The Conviction of the Hashtag: Problematizing #BlackLivesMatter
The Conviction of the Hashtag: Problematizing #BlackLivesMatter: Event Summary
On February 29th, 2016, the Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Reconciliation, and Global Justice hosted the kickoff event for Butler University’s College of Communication Symposium. The panel, “The Conviction of the Hashtag: Problematizing #BlackLivesMatter” was moderated by Dr. Terri Jett, Associate Professor of Political Science at Butler University. The panelists for the event included Marshawn Wolley, Director of Partner Relations at Visit Indy; Rev. Dr. David Hampton, Deputy Mayor of Indianapolis and Senior Pastor of Light of the World Christian Church; Judge David Shaheed, Judge in Indianapolis Civil Court 1; Tabitha Barbour, a double major in English and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Butler University; Anthony Murdock II, a Political Science major at Butler University and Director of Initiatives for Bust The B.U.B.B.L.E; and Whittney Murphy, graduate student at Christian Theological Seminary seeking her Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy.
Dr. Jett began the panel by reading the defining principles of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as listed on their website. She then asked the panelists which principle stood out to them as most transformational. Judge Shaheed resonated with the principle of “collective values.” For him, this brings into clearer focus a precept that hasn’t been realized in the African American community. There is disproportionate victimization of African American males especially, and the constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be achievable for all. Hampton highlighted “restorative justice” as a transformational principle. He challenged the audience to ask, “Is policing designed to service and protect all or just some?” For Wolley, queer affirming, intergenerational connections, and the support of families are the principles he found to be uniquely modern and transformational. Murphy also felt the principle of queer affirmation is inclusive of all black lives in a way that other movements are not. Globalization and empathy are transformational for Barbour, as she feels it fosters a global network of solidarity. And finally, for Murdock, the principles of supporting women, queer and transgender folks breaks down a number of systems that oppress black lives. He also notes the principle of intersectionality which highlights how many of these guidelines stand in solidarity with each other.
Next, the panelists were asked how the #BlackLivesMatters movement’s vision of leadership is different from other movements. For some of the panelists, the decentralized leadership allows individuals to become a leader unto their own, especially as they leverage social media to further the mission of the movement. Using this type of decentralized leadership, many marginalized populations have been able to come into the conversation; it allows different perspectives to be a part of the collective experience. This national and global inclusiveness, Murphy feels, will sustain the movement indefinitely and therefore will not die out with a select few. Other panelists expressed concerns with a decentralized movement, they asked questions such as who, then, defines the movement as it grows? While there are concerns for potential for instability in a decentralized leadership, the panelists agreed that it is essential that all people speak up and advocate for equality. “We need every effort,” Hampton said, “We need all movements, everyone needs to play a part.”
In using social media as a means to galvanize support for the movement, the panelists discussed the challenges and benefits that accompany this type of communication. “Everyone who tweets or posts becomes a published author,” Barbour stated. Media can connect infinite thoughts to larger, national or global conversations very quickly, but miscommunication due to type-character limitations, the credibility of sources, and inconsistency are challenges that arise when using social media platforms. An example can be taken with Twitter when used to spread awareness or garner support for a movement. Social media is powerful in perpetuating support because it allows users to tap into different outlets that synthesize information quickly. Social media has the capacity to reach diverse audiences using both images and words, simultaneously. In a matter of seconds, pictures and words have been published for public consumption. However, the anonymity of social media can, as Murphy states, “bring out the horns.” Conveying opinions through virtual means offers a level of invisibility. Hateful comments are constantly published and fights are ignited. Social media platforms create space for all opinions, but it is also subject to the will of the user. By searching only certain hashtags or keywords, individuals are intentionally or unintentionally refraining from exposing themselves to a diverse world of opinions and experiences from which they can learn and build upon. Hampton notes that while social media is a great jump start, it doesn’t always deal with underlying social justice issues, sometimes it is just an echo chamber of opinions. Panelists agreed with Barbour and Judge Shaheed who challenged the audience to expose ourselves to views different than our own and reach out to those who think differently. The consensus was that we must continue to gather in person and not reduce ourselves to social exclusivity- all methods of communication can and should be utilized to foster engagement and social change.
Ending state-sanctioned violence was the final topic posed to the panel. Hampton discussed an IMPD training program in Indianapolis, which assists in unlearning inherent violence. He also shared that Indianapolis has a citizen’s review board, which is an important medium for our city. Lastly, he shares that as a community, we must be honest that racism is woven into the fabric of our society. Judge Shaheed echoed the need for community involvement. He highlighted how street violence is influenced by a large systems of issues effecting the community such as job and house loss, debt, jail, etc. He emphasized the need for each person to be a part of change by voting and electing officials who will do the work that is needed to end state-sanctioned violence and empower communities. Judge Shaheed also challenged the room to consider running for office and reminded students and community members that they have the ability to become elected officials who affect change.
The question and answer session that followed the panel, highlighted other key issues surrounding #BlackLivesMatter. Following the last question, the panelists were asked to describe practical changes that can be done in Indianapolis to reduce structural violence. They discussed the fact that Indiana is one of five states in the US that still does not have a hate crime statute, and collectively emphasized the need to change that. Other suggestions included more financial support to communities including education and access to healthy, sustainable food; and making changes to amendments through organizations like Murdock’s Bust-a- Bubble.
“Why is #AllLivesMatter disrespectful?” was the second question posed by the audience. Murphy used an analogy of a dinner table to describe how #AllLivesMatter is interpreted as offensive. She asked the audience to imagine a group of people at a table who have been served food, except for one individual. This individual says, “I should get my fair share of food, too” and the table responds, “Everyone should get their share of food.” However, this response does not acknowledge the inherent fact that the one individual never received food and still doesn’t have any. This is the crux of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, yes all lives matter, but until this point, Black lives have not mattered, they have not had a seat at the table, and this is what the movement is asking us to acknowledge and change.
Other questions regarded educational practices in our community. How do we educate our children? The panelists agreed, true teaching begins with parents. We must expose our children to books that highlight diversity and feature black characters for example. Not all schools encourage this type of learning, and the wait could be long until it is included in the curriculum. Until then, educating children of ethnic diversity at home is essential. Judge Shaheed added that we should see our children as more than biological, but as members of a global family. With this mindset, we can all be the aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, he says. “We must not neglect the opportunity to transform someone’s life. Through mentorship and exposure to ethnic studies, we can educate others and ourselves. When we take action, there is response.”
The panel was thought-provoking in several ways. It challenged the audience to rethink traditional leadership, to problematize the use of social media and its ability to organize a global community around a central issue, to engage politically to reduce violence and create amendments with organizations like Indy10 or Bust-a- Bubble, and to educate ourselves and our children using diverse perspectives including those different from our own.
Written by: Allison Troutner