Aamna Mohdin takes a look at the role played by web publications and social media in challenging the official narrative around the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
In recent days we’ve seen the reality of policing in Ferguson widely shared on social media. One notorious case involved an officer who pointed an automatic rifle at protesters and shouted “I will fucking kill you” at demonstrators. He has since been suspended.
A more troubling case is a second police killing, that of Kajieme Powell. Initial reports suggested he was wielding a knife and “behaving erratically”. But eyewitness statements painted a different picture. The police then released video footage of Kajieme being gunned down which made many question why lethal force was used.
A lot of these reports first surfaced on Twitter, which the company has not been slow to exploit. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has even joined the protests in Ferguson, claiming that he started the company in order to have an impact on social movements.
Police stories questioned
Witnesses have used old and new media to dispute the police version of events leading to Michael Brown’s death. Several of them insist that Michael was surrendering when he was shot. This sparked the slogan “hands up, don’t shoot” used by protesters.
The police tried to claim Brown was a suspect in a robbery earlier that day. But they were later forced to clarify that Darren Wilson, the officer that killed Brown, had stopped him for jaywalking and was unaware of the alleged robbery.
Right wingers have also used social media to drum up support for Wilson, who is now on paid leave. An online campaign to support him has drawn more than 50,000 Facebook “likes” and $140,000 in donations on Gofundme.
Traditional US newspapers, in contrast, have focused on supposed “riots” and “looting” in Ferguson, while investing heavily in a character assassination of Brown.
An editorial on Jezebel examined the choice of words used in by print media to report Ferguson. It suggests local St Louis newspapers have painted a skewed image of violent protests met by a minimal, responsible police response.
This follows a pattern in the immediate wake of Brown’s killing. Most mainstream media used a photo of the teenager wearing a basketball jersey and throwing up what they called a “gang sign”. Twitter users responded by using the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, which rapidly “went viral”. Many of the posts have been collated on a Tumblr blog.
The Trayvon Martin effect
The media has a long history of attempting to twisting the portrayal of black victims of racist violence. The ultra right wing Fox News channel has tried to cast doubt on whether Michael Brown was planning on going to college.
In a recent article on The Root, Yesha Callahan describes Brown’s treatment in the media as “the Trayvon Martin effect“, where black victims of police brutality are portrayed as “violent thugs with gang and drug affiliations”. She writes:
You’d be hard-pressed to find mainstream media showing Brown at his high school graduation or with members of his family. Ironically, all of those photos exist courtesy of Brown’s Facebook page. Unfortunately, because of Ferguson police, we’ll never be able to see a photo of Brown attending his first day of college today.
This has echoes here in Britain. A widely circulated image of Mark Duggan, shot dead by police in August 2011, apparently shows him scowling into the camera. It was in fact cropped from a photograph taken of him mourning the death of his daughter.
Following the killing of Travyon Martin, the media circulated images of the teenager with gold teeth and giving the camera the middle finger. Right wing propagandists spent 16 months smearing Trayvon as a thug in the run-up to his killer’s trial.
From the US to Palestine
A recent poll by Pew Research Centre found sharp divisions in the US reactions to the Michael Brown’s killing. Some 80% of African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race. In contrast, by 47% to 37%, white Americans tend to say the issue of race is getting “more attention than is needed”.
The images from Ferguson tell their own story, however. The New York Times compared them to photos from the Civil Rights era. An almost entirely white police force (Ferguson has just three black officers) has descended on a predominantly black town armed with with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
The other comparison that has been drawn is to occupied Palestine. The same tear gas canisters have been fired at protesters in Ferguson and the West Bank. St Louis’s police chief was trained in Israel.
For their part Palestinians have responded to events in Ferguson by offering tweeting advice on dealing with tear gas and offering solidarity to protesters there facing down brutal racist policing.