Forms of Critique #2:
Did you see that video? / The Memetics of Struggle

by Pete Watts

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air:  Season 2, Episode 9 “Cased Up” (11 Nov. 1991)
1The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Season 2, Episode 9, “Cased Up” (11 Nov. 1991)

On the afternoon of July 17th, 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old-husband and father of six, was forcibly dragged to the pavement, an NYPD officer’s arm wrapped around his neck. The incident, captured on video by two witnesses, was simply the latest encounter in an ongoing pattern of harassment and humiliation at the hands of Staten Island police. Dating back to 1980, Garner had a history of encounters with the NYPD, resulting in some 30 arrests, primarily non-violent misdemeanors,2 including alleged sales of untaxed cigarettes, for which he was stopped on the day of his death. It is exactly these low-level crimes that are targeted under Broken Windows Policing, in which officers aggressively enforce minor, ‘quality of life’ crimes, in an purported effort to avert larger, more serious crimes, an approach that disproportionately targets minority and lower-class neighborhoods, already marginalized by generations of systemic inequality.3 Feeling himself the subject of ongoing scrutiny and abuse by Staten-Island police, in 2007, Garner had even filed a complaint in federal court, accusing a police officer of publicly conducting a cavity search, “digging his fingers in my rectum in the middle of the street”4 as pedestrians passed by.

Verbally confronting the officers, Garner argued, in what would soon become his chilling final words, “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today.”5 Plain-clothed officer Daniel Pantaleo, previously sued twice for bias-related misconduct against African-American men,6 went to reach for Garner’s wrist, Garner brushed his hand away, prompting Pantaleo to leap at Garner, wrestling the 350-pound asthmatic to the sidewalk using a choke-hold banned by the NYPD some twenty years prior.7 Pinned-down by four officers, his face pressed against the concrete by Pantaleo, Garner can be heard repeatedly pleading with the officers, “I can’t breathe,” before losing consciousness. For seven minutes, Garner’s handcuffed, unconscious body lay on a Staten-Island sidewalk, receiving no medical attention, as a growing swarm of officers casually milled-about. Shortly before the arrival of EMT’s, an officer can be heard half-heartedly suggesting that Garner, “breathe-in, breathe-out, alright?” prompting the would-be camerawoman to respond, “Nice try. Still going viral.”8

As he gasped for life, it’s doubtful that Eric Garner had any idea of the symbolic resonance that his words would carry, but in the months that followed his death, a series of increasingly brazen, senseless, and well-documented deaths of African-American men and boys at the hands of police would galvanize an American (caucasian) public -- historically apathetic to the oppression faced by minorities and the socially marginalized. By the time that a State-Island grand jury announced, on December 3rd, that officer Pantaleo would not face charges in Garner’s death, the announcement set-off weeks of nightly protests across the nation, culminating in the Millions March NYC protest,9 in which a markedly-diverse crowd of 30,000-50,000 took to the streets of New York, chanting Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe.” 10

Following Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008, many pundits optimistically theorized that we were witnessing the birth of a ‘post-racial America’. Even as membership among white-power hate-groups noted a marked increase,11 and conservative media tread the fine line between inferred and overt-racism, it was an appealing narrative for both a Democratic Party eager to show tangible evidence of social progress and a Republican Party happy to argue that America’s ‘race-problems’ were behind it, and irrelevant to the political discourse. Although the highly-publicized 2009 arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., arrested as he attempted to enter his own home, led to discussions of the racial-bias within law-enforcement,12 it was the 2012 shooting-death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, at the hands of neighborhood-watchman / vigilante George Zimmerman (and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal) reignited the conversation on racial inequality in the United States, and exposed a legal system either incapable of, or unwilling to provide equal-protection under the law for its citizens of color. Protests branded the “Million Hoodies March” took place across the nation, with some 5,000 taking to New York’s Union Square, including a constituency of the recently-evicted Occupy movement.13 The killing also inspired the genesis of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, created by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi,14 which would grow into a rallying cry of the recent demonstrations, as evidence revealed, again and again, that, as far as the American legal-system was concerned, black lives did not.

In the immediate aftermath of Garner’s death, categorized as a homicide by the New York Medical Examiner’s office,15 a series of small, but growing rallies were held, calling for the indictment of officer Pantaleo, with some 2,500 New Yorkers marching in Staten Island.16 However, it was another death, a little more than three weeks after Garner’s killing, that would shock white-Americans with an even more clearly articulated depiction of the brutality and systemic-oppression faced by African-Americans; confronting them with stark, commonly disregarded reality of two concurrent, fundamentally unequal visions of life in the United States.

