The Rodney King beating rocked a city, but Mike Brown's death has rocked the country
If you’ve been paying attention to the Ferguson protests, they might ring a bell for you. Remember that other time white police officers were charged with excessive force and were acquitted (even though it was caught on tape), resulting in widespread rioting? More than 20 years have passed since a bleeding and disfigured Rodney King went on television and asked everyone, “can’t we all just get along?”
The differences between the Rodney King beating and the Michael Brown shooting are many. First: Brown died while King survived, thereby allowing him to tell his version of events. Second: there was no video footage of Michael Brown’s shooting, so that little sliver of uncertainty has allowed many an obnoxious white person to say, “no one knows for sure what happened, but can’t we all forget about our differences and come together?” Which is dog whistle for, “quit complaining and get back in your place.”
One of the most striking differences between the two cases, however, is the fact that the Los Angeles riots were pretty much contained within Los Angeles. The Ferguson protests, on the other hand, have spread to virtually every major U.S. city. Thousands of protesters have clogged up streets in Manhattan, shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge Monday night. In Atlanta, some two-dozen protesters were arrested on Tuesday night, mostly on obstruction and failure to disperse charges. In Oakland, protesters shut down two freeways while chanting “shut it down for Michael Brown.” In Minneapolis, a car plowed through a crowd of protesters, injuring one woman.
The difference between now and then: social media. The Rodney King riots stayed in Los Angeles because they seemed like a uniquely Los Angeles problem—police corruption, racial profiling, and targeting the black community. Of course, as we all know, the tense relationship between police forces and communities of color is not unique to Los Angeles, and social media has helped crystallize that reality. It has globalized the local.
The verdict was announced shortly after nine p.m. EST. By 11 p.m., there were more than 3.5 million tweets about Ferguson, with the biggest spike occurring immediately after the verdict was read. At that point, Twitter was seeing over 52,000 tweets per minute referencing Ferguson. The statement issued by Michael Brown’s family was retweeted nearly 7,000 times. #Ferguson is still the top trending topic on Twitter. Twitter released a heatmap of geotagged tweets referencing Ferguson on Monday night, in which virtually the entire eastern half of the United States exploded in a flurry of activity.
Social media users in general tend to skew younger and are more likely to be people of color, but Twitter even more so. One 2013 Pew survey found that 29% of black Internet users are on Twitter, compared to 16% of white users and 16% of Hispanic users.
But big deal. People had TVs in the ‘90s. Everyone saw the video footage of the Rodney King beating. Social media hasn’t changed the world that much, right?
The thing about social media is that you, the user, can shape the kind of narrative you hear. For example, as a white woman who comes from a family of Republicans who loooove to share their opinions on things they don’t know anything about, the narrative I get on Facebook is one of sympathy for Michael Brown’s shooter, Darren Wilson. I block and delete a few people, and it’s a different story. Twitter has an even more profound impact when it comes to driving social change. Again, as a suburban white woman, I don’t know anything about police brutality. I’ve never been racially profiled or experienced the effects of structural racism. But I follow a lot of writers, feminists, and activists on Twitter, many of whom are black, and the narrative I get on Twitter is one of anger and frustration. What this means is social media is changing the paradigm within which I go about my daily life.
And unlike the media of the ‘90s, social media users can contribute. Not only can they can shape the narrative, they can make it.