Police attempt to control protesters in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, on Monday, August 18.
How Ferguson exploded into a national movement
01:52 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The hashtag #Ferguson is often used as a symbol of American racial politics

People use hashtag to call out racist behavior unrelated to Michael Brown's shooting

Protesters and activists use #Ferguson as a social media rallying call

CNN  — 

After Michael Brown’s August 9 shooting death, DeRay Mckesson could not believe what he was seeing on social media as he scrolled through posts tagged #Ferguson and #MikeBrown

The hashtags accompanied scenes of the dead teen lying in the street and videos of distressed community members up against police in riot gear. Mckesson was compelled to make the nine-hour drive from Minneapolis to Missouri on August 16. The next evening he was chased and tear gassed by police on West Florissant Avenue along with other activists, protesters and concerned citizens, he said.

“I thought, ‘this is not an America I know,’” the 29-year-old school administrator said in a phone interview. “This is not what America should be.”

Since August 9, Ferguson the place has come to represent what many see as the ugly side of American racial politics, making #Ferguson the hashtag a social media shorthand for racial inequality, police misconduct and “the value of black life,” Mckesson said.

People have used the hashtag to call out what they see as instances of police misconduct and racist double standards beyond the context of the day Officer Darren Wilson shot the 18-year-old to death.

These conversations happen every day across America amid tension between law enforcement and black communities, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of civil rights group ColorOfChange.

Ferguson became a national conversation thanks to social media, creating an opening for broader discussions about “inequality in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Ferguson has always been about justice for Michael Brown first and foremost, Robinson said. It has also become a signifier of “a bigger problem in our country where for some of us justice doesn’t seem like it will ever be delivered,” he said.

“We’re talking about the larger issue of police misconduct in Ferguson and around the country that happens everyday,” he said. “Ferguson is the flashpoint that amplified the need for greater accountability.”

‘Righteous rage’ and hope

The hashtag also has become a rallying cry for the social justice movement that has grown out of Michael Brown’s death. Between August 9 and August 25, the hashtag #Ferguson was used on Twitter 11.6 million with retweets and 1.9 million without retweets, according to Sysomos.

Mckesson was among those boosting the hashtag as he pounded the pavement in Ferguson. He tweeted images of protests, news about rallies and demonstrations and tips for out-of-towners looking for food and places to stay.

“There was a lot of righteous rage, but also a deep sense of community and joy that outlined that anger,” he said. “It turned me into being a committed protester.”

He also began building relationships to form the infrastructure of an organized, peaceful movement. Through a newsletter and frequent social media updates, he shares news about campaigns, demonstrations, petitions and updates on Darren Wilson’s court proceedings. He also shares passionate affirmations of the movement’s mission and biting digs toward detractors and Darren Wilson supporters.

But, he is quick to add that he is “just one voice” in a leaderless movement.

“On social media we have all been exposed to voices we might not have heard otherwise,” he said. “There are many of us who are voices in this and that is our power.”

Turning a moment into a movement

Hashtags like #Ferguson are a means to an end for advocacy groups trying to create movements out of moments like Michael Brown’s shooting, said Robinson with ColorOfChange.

“Our role is to translate what’s happening in Ferguson to everyday people who want to do something on a systemic level that will lead to lasting change,” he said.

“What we’re doing is trying to capture that energy and push for national change in terms of policies that incentivize better policing and hold media and Hollywood accountable in terms of the images and implicit biases they put out in the world.”

The hashtag creates a space for people to see what’s happening on the ground not only in Ferguson but in places around country, he said. Hopefully, what they see engages and catalyzes them into activism in real life.

“A hashtag provides a meeting space, a virtual meeting space where you can be virtually tapped into one strand of what’s happening,” he said. “But it’s a mistake to believe you’re fully educated.”