On August 9, 2014, the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year old, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson, set off immediate protests and rioting in the predominantly African-American community. According to the police account, Brown, struck by six-bullets, had struggled with the officer prior the shooting, eyewitnesses accounts claimed that Brown had been fleeing the officer, his hands raised as the final, fatal shots were fired.17 Riots and looting erupted in Ferguson, and in the resultant chaos, Americans off all races watched in near universal-horror as peaceful protestors, their arms-raised, chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” were aggressively dispersed and arrested by a terrifyingly militarized police force, equipped with the armored-cars, automatic-weapons, and tactical body-armor already familiar to Americans from their recent deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Images and videos of the shooting’s aftermath and successive unrest spread virally across social-media, provided by both citizen-journalists and conventional media-outlets, who now increasingly found themselves the target of police aggressions.18 The shocking response even mobilized outrage among an increasingly vocal Libertarian Right-wing, itself critical of the ongoing militarization of municipal police-departments.19

As weeks passed, news of ever more police-killings just kept coming. Days prior to Michael Brown’s death, John Crawford III, a 22-year old African-American man had been shot to death by police in a Walmart store outside of Dayton, Ohio, for carrying a bb-gun/air-rifle sold in the store’s sporting goods section.20 On August 19th, as Americans struggled to make sense of the events in Ferguson, a mentally-disturbed man, Kajieme Powell, stole energy-drinks from a convenience store, and awaited the arrival of authorities. Powell confronted the St. Louis police with a knife, shouting, “Kill me!” before being promptly shot to death21 in yet another incident captured on video by witnesses.22 On November 20th, 28-year-old Akai Gurley, declared a “total innocent” by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton,23 was shot to death by officers conducting a routine patrol of his girlfriend’s apartment building. Only two days later, on November 22nd, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, carrying an Airsoft replica-pistol in a Cleveland park, was shot to death by white officers, seconds after their arrival on the scene, all captured on security cameras.24

Although the United State’s own racial history is one of unspeakable horrors and cruelty towards the ‘Other’, from the genocide of First-Nations peoples to hundreds of years of institutionalized slavery and Jim-Crow segregation, white America has long comforted itself in the idealized myth of ‘equal protection under the law’. As the atrocities and gruesome details of the recent killings continued to pile up, America searched for some affirmation that these killings would not go unpunished, that, in the end, justice would prevail. To date, the search that has proven elusive, as grand-jury after grand-jury failed to even indict the officers in what are have now essentially become state-sanctioned murders. This precedent of near-total impunity for police officers posed a clear and immutable contradiction to the official American doctrine of equality, an upholder of human rights. Reflecting on the post-structuralists, Nicholas Mirzoeff had summarized that, "far from being an exception to normality, war is rather the clearest expression of that normality,"25 a sentiment which bears an unsettling relevance to the present dilemma; the possibility that, rather than representing an aberration from an otherwise fair and just legal system, that the ongoing brutalization of black Americans by police is rather simply a truer manifestation of a social-order constructed around the systematic subjugation and exploitation of American minority groups. A quote from civil-rights pioneer Dr. W.E.B. DuBois made frequent appearances on both social-media platforms and rally-placards phrased the point so: “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”26


In analyzing the formal manifestations of the recent wave of protests that gripped the United States, there is insight to be gained in examining their context, particularly in a period of unprecedented, and interconnected global unrest.28 Following the financial crisis of 2008, and coinciding with the emerging ubiquity of social media, nascent models of dissent, organizing, and citizen-journalism began to crystallize. Characterized by a broad distrust of existing political institutions, the most significant departure in the realization of these (non)-political programs is their reliance on social-media platforms as a means to both radicalize and mobilize an otherwise latent constituency. In the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election, the first uprising to be christened a ‘Twitter revolution’,29 initial protests against the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s second electoral victory were met with violent repression by police and paramilitary groups.30 In spite of ongoing government censorship, with the assistance of Anonymous Iran,31 and other international supporters, images and videos of the violence spread virally across YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook, capturing the attention of Iranians and imaginations of Iranians. The following day, with the eyes of the world upon them, millions of Iranians, many mobilized through social media, flocked to Tehran’s Freedom Square32, in the largest demonstrations since the revolution of 1979.33

