Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. Walter Scott.
Their last moments captured on cell phone video were pivotal in securing murder convictions despite the collective trauma of witnessing their deaths.
Trayvon Martin did not have video to aid in his family’s quest for justice when he was killed February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. But in the decade since his death, “Black Lives Matter” has evolved from a hashtag and rallying cry to a global movement thanks to the help of ever-advancing technology.
Visuals and social media have since played a vital role in the fight for Black lives. This latest wave of activism can be directly traced to Martin’s death — and the outrage over the 2013 acquittal of the man who killed him.
“The human brain responds differently to visual images than it does to text. And, unlike text, people don’t even have to be necessarily literate in the language to understand and respond to visual images,” said Sarah J. Jackson, presidential associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice.”
Martin’s death inspired an entire generation to become more involved in social justice movements. He would’ve been 27 on February 5 of this year and activists in their 20s and 30s transformed their grief and anger into action.
“My initial energy and my initial decision to be a part of this and figure out a way to be a part of this was through Twitter,” said D’atra “Dee Dee” Jackson, national director of BYP100, a member-based organization of Black youth activists. “It was through seeing the marches and the videos and people doing performance pieces and the music, all of the ways that culture and entertainment make issues relevant was really what pushed me to get involved.”
Images as a powerful tool in activism are not new. Journalist Ida B. Wells published photographs of lynchings to show the devastation during her anti-lynching campaign in the late 1800s. Mamie Till wanted the gruesome photos of her son Emmett’s mutilated corpse published to force America to understand the atrocities in Jim Crow-era South.
Today, social media has amplified calls for justice worldwide, Sarah J. Jackson said. Most recently, the three White men who hunted down Arbery were found guilty of federal hate crime charges. The verdict came two years after he was killed in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia.
No longer are movements dependent on traditional media to spread their message and there’s no longer a chosen spokesperson for Black communities because technology has made it possible for everyone to have a voice. The cell phone has become a megaphone in the fight to hold the perpetrators of violence toward Black Americans accountable.
Here’s a look at the simultaneous evolution of both activism and technology as they relate to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement:
February 26, 2012
Trayvon Martin is shot and killed by George Zimmerman
After calling 911 to report a “suspicious person,” George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager who was visiting Sanford, Florida. Though police originally say that Zimmerman cannot be charged under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” laws, he was eventually charged and tried for second-degree murder.
March 23, 2012
LeBron James tweets photo of Miami Heat wearing hoodies in protest of Martin’s killing
Martin’s killing sparked outrage across the nation, amplified by the rise of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Less than a month after he was killed, NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted a photo of himself and the Miami Heat wearing hoodies, with the caption “#WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.”
July 13, 2013
George Zimmerman is acquitted of all charges
After a high-profile trial, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of all counts in the killing of Trayvon Martin. The verdict leads to protests and outcry from Martin’s family, activists and politicians across the country.
First time #BlackLivesMatter is used on social media
Following the verdict, Oakland-based activist Alicia Garza writes a “love letter to Black people” on Facebook that contained the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, would later use the phrase in the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, though the term did not explode in popularity until 2014.
A shift in platforms and culture
D’atra Jackson was an apolitical college student prior to 2012 and 2013, with most of her social media activity consisting of reality TV and campus drama.
Then the news of Martin’s death hit her timeline, “completely covering” her feeds, she said.
“I really saw social media as a means of not only staying up to date with what’s happening, but also getting involved, staying involved and getting more people involved,” she told CNN.
By December 2012, a Black Student Union meeting on campus introduced her to the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based advocacy youth group that formed in the wake of Martin’s death. The following year, a fraternity party where police and partygoers clashed was the tipping point in her decision to become an organizer, she said.
During the melee, she instinctively took out her phone to record what was happening because of a “real lack of options” in what she could do to keep her friends and herself safe, she recalled.
“Trayvon Martin is in the back of my head and all the other young Black people and all the Black people that have been murdered by police are in the back of my head,” she said, remembering her emotions from the party. “Luckily I came out with this story, I’m one of the lucky ones.”
“Having visual proof, visual evidence that something atrocious has happened, really takes it out of the realm of a story that somebody might be telling. It makes it real.”
Instinctively knowing the importance of visual proof during times of crisis isn’t unique to just Jackson. Black Americans using images to provide evidence of atrocities that often went unbelieved goes back decades.
“Having visual proof, visual evidence that something atrocious has happened, really takes it out of the realm of a story that somebody might be telling. It makes it real. It makes it concrete in a way people really have to wrestle with and deal with,” said Moya Bailey, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s communication studies department who helped co-write “#HashtagActivism.”
