It was a wave of protest too striking to be ignored: professional athletes donning T-shirts to pay tribute to young black men killed by the police — and demand justice for their killers. In Cleveland, the T-shirt worn during warm-ups by Browns player Andrew Hawkins last weekend named two local young men who both had been holding toy guns when they were mowed down by cops, John Crawford and Tamir Rice. Hawkins wore the shirt in honor of his small son. This is how the police behaved in both those incidents: John Crawford’s girlfriend was interrogated until she broke down in tears, before she even knew of her loved one’s death. Tamir Rice’s sister was handcuffed and put in the back of a paddy wagon while her brother lay dying.
And the response from law enforcement to Hawkins’ T-shirt offered the same lack of compassion the bereaved families received. “It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” a local police official told Cleveland WEWS-Channel 5 in a statement. “They should stick to what they know best on the field.” So on the one hand, a galvanized national movement for justice swept through the professional sports world. On the other, a seemingly callous, intractable police department with blood on its hands demanded an apology for the protest.
In many ways, that late-year moment encapsulated 2014 in social justice media narrative. The national conversation — and outrage — gained steam while the reality “on the ground” remained stagnant, cruelly and brutally so.
Tracking the past year’s ups and downs merely by following the discourse among a particular social justice-oriented set of folks and the staffs of major newspapers and online magazines, you might be forgiven for imagining that 2014 was a year of great progress. Certainly, if you began and ended by measuring the collective perception of how deep into the marrow of our society American injustice goes, you’d have to acknowledge that the year did witness change.
Take language, for instance: terms like “rape culture,” “white supremacy,” and “reproductive justice,” once relegated to circles of hardcore in-the-know activists, rode the vehicles of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs right into the mainstream media, until both the terms and — pivotally — the concepts they stood for, began showing up everywhere. Suddenly it was de rigueur to hear ideas such as: this country’s laws were designed with racist intent. Rape culture makes it impossible to have perfect victims. Reproductive justice doesn’t just mean the choice not to have children, but also to have them and raise them in safety. And even more radically and perceptively: When grand juries acquit killer cops, the system didn’t fail; it worked. When rapists walk free while victims are raked over the coals, the system didn’t fail; it worked.
The shift that opened space for this message occurred at nearly all levels of media, from the thousands and thousands of words in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-heeded “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic right on down to the Twitter hashtag campaigns — from #BlackLivesMatter, honoring victims of police violence, to #OKgirls, supporting bullied rape victims. These mixed efforts also challenged privileged groups and allies to advocate less selfishly for others, to listen and challenge their own biases.
Yet if the changing orientation of media towards social justice was the not-necessarily-feel-good-but-definitely-feel-better story of the year, then the go-ahead-and-feel-a-lot-worse story of the year was, well, everything else. Chris Rock’s statement that racial progress amounted to white people being less abusive to black people over time may have gone viral among culture hounds, but at the same time a huge majority of white Americans remained satisfied with the police. So, whom were those encouraging critiques of the police state and rape culture reaching, exactly? Not the converted, exactly but the already-amenable — or simply those privileged enough to spend time in the media echo chamber.
And that gap explains a lot of inaction. Because while the year’s moral authority came from essayists, pundits, and activists asking us to go deeper into history and re-examine social structures and our own preconceptions, the actual authorities, particularly in small communities, had a message, too, for everyone who opposed them: a hearty “fuck you.”
The culture-wide cognitive dissonance of 2014 reached its apex the night that the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced. There had been months of coordinated protests demanding justice for Mike Brown, the unarmed teen gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson — protests that sustained themselves despite unnecessary tear gas and tanks. TV news shows and op-ed pages had hosted much thoughtful discussion of the case as evidence of a larger, terrifyingly prevalent trend of police brutality and its history in state-sponsored violence against men of color. Social media crashed once-unheard voices, like those of the siblings and parents of victims, themselves mistreated by the police, into that discussion. So much effort had gone into making a change that perhaps there was just a little bit of extra hope in the air that night.
