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Behind the Dream Defenders’ “Social Media Sabbatical”

Last week, the Florida-based Dream Defenders, founded in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder, announced a six-week “social media sabbatical” from their personal and organizational Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. They promised to digitally resurface in November “with a fresh voice; one that emanates from the grassroots and is a complement to movement work, not just characters.” Two leading Dream Defenders discuss their organization’s decision.

South Florida Dream Defenders,Dream Defenders Facebook Page

Last week, the Florida-based Dream Defenders announced a six week “social media sabbatical” from their personal and organizational Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, promising to digitally resurface in November “with a fresh voice; one that emanates from the grassroots and is a complement to movement work, not just characters.”

Founded in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, the Dream Defenders’ first major action was a three-day, 40-mile march from Daytona to Sanford, where they held a sit-in at the town’s police headquarters to demand the long-awaited arrest of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. The group soared into the national spotlight just over a year later, staging a 31-day occupation of the Florida statehouse following Zimmerman’s acquittal by a grand jury. Having been organizing on the ground in Florida ever since, the Dream Defenders have emerged in the last year as a leading voice in the movement for black lives, boasting iconic branding, nearly 53,000 Twitter followers and a steady stream of interview requests from national media outlets. Explaining the blackout on their site, they wrote: “Our culture rewards folks for RTs and posting the same information, articles and snarky comments. Our profiles get more attention for talking about tragedies than they do for highlighting the work that our membership is doing day in and day out.”

To learn more, I sat down via Google Hangout with Elijah Armstrong and Rachel Gilmer. Armstrong, Dream Defenders’ Central Florida representative and a member of the group’s advisory board, grew up in Bartow, Florida. He has organized with Dream Defenders since its inception, working on campaigns against the school-to-prison pipeline and private prisons. Gilmer joined the Dream Defenders this July as chief of strategy. A long-time community organizer, she has worked extensively on issues of equity and racial justice both in her home state of Oregon and in New York City, where she previously served as associate director of the African American Policy Forum.

What has the relationship been like so far between Dream Defenders’ on-the-ground organizing and its social media presence?

Elijah: Everything from the ground has influenced our social media work. After the Capitol takeover, our social media really boomed. Out of nowhere, we had a lot of followers. That was a real undertaking. Folks came out saying we were a new voice. It was weird to go to different spaces, and the first thing people would mention would be our social media presence. After a while, it seems like social media can overshadow the work that’s being done on the ground because it’s not uplifted in the same light or held in the same regard. The on-the-ground work is the most important work we do, and we got caught up a little bit in social media. For the most part, though, I think we’ve done a good job of connecting the work that we do on social media to our base, and we make sure that it’s staying in line with that.

Rachel: As a young organizer seeing the Dream Defenders take over the Capitol was deeply inspiring and in many ways, changed my life. It was reinvigorating to see other young people out there who believe in the same things I do, who weren’t interested in accepting the status quo, who were fighting in new ways and who were building real power. It’s been a real experience coming down here and working for the Dream Defenders because most of my understanding of who they were was shaped by social media. It’s been really amazing to see on-the-ground work, which — to some extent — can be expressed over social media, but only to some extent. Sometimes we have this idea in our head that we are our social media, but it is in no way a substitute for really knowing someone, and really experiencing something.

Why a blackout?

Elijah: Right now we’re at a crucial point in our movement. A lot of folks have been using social media in a very negative manner within the movement, to make personal attacks and critiques. The way social media is going, I think that the big media is doing a good job of controlling our narrative, and we aren’t really controlling it — whether they’re taking sound bites from us, or just misrepresenting us or misquoting us. With different folks beefing on social media, it’s gotten to a point where the platform isn’t being used in the most positive light, like for political education or as a way to bond and work. It’s just being used as a way to say “You don’t do this” or “You don’t do that” or “I’ve done this” and “I’ve done that.” All these arguments that you see on social media … people have each other’s numbers, and won’t even pick up the phone to call or even text. Whole conversations will play out on social media in 140 characters, so there’s no way that you’re going to actually have a real conversation. It just further disconnects us. It’s almost become a circus, in a way, that’s really being run by big media. I think this is, first, a time to really shift people’s focus away from big media, and two, to regroup the work that we’re doing on the ground to make sure that we aren’t getting caught up in that nonsense of the back-and-forth. We really just want to take the time to continue to build with our base.