Social media platforms – like Twitter and Instagram – becoming more video-friendly in the early 2010s provided a way for millennials like Jackson to post videos and images instantly without having to wait on the traditional forms of media. The transformation of these platforms also contributed to the rise in visual protests, most notably in 2013 when LeBron James’ tweeted a photo of Miami Heat players wearing hoodies with the hashtag “#WeAreTrayvonMartin.”
Dwyane Wade told CNN’s Ryan Young “basketball was the platform we used to speak on something that was way bigger than basketball.”
“That shift in the platform also created an opportunity to amplify messages and make sure people weren’t ignoring that information,” Bailey said. “And then it’s, of course, created a new problem where there is so much visual death, visual tragedy, examples of Black people’s lives being cut short that is readily available and plays on loop in some of these visual platforms.”
As Jackson and the world would see over the next 10 years after Martin’s death, those images of Black people dying would not stop.
July 17, 2014
Eric Garner is choked and killed by a police officer
Police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Garner in a chokehold while attempting to arrest the 44-year-old in Staten Island, New York. Garner cried “I can’t breathe,” several times before his death, but Pantaleo continued to restrain him in a chokehold. Video of the incident, recorded on a cell phone by Garner’s friend Ramsey Orta, went viral shortly after Garner’s death. A grand jury did not indict Pantaleo on any charges.
August 9, 2014
Michael Brown is fatally shot by a police officer
Brown, 18, is shot six times by former police officer Darren Wilson after an altercation in Ferguson, Missouri. Witnesses say that Brown had his hands up in surrender at the time of the shooting. After he was shot, police let Brown’s body lay in the street for several hours, prompting further outrage. The shooting led to weeks of unrest and protests in Ferguson, which continued after a grand jury did not indict Wilson.
The hashtags #ICantBreathe, #HandsUpDontShoot and #BlackLivesMatter go viral after a summer of protests and unrest
Social media began to play an increased role in drawing attention to police killings, and also served as a way for protesters to organize and galvanize. According to a report by Pew Research Center, usage of #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter peaked in November of 2014, after police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and again after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.
The #Amplification of a #Movement
D’atra Jackson had been leading her own meetings with the Dream Defenders in Florida and moved to Durham, North Carolina, for her first organizing job with the North Carolina Student Power Union.
Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were the latest victims of police violence at that time. Their deaths gave birth to the hashtags #HandsUpDontShoot for Brown, whose hands were up prior to being shot, and #ICantBreathe for Garner who uttered those words before his death.
Apps like Twitter and Facebook were no longer secondary when it came to organizing, Jackson recalls, and posting an event could now draw up to 300 people. Jackson and her Durham cohort eventually traveled to Missouri for what came to be known as “Ferguson October.”
“That was one of the places where I saw how large the movement was and was able to get to know the people that are actually doing this,” Jackson said. “They weren’t these faraway celebrities that I didn’t have access to, it was like people that were organizing just like me.”
The apps were also instrumental in nationalizing the news. Bailey, the Northwestern professor, told CNN a lot of people didn’t know what was happening in Ferguson until Michael Brown’s neighbors started to tweet about his body lying in the street for hours.
“You saw his neighbors and community members amplifying his story and that is something that is incredible about social media and hashtags. The hashtag #MikeBrown gets started by his community members and then is amplified such that it becomes a national news story,” Bailey said.
The use and overall effect of hashtags are the descendants of 1960s civil rights slogans like the “I Am A Man” campaign for sanitation workers, said Sarah J. Jackson, the University of Pennsylvania professor.
“But in this case, instead having to see that slogan in the newspaper days later if you live in California at the time, you see that slogan trending on Twitter and follow it and you can read in real time what activists are doing on the ground,” she said.
Live-streaming video platforms become popularized
In early 2015, Twitter announced that it would purchase Periscope, a live-streaming platform borne out of civil unrest in Turkey in 2013. The product officially launched in March — less than four months later, Periscope had more than 10 million registered accounts.
April 4, 2015
Walter Scott is shot in the back and killed while running away from police
Scott was shot in the back five times and killed while running away from North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager, who had pulled him over for a broken tail light. Eyewitness Feidin Santana recorded the shooting on a cell phone, and published the video after the officer claimed he shot Scott in self-defense. The video’s release drew increased scrutiny to the Slager’s account, and he was later arrested and charged with murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ becomes movement anthem
Rapper Kendrick Lamar performs his hit “Alright” at the BET Awards atop a police cruiser with a waving American flag as the backdrop. The song is from his Grammy award-winning album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Later that summer, demonstrators protesting police harassment in Cleveland are filmed chanting the song, according to Slate. “Alright” ultimately becomes the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement with protesters across the country chanting, “We gon’ be alright!”
