After police shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Black Lives Matter protests spread from Missouri throughout the country. As the litany of African-Americans killed by police has grown since, so too have the protests. Incidents that at one time were mostly unreported have—thanks in part to social media—spread nationally, igniting further outcry and attention on police violence.
"With Twitter, other social media, and tools like WhatsApp, we're able to communicate at a different scale," says activist Samuel Sinyangwe. "So an issue that happens in Ferguson is not a Ferguson issue, but it's a national issue. It only takes seconds for that information—the videos, the first-person accounts—to get out, and it doesn't require being moderated by the media or other institutions that oftentimes will seek to silence or change the narrative in ways that limit activist groups."
But social media can only go far, so Sinyangwe and a group of cofounders are now working on the next generation of digital tools for Black Lives Matter, through a new nonprofit called We The Protesters. They call it the first digital civil rights movement.
"I think Twitter has been a really important tool for raising awareness about what's going on," he says. "What it hasn't done as well is help people organize around solutions and push for those solutions to be implemented."
The organization also tries to better organize data. One of its first projects was creating a map of police violence across the country, as a way of responding to the question of whether shootings were isolated incidents or part of a larger systemic problem. At the time, a national map wasn't available; the federal government didn't have the data. The team was able to build it in two months.
"We compiled more incidents of police killings than the FBI or the CDC had been able to do with all their resources in years," he says. "So again, that is another example of how technology has changed the power dynamic, where the federal government wasn't paying attention really to collecting data on this issue. We were able to almost create an alternative institution that did a better job of collecting it than the federal government."
In another project, the team reviewed use of force policies for the police departments in the largest U.S. cities—looking at, for example, whether police officers are required to warn someone before shooting them (in Atlanta, Boston, and many other cities, they are not).
On a subsite called Campaign Zero, they lay out policy solutions. The founders sat on Obama's policing task force, helped shape policing agendas, and helped change police department policies in cities like Orlando; the clean, easy-to-navigate website is a way to engage everyone in the fight for progress.
One simple tool lets you find your local representatives, learn their position on policing policies, and contact them, all within three clicks.
In another project, the nonprofit used Freedom of Information Act requests to get copies of police union contracts from 100 cities, analyzing how those contracts help officers avoid accountability after a shooting.
Hundreds of people have helped gather and analyze the data, which led to the next tool, under development now: a site that will let anyone who wants to help Black Lives Matter quickly learn what they can do. Of the roughly 40% of Americans who support the movement, only a small fraction are actively engaged.
"In the beginning, the question was 'How do we raise awareness about this issue?' Because the nation was not yet convinced that this was a serious issue," says Sinyangwe. "I think that the movement has reached sort of a critical mass of people who understand that this is a serious issue, that it will take action to change that. Now the question is 'How do I get involved? How do I be part of that solution?'"
On the new site, someone will be able to input a few facts—I'm a lawyer, I live in San Francisco, I have three hours available to volunteer in a week—and then will be connected with a task. Some of the work, like searching for policy documents online, might not take a particular background. Online, there are still gaps in basic information that need to be filled.
"There's actually no national database of local elected officials, what their districts are, what their contact information is, and that's a huge issue when we're talking about policing, which is predominantly local," he says. "So all of those things can be crowdsourced, broken up into manageable tasks that anyone can complete."
People with some specialized skills—attorneys or designers, for example—will be connected with more specialized tasks.
In a simple beta site, designed while the founders were taking part in the nonprofit tech accelerator Fast Forward, the organization started collecting information from people who want to volunteer. Within a couple of weeks, they had a list of 18,000 people.
"Now we have a giant spreadsheet, so that speaks to the need to create new technology to automate that process so we can actually manage large numbers of people who want to get involved," says Sinyangwe. We The Protesters plans to release the new tool within the next two months.
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