Rachel: I totally agree. Personally, I don’t have a big social media following and, to be honest, it’s not really my thing. But ever since the movement really erupted, I have started to, subconsciously, equate my worth as an organizer with my presence online. Because of this, I’ve devalued myself and told myself I’m unimportant because I don’t have a strong social media presence. I’ve actually thought of my own community organizing as less important because I don’t know how to package it and present it online. It feels like lesser work. When you look at all these lists that are generated, like “The Top 10 Youth Organizers” from our generation, they’re largely people with a strong social media presence. And that’s not to say that that’s not important, or that I don’t value that type of work. But it seems that work has been uplifted over other types of organizing. And then I have to question why I even care about those top 10 lists in the first place. Social media has completely skewed my perspective of what’s important — both fueling and draining my ego, making me feel like the center of the universe and making me feel like an absolute nobody at the same time. It’s a really sick and viscous cycle.

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Not only does social media cause trauma in this way, but it can also be an incredibly damaging way to receive information. If you look at the Sandra Bland case, for instance, all the details of her death came out one little piece of information at a time. It would flood your feed for a day, and then the next piece of the story would come out and it would flood your feed for a day. I think digesting information in this way is a form of psychological warfare: It’s traumatizing and re-traumatizing and re-traumatizing. I don’t think that people actually realize how much damage this is doing to us psychologically, especially to our young people who don’t necessarily have the tools to understand why people like them are being killed with impunity by the police.

I think being off social media is an opportunity for us to really understand how social media is impacting us, how it’s being used to manipulate us by our oppressor and how we can be intentional in understanding its limitations and what the opportunities are.

Lastly, to Elijah’s point, I think social media has created this illusion of deep relationships within the movement. You can say, “Hey fam!” on Twitter, acting like we all know each other really well. That’s not to say that we haven’t built real relationships on social media, but I also think that all the fighting that happens over social media is indicative of the fact that people really don’t know each other. Social media provides the illusion of deep relationships. So long as people don’t really know each other, the work is never going to go that far. This is doing the work of COINTELPRO in the sense that you see people calling each other out online, and you see all these rifts being created. Social media is doing that to us. Stepping back from all that is really important right now. We’re in a really critical time where all of this could actually kill the movement.

What are your plans for base-building, and the deep relationship-building work you hope to feed by stepping back from social media?

Elijah: Right now, we’re going through a process of revamping who we are, what we do and how we do it — to really get more in touch with our base because we are a membership-based organization, and membership should lead from the bottom-up, not the top-down. It’s really just about trying to rebuild and deepen relationships with our members. We’ve been doing work in these communities for a long time and we know some of the needs, but we don’t know all of them. We want to make sure that we’re adequately representing the folks that we work with. We are a part of these communities, not just random folks coming in to say that we live there. We breathe in these communities, so this work affects us as well.

As someone who’s been off social media for the last couple of days, I’ve actually had to try to remember my friends’ birthdays because that’s what Facebook does. I’ve texted and called more of my friends instead of talking to them via Facebook. It feels like I’m in 2004 again, where there’s no Myspace, and that’s cool. It’s really been helpful to me, in the sense of relationships and just with my productivity. It’s so routine to constantly check your social media. I didn’t realize how much I was depending on it. It’s only been a couple days and it’s been weird, but really liberating and awesome. It’s funny: The more connected you are on social media, the less connected it feels like you are offline. Right now, we’re just focused on being offline. I think we’re so used to being online that we’re not used to thinking about what it’s like to be fully offline and fully engaged with folks, not having anything standing in the way of that.

Rachel: A couple studies came out last year on how Facebook can literally mess with your emotions by changing what comes on your feed. It’s scary to think about the impact that could have on a movement, not only in terms of your emotional health but also in terms of strategy and how that could manipulate your understanding of issues. Social media is so much about spectacle. As a movement, we’ve been really caught up in it. We’ve done a lot of amazing tactical work.