A larger issue behind visual proof and evidence
The Walter Scott video was the first time D’atra Jackson saw someone die.
She was scrolling through her newsfeed and stared at the screen in shock. Watching former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager shoot the 50-year-old Scott in the back five times as he ran away left Jackson terrified and despondent.
“This wasn’t a movie, this wasn’t someone’s account of what happened, it was actually on video and I’m witnessing it,” Jackson told CNN.
Feiden Santana’s cell phone video of Scott’s shooting eventually led to Slager’s 20-year prison sentence.
Time and circumstance have been the major difference in outcome in many of these cases of injustice. Look at Arbery and Martin – both the victims of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands, but vastly different outcomes in the courtroom. Those juxtapositions were seen with Scott and Rodney King, whose beating by four Los Angeles police officers was captured on video. Unlike Scott, though, King’s beating did not result in a conviction.
“The larger issue is the disbelief that this is an issue in the first place…there’s a large portion of White Americans who are still not moved by these videos.”
The similarities between all of the videos – past and present – are that they are undeniable pieces of evidence that show violence against Black bodies.
“The larger issue is the disbelief that this is an issue in the first place, and it’s going to take more than photos and videos to dismantle that disbelief,” said Sarah J. Jackson. “We also need to be real that there’s a large portion of White Americans who are still not moved by these videos, still not moved by these images.”
Bailey said there are some people who still don’t believe the violence taking place despite photographic or video evidence.
“Ultimately, what needs to happen is that the stories of Black people need to be believed whether there is video evidence or not,” Bailey said.
Facebook Live is launched to the general public
In order to compete with other live-streaming platforms like Periscope and Meerkat, Facebook launched its own competing product in late 2015 with access given to celebrities. In 2016, it opened the product up to the general public.
July 6, 2016
Police killing of Philando Castile streamed on Facebook Live
Castile was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez in Minnesota during a traffic stop. While stopped in his car, Castile told Yanez he had a legally-owned firearm in the car and stated repeatedly that he was not reaching for it. However, Yanez fired several shots at close range into the car, killing Castile. The incident garnered widespread attention because Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, broadcast the encounter on Facebook live. The video quickly went viral, but Yanez was ultimately found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter.
Violence gone viral with live-streaming
By this point, D’atra Jackson was always on social media because of her duties as an organizer for a campaign she and other local organizers started called Durham Beyond Policing.
She often organized through Facebook but being on social so much also exposed her to more videos of Black death.
Facebook Live had launched as a new interactive service for celebrities in late 2015, by April 2016, it was available for anyone who had an account.
Two months later, Diamond Reynolds live-streamed the death of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, during a traffic stop in which a Minnesota police officer fatally shot Castile.
Jackson remembered being both amazed at the evolution of this new technology and horrified that millions could watch – and rewatch – Castile’s final agonizing moments.
“This could be me, this could be my uncle, my dad, my mom, my sisters,” Jackson said. “For all of the trauma that came with these very viral murders and brutalizations that are like filling up my newsfeed, it’s also putting a lot of fire and a lot of leadership in a lot of Black people that otherwise wouldn’t.”
Jackson said the constant loop of violence on social media, while traumatic, has put a spotlight on the fact that violence against Black people doesn’t just happen in big cities, but in the small suburbs and rural areas, too. Castile’s girlfriend acted the same way Jackson did at that party in Florida: Both saw the need to record what was happening for not only protection, but evidence.
“Black activists (during the civil rights movement) were doing then the same thing that Black activists are doing now, which is that Black activists are savvy about the media. So Black southern activists were creating media events,” Sarah J. Jackson said, adding that activists create what’s called “creative tension.”
Civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s knew that if they marched without a permit or crossed certain boundaries, they’d be attacked by dogs and beaten by police, Jackson said.
“They took that chance, they put their bodies on the line and they were brutalized because they knew that those images would be picked up by (Northern White photojournalists) and that they would be spread and that would create sympathy for the movement,” Jackson said.
“It was strategic, very strategic.”
SnapChat launches ‘Snap Maps’
Tech company SnapChat launched its highly popular “Snap Maps” feature, which allowed users to share their location in real time in a public heatmap. This feature would later be used by activists to publicize protest locations, and emerged as a key organizing tool during the summer of 2020.
