After going beyond the hashtags….

TW: anti-Black police violence

After this week’s readings, I’m left thinking about the connections between Marlene Daut’s piece, “Haiti @ the Digital Crossroads”, and the Center for Media and Social Impact’s report Beyond the Hashtags. Both represent some of the foundational themes of digital humanities we’ve seen throughout the readings and sites of learning. Daut’s call to action for scholars to work against colonial discourses and their caution to be wary of reproducing or reinforcing the very structures and ideologies of colonial-logic. Daut argues a minority-centered discourse “involving content, context, collaboration, and access” offers a better guide to Haitian studies scholars navigating where the field is headed, while being critical of tendencies to legitimate or reinforce colonial hegemony. The authors recognized the significance of the moment where two social phenomena converged (Black Lives Matter and Twitter) to significantly contribute social justice movement. The report’s narrative and major findings are further accentuated by its direct ties to the current political moment. And yet, there were moments throughout the report where I felt it veered into reproduction of oppressive dynamics that are worth discussing.  

I’m approaching my critique that this disconnect is evidence of how far the public discourse has evolved, and not necessarily of the report’s authors and their relationship to the movement or activism in general. It is possible this gap is reflective of the academy being off-centered in its critical discourse, but that is beyond the scope of this blog. By approaching with curiosity–and acknowledging it is nearly impossible for anyone to do social justice and movement work outside the confines of the oppressive systems they battle—I am hoping to participate in the generative intellectual discourse Cameron Blevins calls for in “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense.”

Two examples standout in particular. The first example I wanted to highlight, which I think is getting much more critical and nuanced attention in the current moment, is the use of the qualifier “unarmed” to describe the victims of police violence. This term fails to account for situations like Philando Castile and Kenneth Walker (Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend), who legally owned guns, or Tamir Rice, who was executed by police officers for having a toy gun in an open carry state. The use of “unarmed” subtly creates good and bad victims, even when both may have been complying with the law. Additionally, tis sentiment fundamentally violates the rights and presumptions legal rules and norms. Now more so than before, there is also an acknowledgement that even if someone was armed or posing danger to themselves and the community, it in no way justifies police lynchings or summary executions of members of the public.

The second example is the narrow focus on Black men killed by the police and highlighting male activists like DeRay Mckesson and Shaun King, while simultaneously acknowledging queer Black women were responsible for creating the language to move the discourse and activism forward. In 2014, the African American Policy forum launched the #SayHerName campaign to bring attention to the Black women and girls victimized by police. Recently, the campaign was formally adopted by the WNBA in the wake of the most recent series of uprising following the summer of 2020. The current moment has also brought more scrutiny to the men that have presumptively been held up by mainstream media sources as movement leaders.  DeRay has been accused of being more of a media-activist from outside Ferguson who capitalized on a moment. Moreover, his latest campaign—8 Can’t Wait—itself relies on the oppressive permanence of the police state and was excoriated by statisticians and abolitionists for both its faulty logic.

And yet, Beyond the Hashtags also advanced critical intellectual dialogue around issues that are marginalized or devalued in traditional academic spaces. It’s important to acknowledge that these types of reports are useful and cannot be everything social movements need. Moreover, the authors correctly identified the significance of Ferguson, Black Twitter, and the disenfranchisement of Black youth in the US political system. Additionally, I think the framing of Twitter’s trifecta of successes–to educate a broader public, amplify the work of grassroots activists, and influence movements for structural change—is useful analytically and practically, embodying important parts of DH praxis.