All of it was deflated as Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor in Ferguson, arrived at the podium in Missouri after a significant wait. The prosecutor managed to wind his announcement of the non-indictment for Darren Wilson into a bizarre 20-minute speech chastising both social media and traditional media. He announced that there would be no justice, but had the gall to demand absolute peace. Meanwhile, the family of Mike Brown wept. The sequence of what actually occurred, from those first fatal shots to the crooked prosecutor and Darren Wilson’s subsequent big TV interview special, remained unaltered. It all happened exactly the way it might have in another era.
This angering, galvanizing moment seemed to me to cap off a year of many other losses “on the ground.” Clearly, oppressions like police violence and rape culture are divergent in origin, effects, and realities. There’s no direct comparison. At the same time, the systems which keep them in place are strikingly similar, made up of a mixture of callousness, entrenched power structures, and victim-blaming. And the patterns of cultural gains accompanied by actual crushing loss seemed worth pondering.
For instance: We finally had our pro-choice romantic comedy, Obvious Child, yet this didn’t prevent the shuttering of abortion clinics. A cadre of celebrities whose rape accusations were finally deemed worth discussing were appropriately shunned, and campus protests against rape received magazine cover stories. Yet deans around the country still looked at college rape victims and told them, essentially, it was their fault. Even younger rape victims are still bullied out of schools. We had the biggest social justice movement in years, with athletes and public figures on board demanding accountability for cops, and yet a slew of “no indictments.” Traditional media, social media, and even street-level activism seem to be having no effect on reality. Campuses ignore rapes whether they have one student anti-rape group or ten. Cops who have slain unarmed citizens walk free in Ferguson, and even allegedly progressive New York.
Outside the world of Twitter campaigns and the online news bubble, where critique of “the system” grows stronger, more fine-tuned and incisive, by the day (and reactionary detractors are often, rightly, drummed over), one will likely find that very system operating in blithe obliviousness to, and even defiance of, any seismic-seeming shifts. The kind of shaming that gets media figures to apologize for racist and sexist gaffes to save their reputations, after all, has no effect on a lifetime appointee or a local prosecutor.
Without a deeper analysis, you might call the Ferguson verdict and the manner in which it was announced a kind of backlash — a reactionary response to the changed tenor of the national conversation. At least in a knee-jerk way, it felt as though people like McCulloch, with the petty power to make others’ lives miserable, were thumbing noses at activists, thinkers, and all those demanding a more fair outcome.
Yet the reality of what we saw that night in Ferguson, and in a multitude of other instances, is more complex than just a backlash. Yes, there’s been backlash. Gamergate was backlash. Attempts to discredit rape victims online are backlash. Sexist and racist tweets and comments are backlash.
But Ferguson and its like are not backlash. They’re products of the status quo. What we’re really experiencing, as a culture, is the pain of having our eyes fully and relentlessly opened. This is cyclical, after all. Progress is made, people pat themselves on the back, and then they shut their eyes for decades. And then we have moments like these, when we see that the problem isn’t solved. It isn’t even close to solved.
Many people – sexual assault survivors, people of color living in a police state – had their eyes opened long ago by the struggles in their daily lives. But what social media and online culture have altered is that they’ve made this narrative of pain and marginalization available in an immediate and widespread way, over and over again. That means many are just beginning to see the contours, the width and depth and heights, of the work we need to undertake.
Therein lies the value of our current, increasingly hyper-aware media climate. Because this year’s painful eye-opening has made it impossible, almost ludicrous, for the narrative to zoom back in to the individual victim-blaming level, the nitpicking-of-evidence level, the “what were they wearing and what did they do wrong?” level and stay there. You can derail the conversation when there’s one victim, but less effectively with dozens. At 2014’s end, sadly, there are too many enraging stories emerging all the time and being pushed out through mass media. And each story is a dot that connects to another.
Top image from a protest march in Rochester, MN. Credit: Rose Colored Photo via Flickr.