How Black Lives Matter Reshaped the Traditional Narrative About Police Killings

A year after the death of Michael Brown, a look back at how activists used social media to share the story that wasn’t being told.
Demonstrators march during a Michael Brown memorial protest in Brooklyn, New York, on Aug. 9. (Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
Aug 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

In a St. Louis suburb that was relatively unknown up until a police shooting that rocked the nation a year ago, hundreds gathered to honor the life of Michael Brown.

It was in Ferguson that the 18-year-old black teenager was fatally shot by a white officer last summer, becoming a flashpoint for the Black Lives Matter movement and igniting protests across the nation. Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., on Sunday led activists in a march to remember his son, who was fatally shot on Aug. 9, 2014, just a week after graduating from Normandy High School. He told the crowd that if it were not for them, his son’s death would have been “swept under the carpet.”

In the year since Brown’s death, activists have ramped up efforts on social media to ensure that he and numerous others killed since by police are not only acknowledged but remembered as unarmed people who did not deserve to die. After many media outlets chose to characterize Brown as a dangerous criminal rather than an unarmed teenager, activists sought to take back control by refuting and reframing the mainstream narrative with the use of hashtags, images, and facts. A year after Ferguson, it’s become a common tactic that has helped shed light on the ways stereotypes can undermine justice.

Shortly after Brown’s death, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown emerged as a response to the media’s portrayal of Brown as a troubled teen with a criminal past. Photographs accompanying news reports showed him wearing sports jerseys and flashing hand gestures perceived to be gang signs. The New York Times went so far as to call him “no angel,” a problem child who often fought with neighbors, rapped vulgar lyrics, and stole a box of cigars from a convenience store shortly before his death.

On Twitter, many young people wondered how the media might characterize—or perhaps more aptly, demonize—them if they were killed by cops. The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown attempted to show that there are two sides to every story. Photos showed clean-cut teens in graduation robes or work uniforms next to photos showing them partying or making hand gestures. If given the choice, the tweets asked, which photo would the media use?

Nearly a year later, Black Lives Matter activists used a similar strategy to raise awareness about and question the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested last month after a traffic stop in Texas and was found dead in her jail cell shortly afterward. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but Bland’s family has adamantly denied the idea that Bland would kill herself. The hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, in which activists put themselves in Bland’s position, came in response. Many people using the hashtag said they’d urge an outside investigation, push for protest and social change, and demand the media represent them accurately in an obituary.

These social media movements aim to challenge traditional narratives and raise awareness about police killings, but they’re also helping to hold news outlets accountable for the stories they publish and the narratives they help shape. When Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore called out CNN last week for using a mug shot of Samuel Dubose, an unarmed black man who was killed by a university cop following a traffic stop in Ohio, CNN responded—and swapped out the photo. Wilmore’s visibility as a TV host certainly helped prompt action, but the observation no doubt originated with activists on Twitter.