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Social media exposes police brutality, but doesn't always lead to actual change, advocates say

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The video begins, and within the first seconds, a person shouts: "Why are you putting your hands on him? Stop!"

"He didn’t do anything," multiple people shout. More bystanders begin to hold up their phones, recording the assault. The man is pushed onto the pavement, face down.

"Get off him!" come ballads choruses of screams, underscored by involuntary sobs, from onlookers.

"He is saying that he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe!"

The Black man, face down on the ground, is no longer breathing. Police encircle the body.

The video stops.

***

The scene is not specific to any one instance of police brutality against Black men. But read it again and you will remember these names:

Kwame Jones. Malik Williams. Tyree Davis. George Floyd. Rayshard Brooks. David McAtee. Daniel Prude. Jonathan Price.

Blackness can be perceived as a weapon itself by police in America. Skin color has all too often become a justification for confusing a sandwich, wallet, or hairbrush for a gun.

The videos and their dissemination are an increasingly important part of dismantling racism and police brutality. Social media has become a pillar of activism, aligning heavily with social justice, for its unique ability to share information instantly – and in high-definition video – along with its potential to drive change.

But that change is largely dependent on the willingness of those in power to take action in the real, not virtual, world.

“Social media has definitely brought the attention to it, but the bottom line is the end result, and the end result has been very, very, poor,” said Junius "Jeff" Carter III, president of the Bergen County NAACP in New Jersey. “You would think that with heightened awareness the cases would have stopped."

They have not.

In April 1998, four Black and brown men, Jarmaine Grant, Danny Reyes, Keshon Moore and Rayshawn Brown, were shot more than 11 times on the New Jersey Turnpike. They had been on their way to a basketball tryout at North Carolina Central University. Social media did not exist then. It wasn't even a term in the lexicon.

Police gunfire killed their dreams: The Jersey Four built new ones, 23 years later

“The fact that young unarmed Black men have been shot on the turnpike got relatively little attention,” said Kevin Keenan, vice president of innovation and new initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice and former executive director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in 1999.

Keenan said the white public has historically not valued nor listened to Black and brown people. But with social media, that has begun to change. Still, he said, the white public is largely separated from and skeptical of the realities faced by Black and brown people.

Social media does not have power in and of itself to do good or harm, said Dr. Mary Chayko, a sociologist and co-chair of the SC&I Social Media and Society Research Cluster School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

Social media's power is derived from people – its owners, creators and users, Chayko said.

Take the cases of Andrew Brown Jr., 42, who was shot in the back of the head and killed in North Carolina by an officer serving a drug warrant on April 21; and Duante Wright, 20, who was killed on April 11 in Minneapolis during a traffic stop while his girlfriend sat in the passenger seat.

People spread body camera video across social media in both cases, igniting outrage and protests.

Co-founder and CEO of GoodCall NYC, Jelani Anglin, wants to stop innocent people from being arrested.
Co-founder and CEO of GoodCall NYC, Jelani Anglin, wants to stop innocent people from being arrested.

Social media has the ability to make nearly every instance of police brutality visible. For the person who has never been on the receiving end of brutalization by police, it may seem unfathomable. But for many Black Americans and people of color, images of brutality like George Floyd's death are all too real.

“For many people, that (video) was their first time seeing someone being killed,” said Jelani Anglin, CEO of Good Call NYC. Good Call NYC connects people with a lawyer at the first point of arrest and promotes early legal intervention.

Anglin said social media is being used to highlight police practices that have been kept hidden for decades.

“We have to agitate around the issue so we can bring to light what is really happening and move people to action,” he said. “No effort is in vain."

When it came to the killing of Floyd, the video moved people to action, led to charges being filed and ultimately resulted in the conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin, Anglin said.

In Kentucky and Virginia, Breonna's Law was signed after the story of Breonna Taylor was shared for months across social media. Taylor was shot several times and killed by police while they executed a search warrant in Louisville, Kentucky. Two officers involved in the shooting have been fired from the Louisville Police Department.

The law bans no-knock warrants, which allow officers to enter a residence without announcing themselves.

The videos are helpful, but until legal protections, police oversight and community ownership of police are transformed, there won't be a substantial reduction in police violence, Keenan said.

In the 1998 case of the Jersey Four, the lack of video evidence led James Gerrow, a special investigator for the criminal case, to re-create the scene.

Evidence numbers lined the New Jersey Turnpike at night, and measurements were taken to the exact points the 13 bullets would have hit each man's body inside the van.

"What's come out of it, of course, is mobile video recorders and now body cams," Gerrow said.

"We could have saved all that time and all that money," he said. "We wouldn't have had to shut down the turnpike for a night. We were trying to do to the best of our ability was to re-create what had occurred."

Taking action against a system

Ainsworth Minott, center, marches in Englewood, New Jersey, with local religious leaders in response to an altercation between activists and local police, in which Minott and three others were arrested.
Ainsworth Minott, center, marches in Englewood, New Jersey, with local religious leaders in response to an altercation between activists and local police, in which Minott and three others were arrested.