A week into the unrest, a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, was shot and killed on camera by a Basiji militiaman, while innocently observing the protests. Graphic videos34 of her death quickly spread across the world, and #Neda35 went viral across the world, reigniting the protests with a new ferocity.36 Martyrdom resonates powerfully in the symbolic economy of attention, and in the face of brutal suppression, significant protests continued for months, flaring up again with subsequent election cycles. While the 2009-2010 Iranian uprising revolved around a domestic political struggle, with it’s own complex history and discourse, a formal examination of these protests reveals certain means and tactics, certain cycles of engagement, which, if not a template for the protests to follow, marked a discernable shift in the nature and forms of contemporary socio-political dissent.

If there are indeed recurrent arcs to be discerned from these recent movements, their cycles frequently emerge from a dramatic, well documented event that, in its specificity, taps into existing tensions and latent contradictions normally concealed within a given socio-political order, becoming a symbolic conduit, a channel for the accumulated grievances and frustrations of a populace. As social media platforms have increasingly become host to the events of our everyday lives, the news and evidence of these genesis-events carry an unusual potency, a violent intrusion of temporo-spatial political reality into the otherwise timeless, lulling hum of a digital-consumerist individualized content feed. In this alogrithmic echo-chamber, this rupture can occur in moments, as media, commentary, and hashtags suddenly appear, trending with the kind of, ‘break the internet,’ virality normally reserved for matters pertaining to Kim Kardashian’s ass.37 In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher notes that, “the long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”38 (Fisher 81)

In the initial-stages of these uprisings, social media platforms serve primarily to spread news of the event, with different platforms fulfilling unique roles. YouTube, along with a host of other video-sharing sites, provide the obvious logistical-framework for this eruption of content, enabling citizen-journalists (or citizen-activists) to load first-hand documentation directly to the web for its subsequent transmission. Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogging platforms such as Tumblr, Wordpress, and Blogger, then provide the infrastructure for this powerful new content to proliferate wildly. Users find themselves confronted with the questions and implications of an unpalatable, un’like’able reality, and as outrage grows, a decentralized and relatively democratic discourse is initiated, even as evidence of the primary-event continues its spread. As collectivized-outrage spills out of the screen, and back into the streets and public squares of analog space-time, the inevitable clashes and arrests lead to a process of ‘cascading effects’.39 As initially peaceful protests are forcefully suppressed, evidence of the violence trends across social media, invigorating supporters, and galvanizing an increasingly sympathetic public, leading to increasingly larger and higher-stakes confrontations.

Facebook is particularly well-suited to disseminating content within real-world social-spheres, the realm of family, friends, coworkers, and classmates, allowing activist groups to channel information to the entirety of its members’ individual social-networks, as posts are shared, liked, and commented upon, and groups are also joined and followed, creating and expanding digital-communities, and new forms of dialog that may persist long after a given uprising has been quelled. Twitter’s introduction of the hashtag in 200940 revolutionized users’ ability to reach outside of their own social-circles to a potentially unlimited audience, both domestic and international. This ability to construct momentary communities, proved especially fruitful in the organization and real-time orchestration of real-world protests, allowing protesters to effectively out-pace police communication-networks, weighed down by layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy.41 “As one Egyptian activist tweeted during the 2011 protests, ‘We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.’”42

Beyond social media’s capacity as a tool of organization, there is are discursive and cultural components to this process of social mobilization, an economy of thoughts, ideas, and aesthetics situated in the feeds of the world. Just as hashtags provide the potential for the mass-dissemination of information, they also provide the same potential for the mass-dissemination of ideas, enabling conversations on a conceivably global scale, within a diverse, momentary-community of users posting and searching under the same hashtags.The introduction of a new hashtag can mark the genesis of an entirely new conversation, and of a new frame-of-referentiality, capable of spreading almost instantaneously throughout the feeds, and minds of the world. The conversations occurring in comment sections, and the more informal, pluralistic discourse of feed, do suggest the emergence of new forms social dialogue, both between opposing factions, and within singular movements. Largely ignored in mainstream media, Occupy Wall Street’s message was spread largely through social-media channels, garnering them an effective approval rating of 57% among Americans, with 29% of those polled identifying themselves as supporters of the movement.43 This wave of support arose out of a deep, generalized disenchantment among American for their political institutions, and a simmering rage over the ongoing failure to account for the financial-crisis which had just devastated the world’s economy, but could never have been achieved without the streams of powerful, catalyzing images and videos pouring into monitors and handsets across the United States, as demonstrations spread across the world and throughout the country, leading eventually to a crackdown coordinated by the FBI.44

