constantly spoken for or about by media gatekeepers. The saturation of anti-Black media stereotypes didn’t make me feel invisible. On the contrary, I felt constantly watched.
When I helped launch the latest iteration of a movement for media rights, access and representation, it was driven by a profound need to transform the cultural terrain Black lives and Black movements are forced to navigate. After years of organizing with incremental success, I got my wish.
The astounding cadre of proud, hopeful, and angry Black activists that erupted in every U.S city in the wake of Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal attack on Black teenager Michael Brown last August redeemed me. Out of a moment of righteous rebellion, an effective national social movement for Black lives is re-framing the context for Black life, in action — and they’re using the emergent technology of the open Internet to do it.
Black Lives Matter, And Black Voices Do Too
Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement relied heavily on broadcast television and radio to amplify the images and sounds of powerful Black resistance to the brutal conditions of Jim Crow segregation. Forced to negotiate their public voice with a racist white power establishment that refused to report on the fight against racial segregation, civil rights leaders challenged the broadcast license of Mississippi TV news station WLBT, and won. This historic case set the precedent for public participation as a mandatory element of the FCC regulatory process, and created the initial conditions for more than 7 million people to raise their voices in support of open Internet rules in 2014. I know, right?!
Though some legacy civil rights groups have since aligned their interests with the nation’s largest and wealthiest Internet companies, a new generation of Black leaders has emerged to carry the fight for Black voices forward. If we win, the FCC may once again set a precedent, keeping the Internet an open platform with the power to amplify and drive a 21st-century movement as democratic and decentralized as the platform on which it speaks. For many, a dream come true.
High-Tech Surveillance Is Digital Jim Crow
And now, the nightmare. While the potential that Net Neutrality offers Black voices is real, so are the perils Black communities face as surveillance technologies are adopted by local law enforcement agencies without rules, transparency, or oversight. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, describes the American criminal justice system of the 21st century as one that functions “much more like a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention.”
Today, the indiscriminate and covert collection of private data expedites, expands, and entrenches racially discriminatory policing practices. This threatens to supersize an already massive system of incarceration, with more Black people under the control of corrections departments than were held in slavery on the eve of the Civil War.
In a recent address, NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton made it clear: “2015 will be one of the most significant years in the history of this organization. It will be the year of technology, in which we literally will give to every member of this department technology that would've been unheard of even a few years ago.” He means license plate readers, biometric scanning, facial recognition, body-worn cameras, Stingray cell phone interceptors, drones, suspicious activities reports, and massive tracking databases funded by federal Homeland Security grants and coordinated through an emerging national fusion center model — with neither transparency nor oversight.
This is the future of policing, and it should chill Black communities to the bone.
Social movements for Black dignity and power must urgently mobilize civil rights principles, policies, and practices to counter the emergence of high-tech surveillance as a driver of structural racism in the 21st century.
Digital Black Power
Longtime civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis recently remarked in a public statement supporting strong open Internet rules, “If we had the Internet during the movement, we could have done more, much more, to bring people together from all around the country, to organize and work together to build the beloved community. That is why it is so important for us to protect the Internet. Every voice matters, and we cannot let the interests of profit silence the voices of those pursuing human dignity.” I could not agree more.
Cultural change is a fundamental and necessary pre-condition for political change. To fight powerfully for Black lives, 21st-century Black freedom movements must adopt intersectional cultural strategies that simultaneously fight tooth and nail for moral high ground without capitulating to respectability politics, frame to control the terms of racial debate, and lay claim to the cultural infrastructure through which racial public narratives must pass.
We’ll know Black lives matter when access to and ownership of media, arts, and technology platforms is not determined by racial hierarchy; when Black communities have demand and won digital platforms that work for and not against us; when Black bodies enjoy full and equal protection against a Jim Crow surveillance state; and when the cultural terrain makes killing us an anomaly, birthing a new norm in which a growing digital Black power allows Black voices to speak powerfully for ourselves.