After The Hashtag

In a 21st century digital age, is it really possible to be or affect the change that you want to see in the world? Our helpless generation appears to have all the right intentions, but no feasible idea of how to implement them. Twitter is perennially saturated with stories of injustice and systematic inequality, but sympathy is only expressed with a hashtag, a ‘#justice for…’ So what after the hashtag? Can social media bring change? What can these thousands of mobilised, angry 90s kids actually do to bring justice, or feel that they are being listened to at all? And what happens when we lose hope and realise that we can have no impact?

This month, nine members of the British wing of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement were sentenced for obstructing routes to Heathrow last year. The media and police deemed such action as little more than “utter chaos”, seeing no irony in condemning a protest that caused an hour of delays to raise awareness of a system that leaves families waiting 20 years for justice. Such acts should be analysed from a different angle and instead, the ‘get up and go’ nature of campaigning for a cause they feel strongly about should be praised. And all without causing any harm.

Take the case of Julian Cole, a young black student from the UK who was viciously mauled by police; and has subsequently been left in a vegetative state, requiring 24-hour care for life. I feel fury and passion, yet most of all, helplessness. I would love to say that I attracted attention to this matter through a stunt such as that of shutting down of Heathrow. So how can I criticize their protest, even if, as many have argued, it took people’s attention away from the core of the issue?

At this point, I expect some will point to large-scale peaceful protests, such as marches, as a way to physically show your discontent with the decisions of the state. Marches stretching back to ‘Ban the Bomb’ and against the war in Iraq have gone the same way as recent protests against raising tuition fees and insisting that large corporations pay their share of tax. Utterly futile. Yes, they were a powerful show of strength, but it is sad to say, as I was present on the latter 3 of those protests, that they all made no difference whatsoever in terms of concrete change.                                                                               So, yet another appeal in the saturated world of social media, has no impact. Mass marches with millions speaking as one, have no impact. Leaving me to exasperatingly exclaim, what is next?  

Martin Luther King Jr aptly claimed that those who feel that they have no stake in society will unconsciously try to destroy it. From the 2011 London riots, in which a disenfranchised 90s generation took to the streets to protest the abusive powers of the state, to the Fergusson protests that saw the realisation of the power that a mobilised, abused minority can have, this appears to be correct. When a viral hashtag has no impact, the only other option seems to be relative, aggressive backlash and breakdown of social order. However, this also brought no change to the awareness of the state that was being condemned by all that acted. The officer who shot and killed Mark Duggan, sparking the London Riots, was not convicted of a crime, and neither was Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. Thus I am left in the uncomfortable position of concluding that we can do nothing as a majority, to change what a ruling minority dictate. A feeling that I imagine was reflected in the aforementioned Heathrow protests that marked the fifth anniversary of Mark Duggan’s murder.

There is a lot of truth in the belief that only legislative change can really bring about concrete change, for the better, in society. But don’t let that impact how you protest. Getting out, mobilizing and letting strength in numbers be witnessed will always breed more hope and justice than sitting on twitter or signing an e-petition. The oppressive forces holding back social justice must love the Internet age, an age in which a highly educated and angered generation believe that they have ‘done their bit’ with the click of a button and the post of a hashtag. Let us put “utter chaos” over virtue signaling and get on with wholesale protest.

Lewis Radstone-Stubbs   


(Image courtesy of Metro)