In his 1976 work, The Selfish-Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of the “meme” to serve as the primary unit to in a mental economy of aesthetics and ideas. Memes are commonly understood as units of cultural-currency, or “units of information” operating within the marketplace of human attention, and are modeled on the gene, ascribing an inherent biologic tendency towards self-propagation as they travel from one mind to another.45 In Memetics, the field of study that coalesced around this new framework of cultural analysis, the replication of memes is understood in a cycle of four stages. In the first, Assimilation, a host encounters a meme, becoming, in-essence “infected” by its content, followed by Retention, in which this cultural-gene is impressed in an individual’s memory. The third stage of Expression occurs as the infected individual, considering the meme to be of some potential value to others, and worth affiliating oneself with, manifests the idea, whether through an act of speech, re-posting, or ‘like’ing, a lesser form of endorsement, which nonetheless promotes a meme within the digital marketplace of human attention. In the final stage, Transmission, this articulation takes some physical form, including that of wires, microchips, electricity, and light, through which it will then infect its next host, thus beginning the cycle again.46

This bio-evolutionary model for understanding the spread of ideas and content is frequently directed towards media produced with some intention of entertainment or pleasure. In an environment where an ever-densening feed of media-streams compete for a limited quantity of human attention, this viral-appeal is highly coveted, and brands and corporations spend millions annually in attempts to arouse and channel the desires of a populace inundated with innovations it doesn’t need and another cat-video that it doesn’t really care about. It is the second stage of the meme’s life-cycle, Retention, that the real essence of this contagious-appeal lays. In a sense, Retention seems to rely upon some level of surprise, the thing that exceeds your expected limits of possibility: a cat, cuter than you could have ever imagined, sky-diver falling from higher than you could have ever imagined, a micro studio apartment, more tasteful and innovative than you could have ever imagined, a black man killed by police, more senselessly and arbitrarily than you could have ever imagined.

For all of the soothing, enjoyable images competing to stick in our minds, to achieve that coveted Retention, there is a different type of potent negative-virality that manifests itself in the spread of the videos, images, posts, tweets, and articles relating to the recent wave of deaths and the civil unrest that followed. These are the images one can’t stop thinking about, that implicate their viewers, that demand some response. Charged with the power of an undeniable truth, these images confront their viewers with a shocking reality beyond what they could have ever expected, and beyond what they could ever accept. And while many took to the streets to interrupt life-as-usual, concurrent to the wildcat demonstrations, rallies, marches, and die-ins, many others voiced their frustrations and outrage in the digital realm, directing years of finely honed snark, insight, and humor towards the interruption of thought-as-usual. In 2013 their book Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Dutch designers Metahaven47 elaborate on the evolution of memes (including jokes), in which a “widely known, point of reference is tinkered with to create new implications.”48 enabling them to “tap into a collective memory and transform the “outcome” of a commonly held starting point to different ends,”49. It is in this twist of the expected outcome, this logical-rupture, that the subversive potential of humor dwells, a simple substitution that can almost instantly shift one’s fundamental understanding of a situation. Addressing this radical power, Metahaven note that:

“As opposed to “reasonable debate”, jokes are political weapons which deny an opponent control over the terms of the exchange by ignoring those terms entirely. Jokes are a protocol weapon of democracy, unsettling the structure of the encounter between oppressor and oppressed. Jokes can unsettle the “terms of service” to which political exchange is bound by its ruling ideology. “Lulz” are useful when a political opponent is deemed unworthy to negotiate with or is loathed deeply.”50

Following the initial promise of their revolutions, Egypt and Tunisia saw the elections of Islamist governments, parties whose deep-seated grassroots networks proved effective in the new political landscape. In 2013, as discontent simmered over increasingly authoritarian rule, a new form of protest appeared, in which demonstrators filmed their own ‘Harlem Shake’51 videos in public spaces and schools, thumbing their noses at conservative Islamists. In one particularly brazen event, organized by the Sarcastic Revolutionary Struggle,52 staging one of the shoots outside of party headquarters,53 essentially trolling the Muslim Brotherhood IRL, exposing the limits of their power, in a process which would lead to mass unrest, prompting the army to oust the Islamist administration. In an bizarre indicator of our globally interconnected cultural dialog, the signature sample in Baauer’s hit track, “do the Harlem Shake,” was spoken by post-net artist and critic, Jayson Musson, in a recording by his previous hip-hop project, Plastic Little.54