We’ve shut stuff down, and it’s changed the world. But one of the things that we’re thinking about is how we can move beyond tactical level organizing that forces us to react to what’s been given to us, and instead, be visionary and build a strategy for how we build power and the world we want to see in the long run.

We’re preparing to launch a new initiative, called the Free Campaign, where we’re having all of our [chapters] go door-to-door and do street canvassing to talk to folks about what freedom means, and to really build relationships with the community around the basic concept of what it would look like to be free. They’re also doing intensive research projects to gain a deeper understanding of the local political and community landscape, and the history of revolutionary organizations and movements around the world and how we can embody this as the Dream Defenders. All of this will help us build a vision for Florida and a strategy for building power here, with the hopes that it will have a reverberating effect across the country.

What would an ideal, mutually reinforcing relationship between social media and on-the-ground organizing look like?

Elijah: Social media sees organizing on a very surface level, which is also, I think, a part of social media wanting you to see it on a very surface level. It helps being able to share movies and stories and actions. But that’s only a window; it’s not the whole house. I think we’ve got to be more realistic about that. Social media is not the end all be all, but it definitely does help. Like Rachel said, folks seeing us take over the Capitol was something that inspired them to continue to do more work. But social media also makes you think that if you’re not there where the social media is then you’re not doing the same amount of work. That is a huge fatal flaw. Rachel shouldn’t have seen what we did out there in Florida and wanted to come join us, which — don’t get me wrong — is cool. But she should have been more inspired to continue to do the work where she was. Last summer, everybody shouldn’t have rushed to Ferguson when Mike Brown died. There were organizers already there on the ground. Social media is the thing that showed people “doing the work” in Ferguson, but really they were just doing interviews and talking about the trauma that the police were causing. They don’t ever show the stuff that you need. A prime example is #BlackLivesMatter. Social media only takes soundbites; social media doesn’t cover your strategy meetings. It doesn’t cover all the different work that goes into the whole totality that is organizing. As organizers, we have to be mindful of that and constantly try to let folks know that they’re only seeing 10 percent of the iceberg, if that.

Rachel: The next month and a half for us organizationally and as individuals, is an opportunity to come back in November with an intentional strategy for how we will use social media: recognizing what it is, recognizing what it isn’t, and understanding how it can amplify, but not substitute the on-the-ground organizing being led by our members. It’s a time to process. When you’re on social media, your’e submersed in thousands of other people’s lives, thoughts and perspectives. What does that do for your own thinking, and your own ability to process, assesses what you believe in, and strategize for yourself and your people? Given the way that social media uplifts this idea of celebrity activism, I think it’s really important for us to step back and understand the way that it has manipulated people’s understanding of who the Dream Defenders are. How do we, organizationally, navigate this structure, understanding both its strengths for building connections and its limitations in order to really change the course for our people?

What do you think about the long-term role of social media in movement organizing?

Elijah: I’ve been thinking a lot about this song by Gil Scott Heron, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” In other words, television is an institution used to support the powers that be, so you’re not going to get the revolution through that medium. Now I see people saying the revolution won’t be televised, but it’ll be digitalized. I don’t know if that’s true. There’s a potential that it could be, but the way we’re doing it now I don’t think we’re going to get there. With the Internet being so big, if we were able to craft it and control our own narrative then maybe we could, using our own platforms. But relying on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, to me, is no different than relying on CNN, MSNBC and FOX to tell our story. Having more direct contact with these platforms doesn’t mean we have more control.

Rachel: I’d agree with everything Elijah said. I think the Internet might also be creating a sense of rugged individualism. How is it that I can Google something and Elijah can Google something and we can both get totally different results? The fact that Google can control the way information goes out creates deep discrepancies in our understanding of the way the world works. I think there’s an illusion that we control our social media because we are choosing what we put out into the world. But we must understand the way this is being manipulated so that the oppressor can’t continue to control the narrative.

[Kate Aronoff is an organizer and freelance journalist based in Philadelphia, PA. She is currently working to build a student power network across Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.]