Ahmaud Arbery is shot and killed in Georgia, but case receives little attention until months later
Arbery was jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia, when three White men began to follow him, later telling police they believed him to be a suspect in one of several burglaries that had occurred in the neighborhood. They eventually gave chase and fatally shot Arbery. For months, no arrests were made in the case, until video of the incident was posted online, sparking intense outrage and criticism of how the case was handled. In a verdict reached last November, all three men were found guilty of murder, among other charges.
May 25, 2020
George Floyd dies after officer Derek Chauvin kneels on his neck for more than nine minutes
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — along with three other officers — responded to a report of Floyd using a counterfeit $20 bill. The encounter turned deadly as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, eventually killing him. Bystander Darnella Frazier, only 17 at the time of the incident, captured the deadly encounter on camera in a video that was seen around the world. Floyd’s death — combined with the shocking imagery captured in Frazier’s video — led to months of protest and unrest across the country and around the world.
Killings captured on video reignite a movement
The hashtag #IRunWithMaud goes viral after the death of Arbery. After police kill Breonna Taylor while serving a no-knock warrant, the #SayHerName movement gains renewed attention. George Floyd’s death also sparks a worldwide protest movement and #BlackLivesMatter goes global. The following months were filled with protests across the country calling for justice, accountability and police reform.
June 2, 2020
Instagram feeds turned into endless scrolls of black squares as people observed ”Blackout Tuesday“ — a day promoted to mourn and call for policy change in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Organizations, brands and individuals posted solemn messages featuring stark black backgrounds, sometimes tagging the posts with #BlackLivesMatter. However, critics at the time argued the moment did more harm than good because the use of the hashtag clogged up critical channels of information on social media and didn’t contribute much to the actual conversation surrounding racial injustice or the protests.
TikTok emerges as a space for activism and solidarity
Social media played a pivotal role in the renewed protest movement that began in the summer of 2020, but TikTok, a platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance Ltd, became another space for activists to show their support for the movement. Users shared tips on what to bring to protests, explained the history of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and more to the app’s audience, many of which may have been too young to remember the protests and unrest sparked by previous police killings. The app has continued to grow in popularity — in September, the company announced that they had reached more than 1 billion monthly active users.
June 12, 2020
Rayshard Brooks is shot and killed by police at a Wendy’s Restaurant
Less than a month after the murder of Floyd, video footage — filmed by surveillance cameras, police body cameras, dashboard cameras and bystanders — emerged of another police killing in Atlanta. Brooks, 27, was shot and killed after grabbing a police officer’s taser and running away. The former officer, Garret Rolfe, shot Brooks twice in the back.
The future of a movement
D’atra Jackson had been with BYP100 for four years by 2020. She had been building the chapter in Durham and would eventually move to Chicago in the next year.
May 25, 2020, was her mother’s birthday – and the day the world heard the words “I can’t breathe” and witnessed the unthinkable.
“That day I had drove up from Durham to Philly to surprise my mom,” she said. “I was trying to escape for a little bit.”
Then she got the news of former Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.
“I immediately had to turn back and go back to Durham,” she said.
As the protests and demonstrations kicked off that summer, Jackson told CNN she never watched the video of Floyd’s death. By this point in her organizing career, she had seen enough videos of Black death.
Her friend’s 8-year-old daughter watched it, though, and she ended up having to have a conversation with the child about it.
“That was a real realization to me about the impact of social media on the younger generations now,” she said.
The younger generations – Gen Z – came of age as activists as George Floyd’s death sparked global protests, while many of the millennial activists who came of age during the Trayvon Martin era are moving beyond activism.
All three founders of Black Lives Matter – Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi – have moved on to different roles. Jackson, too, hopes to someday work with young people and “support the leadership and political development of young people.”
Similarly, many of the activists who originated on social media are now expanding their scope, said Genie Lauren, an activist and organizer known for using Twitter to halt the book deal of a juror who served on the George Zimmerman trial. She’s now transitioned to producing online shows and writing books. She added hyper-local organizing and engaging communities will be what makes a real difference in the future.
“That on-the-ground local community is going to mean more than a person who’s miles away giving a like,” Lauren said.
Bailey told CNN she thinks social media and social justice activism will continue evolving, just as people evolve.
“Facebook started out as platform for college students and now those college students are much older,” she said, adding that newer apps like TikTok are drawing younger activists in ways Facebook, Twitter and Instagram did in the 2010s.
Sarah J. Jackson said people need to be careful when trying to measure the “success” of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last 10 years.
“It’s actually an absolutely, intellectually unfair question to ask during this moment in time because we are living during movement,” she said. “We won’t actually be able to measure the effectiveness and the winds and the shifts of the Black Lives Matter movement until 50 years out or however many years out you want to go. We’re still in the middle of this movement.”