In April 2014, in a naive attempt to improve the department’s beleaguered public image, the NYPD’s @NYPDnews twitter account launched #MyNYPD, asking followers to post images of themselves with New York police officers. The hashtag was almost immediately co-opted by activists, who flooded #MyNYPD’s stream with scenes of police brutality, many captured during the Occupy Wall Street protests, embarrassing the NYPD, and revealing the vulnerability of such campaigns to political subversion.56 As public anger against the NYPD simmered following the death of Eric Garner, the hashtag saw continued use as a tag for posts critical of the NYPD, and which continues to address the ongoing rift between police and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, the recent slow-down and subsequent return of ‘Broken-windows’ policing.

As the public reacted in the wake of a string of high-profile police killings,the social media campaigns against racism and police brutality that followed saw the return of #blacklivesmatter, which had originated following the death of Trayvon Martin, in addition to #icantbreathe and #handsupdontshoot, referring to the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings, respectively. Created in response to the competing narratives surrounding the death of Michael Brown, African-Americans addressed the media’s portrayal of black victims of police violence using the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown,57 across a variety of social-media platforms. The posts featured two portraits of a single-subject, one depicting them as well-dressed, clean-cut, and wholesome, and another, showing the subjects in more casual situations, often in a pose alluding to some archetype of post-Gangsta-Rap hip-hop culture so widely vilified in conservative media.


On the Monday following Eric Garner's death, acclaimed filmmaker and civil-rights activist Spike Lee posted a video59 juxtaposing footage of the killing against a pivotal scene from his 1989 film, Do The Right Thing, in which a neighborhood personality, Radio Raheem is choked to death while struggling with police, igniting riots in a 1980's Bedford-Stuyvesant simmering with racial tension.60 The similarities between the two are striking, and as the video went viral, the inference of how little had really changed in the twenty-five years since the film had been released reinforced a pervasive sense that rather than representing some aberration of the normal rule of law, the freedom of police to kill persons of color with near total impunity was the normal rule of law.


Following Michael Brown’s shooting death in August, a series of gifs began spreading, taken from a 1991 episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire in which Will Smith’s lovably nefarious (too strong of a word?) best friend, Jazzy Jeff, refuses to lower his hands in order to swear on a Bible in court, fearful of getting 'six warning shots in the back' (see header), incidentally the number of times that Michael Brown was shot by white officer Darren Wilson. Over the course of the summer, the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” had permeated the cultural landscape, everyone from Taylor Swift and George W. Bush to your uncle doused themselves in buckets of ice water, after challenging three individuals, by name, to either do the same themselves, or to donate $100 to the charity, in a perfect storm of altruism, shame, guilt, competitiveness, and narcissism.62 As chaos and brutality engulfed Ferguson, Missouri following Michael Brown’s death, actor Orlando Jones posted his own video63 titled only “Bucket Challenge”. Beginning the familiar format, Jones then dons a pair of protective goggles and empties a bucket of what turns outs to be bullets over his head, before offering a sober and contemplative reflection on the turmoil, and challenging himself and others to, “listen without prejudice, to love without limits, and to reverse the hate.”


In a global political climate where mistrust towards political institutions and mainstream media is endemic, and as official talking-points move farther and farther from the common contradictions and challenges faced by populations, comedians have increasingly stepped into this void, assuming the mantle as the voices of reason and purveyors of honest discourse. Satirical newscasters such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver have become increasingly relevant voices within culture, for both verbally eviscerating a mainstream news media complicit in a fraudulent political discourse and for conducting more thoughtful, relevant, and respectful interviews with a variety of politicians and cultural figures from across the ideological spectrum. Shortly after premiering his new program “Last Week Tonight” Oliver railed against the FCC’s recent decision to end net neutrality, noting that the FCC’s website was accepting feedback from the public, and calling upon internet commenters to “focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction. Seize your moment, my lovely trolls, turn on caps lock, and fly my pretties! Fly! Fly!”64 effectively crashing the FCC’s website throughout the following day.

