Online Activism Has Made Social Movements More Accessible

Fists balled at her sides, Grayce Gadson — then 6 years old — was being fussed over by her aunt. She and her family were getting ready to go to town, and her aunt, the matriarch of the family, had knelt down to eye level with the youngster to offer a bit of advice. 

“She was buttoning my coat as she was telling me how I’d needed to behave,” recalls Gadson. “It wasn’t the first time I’d gone downtown, but apparently I was growing up, and I needed to make sure that when white people talked to me, I knew to always say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir.’ That I knew to not drink out of the white water fountains and that when white people were walking down the street, I knew to step out of their way. Even at 6 years old, I knew it was wrong, and I was insulted. But still something in me knew I had to do what she told me to do. I knew it was about my safety. I decided right then that I was going to do something about that feeling.” 

Gadson says that — as an activist since that day in 1958, and a gay Black woman since always — her life has been categorized into periods of time. Those periods come between deaths of people who look like her at the hands of police and white supremacists. 

Gadson’s uncle, Alphonso Washington, who was killed by police in Goodlettsville in 1971, was the first death to really hit her. The year she moved back to Nashville from Indiana — 2014 — saw the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice at the hands of police. That year, she became a core member of the local Black Lives Matter chapter. 

Three years later, Jocques Clemmons was killed by a police officer in Nashville, and Gadson joined Community Oversight Now, a grassroots coalition calling for community oversight of the Metro Nashville Police Department. The next year, Daniel Hambrick was killed by a police officer; a little more than three months later, Gadson and her fellow Community Oversight Now members saw the passage of an amendment to create an oversight board. And since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May, Gadson hasn’t stopped moving. 

“I’m tired and can’t do as much as I used to, but that sense of injustice is the same,” she says. “The Black Lives Matter movement is just a continuation of the work we’ve always done. These communities have always been prepared to make the current moment the one that changes everything. I’m so tired of Black people having this much work to do. … But now really is the time. Get ready to show up.”  

When she first joined the movement, Gadson was marching in the streets, her voice a part of a collective demand for justice. But since March, when Nashville began to see a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases, much of her activism has been done digitally. Gadson says because of the shift toward doing more things online, there have been more opportunities to collaborate with people whose work is internet-based.  

Digital spaces of activism make it possible for advocates in more isolated rural communities to engage. And for many activists with disabilities, virtual activism is a platform for their voices to be heard. 

Passion Ray is a Black disabled activist and social worker. She says virtual activism makes it possible to show up for her communities in ways that her disability doesn’t normally allow. 

“There are people that are able to get out and do the groundwork, while people online sort of back it up,” says Ray. “Using all forms of activism to get people’s voices heard is a really powerful way to actually see some action. I grew up in the ’80s, and ‘online’ wasn’t a thing for us, but we live in a digital world, so we have to take advantage of that. The internet helps amplify voices and spread the message.”

Activist Fredrikka Maxwell says as a Black disabled trans woman, her disability doesn’t always allow her to show up physically — but being able to engage online helps change the narrative of what activism looks like.

“Activism really depends on what your capabilities are,” says Maxwell. “Most people in the world are not going to necessarily focus on your ability. They’re going to focus on your disabilities, so you have to decide what you are capable of and what you are willing to expend.”

As Maxwell mentions, the scope of activism is changing, and methods of online activism are sprawling far beyond just retweets and petitions. Across the country, activists like Maxwell, Gadson and Ray have been organizing via Zoom calls, planning protests via group chats, building communities in Facebook groups, and widening both their network and their reach through Twitter. Last month, Gadson and Ray both attended and were featured speakers at a virtual protest and rally organized by the Nashville Disability Justice Collective. 

S. Craig Watkins is the founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s college of communications. He says virtual activism has become crucial in the work for social change.

“The connected nature of social media allows you to further the regional and national network, and that really enhances the scope of a political movement,” Watkins says. 

The Pew Research Center reported in 2018 that 34 percent of Americans had taken part in advocating for causes online in the past year, with 32 percent of Americans saying they had encouraged others to become active around causes important to them. The center also found that in adults ages 18 to 49, 24 percent had used social media to find rallies or protests planned for their area, and 20 percent had used hashtags related to a political or social issue. 

Watkins says the use of social media in activist work has allowed for the network of activists to grow more widely and more quickly. 

“One of the advantages is that the use of social media can help change the narrative,” Watkins says. “It has democratized access to public discourse, and in this case, there are activists who are able to use social media as a platform to oppose or offer perspectives that may not necessarily be articulated by the powers that be. Every day, activists are putting their perspectives into public discourse, and that significantly changes the conversation, the terms and ultimately what makes it to the table to begin with.”

Beth Thielman, a co-organizer of last month’s virtual protest and co-founder of the Disability Justice Collective, says she felt it was important to show up not only in solidarity, but to make sure there were ways for the voices of the Black disabled community to be heard. In some cases, as with Ray and the poetry she shared, their activism looked different from protest signs and petitions. 

“This is a deeply personal issue for us, because these are problems that disproportionately impact disabled communities, especially disabled people of color,” Thielman says. “This is a part of a legacy of disabled organizing in solidarity with the marginalized communities that so many of us are a part of. We wanted to create a space for people to share their writing, their music, their poetry. It’s been really powerful to see it all come together.”  

Betsy Greer, a writer and activist, is credited with coining the term craftivism — it’s a form of activism focused on crafting. (Think knitting, stitching, making and sending postcards, making ceramics.) Craftivism was born in the early 2000s from a knitting project done for a resident in a domestic-violence shelter, and Greer says the act of stitching, molding and weaving in the name of social change has taken off. 

“There’s something to me about these granular acts of activism that can make us better people and really improve how we show up in our own lives,” says Greer. “We have Facebook and Instagram and Twitter now, and you can put something online instantly that has the potential to spark an idea and make things go even further. I like really tiny acts. Everyone is going to show up in a way that is meaningful to them. I think people think they have to be an activist in one specific way, but that’s not true. Your body may not be able to do certain things, so you work with that instead of against it. Don’t feel guilty if you feel that your skills are too simple. Your skills are still skills someone else might not have, and they are needed.”  

As for Ray, she says she will continue speaking up, writing and organizing online to mend the hurt caused by injustices toward Black people and people with disabilities. And until the people in her communities are no longer suffering, she says she’s going to be loud.

“This is my purpose,” says Ray. “I will be there for my people. If we have to be on the ground, we’ll be there. There are some times when I still feel like I have to get out and protest. I have to rest along the way, but I just pray I make it and keep going. If we have to be online, we’ll be there. The bottom line is they are going to hear us.”

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