Every minute of Ainsworth Minott’s arrest in Englewood, New Jersey, was streamed on Facebook Live. Minott was arrested during a peaceful protest he organized for Jonathan Price, a Black man who was shot and killed by a police officer outside a convenience store in Texas.

“One cop pushed me in the chest and then another cop pushed me, and I was just backpedaling, backpedaling, until the cop grabbed me by the arm and tackled me,” he said. “I just laid there, I didn’t even resist at all. In my head I was just like, 'Ains, be calm, 'cause if you fight back you’re going to make it worse.'"

People who watched the well-known activist being arrested on Facebook Live came to his support when he was taken to jail. They waited outside until his release at 1 a.m.

For Carter, of the Bergen NAACP, that type of police activity is all too frequent.

“Oh, I saw a taillight out,” Carter said he recalled an officer saying on one of the occasions he was pulled over. Carter was only three blocks from his house.

“I say, 'Well, officer, no it’s not,'” Carter said.

“He came back and he said, 'We have people selling drugs through here.' And I said, 'So why did I get stopped?'”

Minott said what is needed is police officers from the towns they patrol, embedded in the daily life of the town, who are policing it.

"Not out-of-towners," he said. "They don’t know us, they don’t care about us. It’s just a job to them."

Minott said it makes a difference because an officer is not going to want to pull out a gun on their neighbor or the kid who lives three blocks from them.

"You’re not going to shoot him because he’s running away from you," Minott said.

"A lot of the white officers get hired and have no understanding of the community they are hired in," Carter said. "So they come and they are scared as hell. If you go 'Boo!' they are jumping trying to pull out their gun."

Social media has played a huge factor in recent convictions and charges that have been brought against police officers who have been involved in police brutality, said Karen Thompson, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.

“I don’t think that instances of misconduct have decreased since the presence of social media. What we are seeing now is just that they are being unmasked,” Thompson said.

This is nothing new: Police brutality against Black Americans has been occurring for centuries, she said.

In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill includes extensive measures for police reform, including banning chokeholds and profiling on the basis of race and religion. It is hard to disassociate the monthslong protests and the role social media played in bringing the bill to fruition.

For some, the sights are 'painful'

When most people sign up for Instagram, they are not aware that they could wind up watching someone being killed, Anglin said. This is the world we live in. Though traumatizing for many, it has lit a flame for others, the community organizer said.

"For me, looking at Black bodies brutalized to that point, it is painful," Isabella Robinson, a sophomore at Drew University in New Jersey said. "It almost makes me start to hyperventilate because it is truly upsetting."

The online and offline are really not different spaces but are aspects of the same reality, which is, simply, everyday life – a life that includes bias, racism and violence, said Mary Chayko, the Rutgers professor author of "Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life."

Robinson was 13 when she witnessed officers harassing her father for taking photos of fireworks on the Fourth of July.

She stood alongside her father as he captured pictures in a grassy field, a few other photographers scattered in the distance. Her father's camera was fancy, she said.

“I’m not sure why they came – they went up specifically and only to my dad,” Robinson said.

“Hey what are you doing here man? What is this camera?” she recalls officers asking her father, continuing to question him for a few moments.

"I was roaring with anger," Robinson said. She wonders now what the reaction might have been if she recorded the scene on her phone and uploaded the video to social media.

Robinson, who is biracial, said that before seeing videos of police brutality, the white side of her family wouldn't believe police acted that way toward people of color.

"But now they have been watching clips and things, and they say this is real," Robinson said. "It’s like, 'Yeah, we’ve been telling you that.'"

Odein Karibi-Whyte is a sophomore at Morehouse College, a historically Black men's college in Atlanta. Karibi-Whyte said seeing videos of Black men being killed by police is exhausting.

"I feel like they are really giving us the message that we have this power to kill you and you can’t do anything about it," Whyte said.

At Morehouse, students seek ways to speak with one another about such situations, and conversations often naturally come up in the classroom. Every Monday and Wednesday they have “Brotherhood Bonding.”

"We really just get to talk to a few professors, and that is where a lot of discussions take place," Whyte said.

The forums often continue with students organizing group chats and Instagram lives to keep the conversations going.

Prayer is what Whyte says gives him solace. That, and speaking with people who don't require an explanation of the reality faced by people of color.

The future of social media and social activism

Anglin said the future of activism on social media will involve getting influencers involved in social justice, expanding accountability, and creating more civic engagement.

"What does it look like to talk to some of these big companies, and tell them to really step up and think about how to put their imprint on and in our communities?" Anglin said.

Anglin sees an irony in the idea that video streams on Facebook Live can be used to send police to a house for a drug raid, but no mechanism exists to send help when a person is being killed by an officer on Facebook or Instagram live.

“We all need to finish ... making sure that the laws change, that everything changes."

Follow reporter Shaylah Brown on Twitter: @shaylah_brown

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Social media has the power to bring change, but has it?

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