As Americans continued to watch the successive killings and failures of justice with bated breath, comedian Chris Rock began promoting a new comeback film, following many years away from the limelight. Throughout the 1990’s, Chris Rock had been pivotal figure in cultural discourse, with his groundbreaking standup-special “Bring The Pain”65 taking on a nearly every social issue imaginable, from the decriminalization of drugs, religion, gender, gun control (or rather, bullet control), prison-reform, and racial disparity, his incisive wit and fresh perspective reframing the established terms of debate with a pragmatic clarity so striking and memorable that the logic of his punchlines stuck in your head with a catchiness normally reserved for pop-radio hits. It was a humor so potent and exhilarating that, having been infected, a host was barely able to contain the impulse to share it, capturing some glimmer of the joke’s appeal for themselves in the process. As Metahaven would later expound, “Jokes, when politically effective, perform what everybody knew but couldn’t say.”66 Rock’s return to public life seemed to naturally coincide with the social-turmoil of the moment, and in a series of widely quoted and re-posted interviews, retrained his acerbic-wit on the present dilemmas facing the United States, from the Latino “slave state in LA”67 to a framing of social-progress that ignores white-culpability in the ongoing oppression of racial minorities.

“When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. (…) So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t.”68

Among the myriad privileges afforded to white americans, perhaps the most harmful of all is the blissful ignorance of these privileges themselves, but as the killings continued, so did public reactions, and confronted by images so starkly contrasting their own experiences, many caucasians began to consider their own white-privilege in a new way. In early October, months before the grand-jury announcements, a link began circulating online for a new series of interviews, titled the Whiteness Project,69 in which caucasians discuss their own understandings of race, and particularly, of their own whiteness. The project, sponsored in part by PBS, was created by Whitney Dow, a white filmmaker, who, with Marco Williams, his African-American filmmaking partner, has been exploring race since the early 2000’s,70 with the goal of fostering dialog and open discussion about race and privilege in America. The interviews, conducted in Buffalo, New York, frequently devolved into criticism of other races, attacks against affirmative action, self-pity, and outright denial of the existence of white-privilege.71 Reactions to the project varied significantly, but as users heatedly debated the value of the project, and expressed revulsion at the entitlement and resentment displayed in the interviews, a dramatic disconnect between many of the views espoused in the films, and the reality playing out across America became glaringly apparent. As uncomfortable and cringe-worthy as many of these portrayals may have been, they very publicly announced a new challenge to white-Americans disgusted by the racist-violence they had finally been confronted with. In an interview with New York magazine, Dow stated:

“Progressives think race is a fault in the system that needs to be addressed through measures to right wrongs, but in fact, white supremacy is the organizing principle of the country. I think that’s the reality of it, and once you accept it, the denial of that makes it very, very hard to change the racial dynamics that play out on some stage. Whether it’s Ferguson or Trayvon Martin, we’re continually replaying this vignette, and I’m trying to do my part in changing the dynamic. If white people are interested in changing that dynamic, they have to look at themselves first. It’s not about changing something outside you.”72

On December 3rd, the night that a grand-jury announced that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo would face no charges in the death of Eric Garner, a writer for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jason Ross, posted a tweet73 relaying a personal experience of only received a citation after being caught with alcohol and a gun in school at age 17, noting, “Can’t recommend being white highly enough.” His post was the first to bear the accompanying hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite,74 and the meme quickly spread, garnering significant attention in conventional media, as white social-media users posted stories of their own run-ins with police, in which oftentimes relatively serious criminal behavior was treated with a wink and a nod from white officers, displaying the kind of understanding and lenience that would never extend to African Americans. The posts, while positively intentioned, often projected the giddy-sentimentality of youthful-shenanigans. The meme, however, reached dialectical fruition in the emergence of its counterpart, #AliveWhileBlack, created by Jamilah Lemieux, an editor of The contrast presented by these posts was sobering, as African-Americans detailed testimonials of their own encounters with police, largely consisting of harassment and detainment at the hands of police as they attempted to go about their daily lives. The explosion of these hashtags across social-media indicated a modicum of progress, as white Americans began publicly testifying to their own privilege, voicing their acknowledgement of the double-standard of the American justice system.


