Using tech to uproot systemic racism

Rejecting the backlash against hashtag activism, Brittany Packnett defended the work of the armchair activists on Twitter and other social media who have brought needed attention to social justice issues.

Set against a backdrop in which just last week another young black kid was shot and killed by police, Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero, defended the use of social media like Twitter and affirmed its ability to influence legislation and have a profound affect on social justice movements.

“We call it Campaign Zero because we believe we can live in a world where police don’t kill people,” says Packnett of the organization’s mission. “It is perfectly possible to have the police not kill anybody.”

And social media activism is an important component of making that vision a reality, says Packnett.

“If protest is the act of telling the truth out loud, in public, there are lots of ways you can take the spirit of protest anywhere,” Packnett says. “We need every single tool we have at our disposal to win this thing.”

For that reason, Packnett rejects the notion that folks can’t help bend the arc of history toward justice even from the comfort of their couches. “You helped Ferguson be the most-used hashtag in 10 years of Twitter… we need people who couldn’t necessarily get up off of the couch to do that.”

And hashtag activism gets real results, according to Packnett. “Hashtag activism has gotten folks fired and hashtag activism has gotten folks charged… hashtag activism has gotten laws changed.”

Still, the whole point of Campaign Zero is to make local activism as easy as possible. The organization is a focal point and a resource for presenting platforms for social change that can be taken to local legislators.

It’s about empowerment and it’s about using the new technological tools to tackle an old problem. “Police violence is not a new problem,” Packnett notes. “Black bodies were never served or protected… they were always controlled.”

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It’s also important to place this history of police violence in the broader context of social injustice. Packnett calls it a branch on a larger tree that is rooted in systemic racism and oppression.

“Our mission is not to break off one particular branch of the system. It’s to uproot the entire tree.”

That mission became clear to Packnett in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Mo. It was in the protests that followed in that small Missouri town that the resistance movement was formed (primarily through online activism).

“The first venture was the Ferguson Protest newsletter,” she said. “We had 16,000 subscribers worldwide in just a couple of weeks.”

Indeed, technology and tech companies have a crucial role to play, not just in disseminating information but in becoming new exemplars of how American culture can change.

Tech companies have a responsibility to hold themselves up to the high standards that they espouse, says Packnett. She called for tech companies to not just tout their diversity numbers when those employees are only filing the most junior positions at those businesses. Instead, companies should be looking to have diverse hires take on more senior roles.

“What if everything you did was devoted to a sense of equity?” Packnett asked of the industry.

In an industry that claims to be different from the rest of the world, in an industry that looks to change the way the world works, Packnett issued a challenge to change its own practices.

Industries aren’t transformative unless they can actually transform themselves, and that includes not just boasting of diversity in hiring when everyone is working in junior positions. The industry should bring more people on in senior roles, said Packnett. “That’s the kind of commitment we’re looking for from the tech industry.”