In late May, protests broke out in Louisville, Kentucky in the wake of the extrajudicial police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. Despite the ongoing pandemic and curfew implemented by Mayor Greg Fischer, thousands mobilised, filling the streets to demand consequences for the three Louisville Metropolitan Police officers who entered Breonna’s home using a controversial “no-knock warrant” and shot her eight times.
As similar protests rage on worldwide, livestreaming and social media reportage have proven instrumental in organising, spreading information, and documenting the often violent and antagonistic police presence at peaceful demonstrations. We’ve seen videos of rubber bullets being fired point blank, tear gas canisters launched recklessly, and, in one instance, evidence directly contradicting the Buffalo Police Department’s claim that a 75-year-old man was seriously injured when he “tripped and fell” during a protest in a now-viral clip showing an officer shoving the man backwards.
Civilian journalism has come to define media coverage of civil unrest in recent years: YouTube videos uploaded by protesters comprised an entire award-winning documentary about the Arab Spring, cellphone footage of Eric Garner’s killing in 2014 helped to prompt the first Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and the 2019 Hong Kong protesters were captured from nearly every possible vantage point by smartphone-enabled live streams. In 2016, when a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota ended in a police officer fatally shooting Philando Castile, his girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds livestreamed his final moments from the passenger seat of the car. “They threw my phone, Facebook,” Reynolds can be heard saying, off-screen, as she knelt on the ground, handcuffed. Writer Doreen St. Félix described the now-widely viewed footage as “sousveillance of the police”; turned upwards, social media’s panoptic gaze immortalised a ghastly scene. Thousands of protesters marched on Minnesota’s Capitol after the officer involved, Jeronimo Yanez, was ultimately acquitted of manslaughter.
Now, live social media dispatches from protests are letting those at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement speak for themselves as they share unadulterated accounts of police violence, often against protesters of colour, sans deceptive editing or racist media bias. Twitter accounts like @USAProtests and @protest_nyc – the latter of which already has over 16,000 followers since its creation last month – have become popular aggregators of minute-by-minute updates from the demonstrations.
“We’re being given control over our own narratives,” says Brianna Harlan, a 27-year-old organiser and artist from Louisville. Injustice against black Americans is and always has abounded, she says, “but now we have cameras in our pockets, and we can instantly upload it and show everybody when we see something.”
In the midst of the pandemic, when many who are social distancing rely on the internet to stay connected, Harlan believes that social media can be a powerful tool for organising. “We’re subverting a platform that people naturally gravitate towards and using it to bring power back to people. This thing that has become almost a coping mechanism for people is now a tool for liberation,” she says. Live video feeds streamed via Facebook and Instagram in particular form the basis for straightforward and easily disseminated coverage, and as the second wave of coronavirus outbreaks looms imminent, immersive social media coverage is also helping many follow the action in the streets without risking exposure. The result has been a newfound emphasis on “virtual protesting,” amplifying and assisting black organisers and protesters in ways beyond just posting black squares on Instagram. Popular remote forms of action include donating to bail funds, mass emailing elected officials, watching police scanners and serving as emergency contacts for protesters in case of arrest. One of the easiest ways to support the cause from afar is also, in many ways, the most foundational: paying attention.
MilkyMess TV, a collective of young Louisvillians, has been making the local protests more accessible by livestreaming them on Facebook every day. Within less than two weeks of creating their page, they’ve racked up nearly 5,000 likes and receive tens of thousands of views on their streams every night. “There’s been an influx of people reaching out and saying they can’t be involved or go out, and this is helping them to stay in tune and feel like they’re there on the streets with us,” says Bree, who helps run the page. “I even had somebody come to me that said her daughter had Covid-19, and they can’t go out of the house right now. They turn this on every day and watch, so that they know what’s really going on.”
MilkyMess started when Steph, one of the group’s primary reporters, attended one of the first protests in Louisville and used Facebook’s live feature so that her friends Bree and Meko could follow along. In the earlier days of the protests, LMPD used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters liberally; Steph was caught in the crossfire of both, and after livestreaming the commotion, she FaceTimed her friends. “We’re jokesters, so we’re on the phone, and they had poured milk on her,” says Bree, “and Meko and Steph are best friends, and Meko says, ‘Oh my god, you look a milky mess.’”
After this, the group decided to report live from protests on a daily basis, enlisting the help of Brandon, who handles their audio and video production, and Ty, who is based in Atlanta, but assists remotely with administrative work. “None of us have a degree in this. This is why we say to our MilkyMess family, ‘Please be willing to grow with us.’ We are learning as we go,” Bree says. “It definitely has been the reason why we’ve been waking up every day, and I tell people, this doesn’t really feel like work to us, to be honest, because we get so much fulfillment out of it.”
Their livestreams, which sometimes last for hours, offer viewers an unfiltered firsthand perspective of the Louisville protests, with their massive turnouts and the ubiquitous chorus of microphone-led chants: “No justice, no peace. Fuck these racist-ass police.” “You can’t try to filter things out or make it look like something it’s not,” Bree adds. “It was exactly what was going on.”
The streams also often include candid moments of semi-quotidian joy: midnight post-march snack runs, Steph and Meko drinking White Claw in the backseat of a car stalled in traffic between protests, impromptu poetry slams, humanity, humour, and an overall sense of righteous togetherness between total strangers. “We’ve had so much love, and just random acts of kindness,” Bree says. “There’s been a crazy amount of support from people of all colours. It’s the most beautiful thing.”
This version of Louisville is a far cry from the often alarmist mainstream media coverage that often focuses on broken windows and narratives of violence and catastrophic looting. “The media, they want to showcase the negative so much,” Bree says. “We know that it’s not all daisies out there. But if we can capture those beautiful moments, those moments that are going to make history, those moments that show the unity between all of these different people […] This is beyond us.”
Harlan, who is attending graduate school in New York, recently traveled back to Louisville, expecting to return to chaos and destruction based on national news stories about the riots. “I got here and that really wasn’t the case,” she says. “When it comes to what’s happening in communities, you should listen to that community. You should tune in to what the people there are saying, and I think that’s what social media is doing for us.”
Still, Harlan notes that online activism comes with real-world consequences, including the risk of doxxing and spreading misinformation. “If this is the record of history, if we are given the opportunity to share our own accounts of what’s happening, then that has to be done with intention,” she says. “I love that the revolution can now be livestreamed, but I hope that people understand that social media cannot be the end-all be-all. Once you share what you need to share, hopefully you’re getting off social media and having those real conversations and educating yourself.”