Professors break down media’s role in activism

By Kylie Corral, buzz Editor

Activism has had its mark in making and breaking human history. Activism can take many forms and come into existence through a lot of avenues, but the aim in each instance is the same: to fight oppression, protest for what is right and change the world for the better. 

In Black history, activists have existed decades before the Civil Rights Movement, a period in history known for bringing an end to legal segregation that caused the mistreatment of Black people across the country, led by well-known names like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and others.

But in the 21st century, the introduction of mass media has provided another way for activists to continue fighting in movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Dr. Brooklyne Gipson, assistant professor in LAS, teaches classes on race and digital studies.

Gipson said that in both her undergraduate and graduate-level classes, she discusses how the social hierarchy of race in the United States intertwines itself in the digital side of society and how it might reinforce racial hierarchies. She added that activism and identity often intersect with her studies.

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“When I was an undergrad, I was a history major. I majored in history and African American studies. So, I have that thinking that there’s actually nothing new under the sun,” Gipson said. “I know that media evolves and we interact with media differently over time, but the ways that we engage with it are very similar, right?”

She added that in the past, the Black Panther Party was known for activism through poetry, where they would go to open mic nights to have their voices heard and messages spread.

“I think one thing we don’t talk about is the way previous generations actually manipulated media in the same way we do today,” Gipson said. “We think about hashtag activism and how we’re using social media and all these platforms to garner support, but we don’t talk as much about how some of the civil rights leaders were also manipulating media. If we think about someone like Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, they were doing that at the time when broadcast news medium was a new thing.”

Activists used other techniques such as crafting their lines to be “punchy” and understandable for news broadcasts. The Black Panthers would often take copies of their paper and put them in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“So, there’s all these ways that social justice movements have always co-opted and told counter narratives in mainstream media. It’s just that today, the tools that we have available allow those messages to move further and faster … Most people from marginalized groups are typically extremely resourceful and creative. We will always figure out a way to get our messages out,” Gipson said.

Leonard McKinnis, assistant professor in LAS, wrote a book titled, “The Black Coptic Church: Race and Imagination in a New Religion.” McKinnis said that the media has shed light on quite a few things within the realm of activism such as communication and safety.

“What (the media) also does is allows these activists to quickly move information like, for instance, where a protest might be manifesting or areas where protesters should not go. It allows us to keep an open information highway available for communicating if we’re in trouble,” McKinnis said.

McKinnis was peacefully protesting in St. Louis after the verdict of the Michael Brown case. At one point, his group was confined to a synagogue and threatened with being arrested if they left. McKinnis said he and many others took to social media to let everyone know what was going on.

“I think on the one hand (activism is) strengthened in the sense that we can communicate with each other, but it’s also weakened because everyone knows where we are at all times … It (becomes) public consumption for those who are not friends of the activists,” he said.

McKinnis said the media serves as a significant way that activism is presented, also moving towards protecting our society and protesters more.

“I want media to tell the story of the rich history of activism,” McKinnis said. “There are all sorts of unspoken heroes who are part of this — this very social, democratic tradition of human transformation. I believe that media outlets, as we get closer to things like Black History Month and other events, showcase heroes and heroines of our society. We ought to tell that story and tell the story of those individuals who literally put their bodies on the line for the American democratic experience.”

Gipson said she hopes people start leading others with more love.

“We can just do our best to lead with love, have compassion for one another (and) hold each other accountable,” Gipson said.

McKinnis said he hopes media will play a role in advancing society in the future.

“I think media should be clear that we play a role in advancing our society,” McKinnis said. “Part of that role means calling a spade a spade, calling a lie what it is, being courageous (and) being bold about what truth is and why truth is important … The only way to arrive at the world that we want to live in, that is free and that has a basis of human love, is (by having) courage from a media and journalistic standpoint.”


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