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The Tweet That Launched a Movement

May 25, 2017
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The Tweet That Launched a Movement
Activists used social media to report in real-time on the conflict between protesters and police in Ferguson, Mo. Photo via WeTheProtesters
Twitter, Slack and other collaborative tech platforms are powering the 21st century’s civil rights activists.

Two thousand and forty-four miles.

A distance that would take 677 hours to walk.

A distance that would take around 30 hours to drive.

A distance that technology immediately obliterated as four passionate citizens united against police violence.

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Just days after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, civil rights activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie were on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., documenting on social media the unrest that ruled the streets. Shortly thereafter, the two connected with Brittany Packnett, the then-executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis.

As #Ferguson became a rallying cry on social media, Oprah Winfrey leveled a critique at the Black Lives Matter movement (which used Twitter to mobilize its followers), saying that it didn’t have clear goals, leadership or asks. Mckesson tweeted a reply, listing demands of the protesters.

Meanwhile, more than half a continent away, Samuel Sinyangwe spotted Mckesson’s response and felt compelled to reach out.

“I replied to the tweet saying that I could help develop a policy agenda that implements these demands in practice. I didn’t know who DeRay or anyone was,” says Sinyangwe, who was doing policy work for a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif. “As a policy analyst, I wanted to contribute policy.”

Two thousand and forty-four miles separated Sinyangwe from Mckesson and the other protesters in Ferguson. Yet Mckesson’s 140-character post forged a virtual connection and jumpstarted a conversation that would, in just a few short months, result in the formation of the far-left leaning nationwide organization WeTheProtesters.

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Initial phone calls between Sinyangwe and Mckesson (and later, Elzie and Packnett as well) focused on a shared understanding that data needed to inform policy making so that it would gain traction with both the public and government officials at all levels.

“What made it work was that we’re all committed to the same goals, and we each have a particular skillset that added value to each other’s work. It was all about the commitment to work; it was not about our own personalities,” says Sinyangwe. “I can analyze the data and identify policy solutions. DeRay can communicate that very well in relationships with media. [Joh]Netta can make sure the information — this sort of ivory tower research — is accessible to people and Brittany has institutional access to make sure these recommendations are embedded in some of the foremost institutions of government.”

Not surprising to the activists, their data mining uncovered systemic problems with policing use-of-force practices nationwide. Taking that information, they developed and launched Campaign Zero, a series of 10 proposed policing policy solutions, like ending broken windows policing, community representation, demilitarization and fair police union contracts.

“No other group had ID’ed solutions and grounded it in data and evidence,” Sinyangwe says.

Sinyangwe and company also leveraged data to create a second resource, a groundbreaking interactive map that provides comprehensive information (name, location, description of incident and a link to related, authoritative news coverage) for each police-involved shooting in the United States.

“In the beginning, it was all about convincing the country that it was a crisis — that police violence was happening everywhere, not just in St. Louis or Baltimore,” says Sinyangwe. “No one is going to read a 30-page report on this, but people will look at something that looks high quality and communicates [the information] in much less time.”

Using off-the-shelf technology (often free or free-trial versions) as they continued to collaborate virtually, Sinyangwe and his WTP cofounders built a tech-powered infrastructure that overcame geographic limitations. (“It was literally a period of months before I met everyone in person,” says Sinyangwe.) They shared information in Google docs and sheets, held meetings in Hangouts, designed infographics with Piktocharts and created data tables using Tableau.

Typeform proved to be particularly valuable to WeTheProtesters in recruiting volunteers. The group used the platform to increase its ranks by around 16,000 people in just two weeks. These helpers were then organized into groups and used Slack to communicate, building a bond in cyberspace.

WeTheProtesters is supported by Fast Forward, an accelerator for tech-focused nonprofits and a partner of Comcast NBCUniversal. Today, the group’s biggest challenge is scaling its systems so that more citizens can become effective advocates.

“Across the country, as I’m meeting people and speaking at various venues, people come up to me and ask, ‘How do I get involved?… I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do about it,’” says Sinyangwe. “In today’s day and age, when you see the hyper-targeting of every political campaign, there is no excuse to not have a pathway to get involved. People shouldn’t have to ask anymore.”

But just in case, WeTheProtesters created a Wikipedia-style guide known as the Resistance Manual. The crowdsourced webpage tracks local, state and federal issues, offers resources on effective organizing and lists upcoming teach-ins, town halls and marches across the country. It’s part of a wave of new digital tools created since the 2016 presidential election in response to people’s renewed interest in politics.

Sinyangwe believes that it’s possible to awaken and amplify more voices, “in part because of the tools that we have available to us, because of the platforms and technology and the creative ways we’re using it.”

If he’s right, this tech-driven era of activism may bring about a level of civic engagement unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Additional reporting by Chris Peak.

This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

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