Late in 2011, during the weeks following the coordinated crackdown of Occupy Wall Street encampments across the United States, a series of unprecedented walkouts by fast-food workers began in New York City, demanding a right to organize, and a liveable wage of $15 and hour.77 Over the following years, the movement spread throughout the country, organized by groups such as #Fightfor1578 and #Strikefastfood,79 as organized attempted to engage a marginalized workforce, in an industry known for reprisals against such efforts, publicizing their actions through social-media. On June 3rd, 2014, however, the frame of reference for the demands shifted radically, as the Seattle City Council voted unanimously approved a $15 an hour minimum wage,80 the highest in the nation. Proposed by Socialist council-member Kshama Sawant, a longtime activist with a PhD in economics,81 the decision set-off shockwaves across the nation, more than doubling the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour,82 redefining the terms of engagement in labor-disputes across the United States, and emboldening activists within the nascent movement. On December 5th, 2014, as demonstrations against police-brutality and structural racisms continued to flare across the country, fast-food workers staged coordinated walkouts in 190 cities, joined for the first time by dollar-store and convenience-store workers, with many employees staging ‘die-ins’ before abandoning their posts.83

In January, the weekend preceding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, saw a new series of demonstrations took place across the U.S., organized by groups such as #BlackLivesMatter84 and Ferguson Action,85 under the banner #ReclaimMLK, tracing a direct lineage between the venerated civil-rights leader and the movements of today, and deploring efforts within the establishment to, “efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize,”86 Dr King’s legacy. Within leftist media articles circulated, noting King’s often ignored economic positions, having evolved to embrace Socialism in the later years of his life, calling for a “radical redistribution of wealth and power” in 1967.87 At the time of his death, King had been organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign”,88 aiming to transcend racial boundaries, which included a march on Washington DC, and the construction of a tent-city on the Washington Mall, inhabited by 3,000 for a period of six weeks. The organizing committee had also set-for a platform demanding an Economic Bill of Rights, including:

1. "A meaningful job at a living wage"

2. "A secure and adequate income" for all those unable to find or do a job

3. "Access to land" for economic uses

4. "Access to capital" for poor people and minorities to promote their own businesses

5. Ability for ordinary people to "play a truly significant role" in the government 89

Nearly fifty years later,the Millions March NYC90 demonstration brought tens of thousands onto the streets of New York, in a racially diverse, and largely-peaceful demonstration, notable not only for its scale, but also for the fact that it had been organized on Facebook by Synead Nichols and Umaara Iynaas Elliott, two young women of color (aged 23 and 19). Following demonstrations against the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the two created a Facebook page, calling for a daytime-march against the ongoing injustice. Hoping for a few-thousand participants, their call to action went viral, garnering some 35,000 RSVP’s.91 Their website also stated their support for the demands set-out by the group Ferguson Action, who in addition to specific demands for an institutional framework aimed at creating systemic social and racial justice, echoed many of the demands set out by the Poor People’s Campaign, including:

1. We want an End to all Forms of Discrimination and the Full Recognition of our Human Rights

2. We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And the Murder Of Black, Brown & All Oppressed People.

3. We Want Full Employment For Our People

4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings

5. We Want an End to the School to Prison Pipeline & Quality Education for All

6. We Want Freedom from Mass Incarceration and an End to the Prison Industrial Complex 92

The recent demonstrations against the ongoing systemic-brutalization and subjugation of racial minorities in the United States, drawing on a long and proud history of civil-rights movements, represent the most recent incarnation of a struggle that has persisted for hundreds of years. An optimist could argue that the participation and engagement in these movements indicated one of the most significant expressions of racial solidarity by white Americans, but what remains clear is that, far from signaling some triumph over racial-inequality, these recent uprisings and subsequent dialog mark the beginning of a new period in American racial-politics, in which white citizens begin to examine both the institutional framework that sustains a divided nation, as well as their own privileges and prejudices. Throughout social media and in the streets across our nation, a new generation of dissidents emerged, outraged by the sustained, egregious injustices that many had considered a relic of darker-periods in our nation’s history, and coalesced around a new sense of political possibility. There’s a profound feeling of empowerment that comes with the participation in mass demonstrations: walking in-step with thousands of strangers, raising one voice, filling major thoroughfares as far as the eye can see, one finds themselves at a moment of significance, a confluence of social and historical forces, manifest in the disruption of life-as-usual, enraptured in, “the joy of creating a public.93 (Simon, 172)

In an essay on race and ethnicity in the wave of uprisings that began in 2011, theorist Slavoj Zizek concludes: “Do not simply respect others, but offer them a common struggle, since our most pressing problems today are problems we have in common."94 (Zizek, 46)


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