[For this year’s series on genuine American patriots, I wanted to focus on contemporary figures who are doing the hard work of patriotism. If there’s a through-line to these four, in addition to the ideas I discussed in my Patriot’s Day post, it’d be Howard Zinn’s famous quote, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Please share your own patriotic nominees, dissenters or otherwise, for a crowd-sourced weekend post we can all be proud of!]
What’s new about the hashtag activist, what’s not, and what’s perhaps most important.
In this Thanksgiving 2014 post on Twitter, I highlighted the emerging community of activists who have begun to use the social media platform for organizing and protest, a trend that has come to be known in the years since as hashtag activism. The phrase originated in part as a critique (similar to the dismissive idea of “armchair warriors” in wartime), but has been fully adopted by the participants in these movements as a reflection of the vital role played by social media in forming, disseminating, and amplifying their messages and actions. Without a doubt one of the most prominent and successful such hashtag activisms has been the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was created in 2012 in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing and George Zimmerman trial by three young activists: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. As Garza writes in this October 2014 herstory of the movement, everything about it was and remains deeply interconnected with and indebted to 21st century digital spaces and technologies.
Yet a quick glance at Garza’s biography at the end of that 2014 herstory piece reveals that she likewise has deep roots in and connections to more traditional labor and social activisms. She rose to prominence as the Executive Director of San Francisco’s People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), moved to her current role as Special Projects Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and has twice received the Bayard Rustin Community Activist award from San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Democratic Club for her anti-gentrification work and community organizing efforts in the city. Those roles make clear the ways that hashtag activisms have built upon and paralleled, at least as much as they have changed or contrasted with, longstanding histories of organizing and protest, and how much the two forms continue to evolve together (often with many of the same participants and leaders). And they also remind us that issues of race and ethnicity, labor and work, and neighborhood and community (among many others) are not now, as they have never been, separate spheres that require thoroughly distinct protest movements—indeed, there’s no more potent argument for intersectionality than the necessary links between such movements.
If Garza thus reflects many different forms of intersectionality, there’s one in particular that I would highlight as illustrative of her 21st century patriotism. Garza usually self-identifies, as she does in the #BlackLivesMatter herstory, as a black queer woman, and the openness and centrality to her activism of her sexuality is striking, especially in contrast to the challenges that Bayard Rustin’s sexuality posed for her participation in the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s not the historical shift that I want to emphasize, so much as the vital new activist purpose to which both her public identity and her hashtag movement connect. #BlackLivesMatter, that is, isn’t really a civil rights movement, or even a rights movement at all—it’s a movement for the recognition of all identities as equally American, human, and deserving of rights. Both Garza’s work and her own identity and life exemplify that idea, one that (as North Carolina has recently reminded us) remains far less widely shared than it should be. And that makes her a genuine and inspiring 21st century patriot.
Next patriot tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other figures you’d nominate?
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