by Victoria Jones
“You will not be able to stay home, brother,
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out...
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers,
The revolution will be live.”
I listened to Gil Scott-Heron’s words emanate from my car speaker one sunny morning as the George Floyd protests crashed over the country like a tsunami that had been building for decades.
The revolution Scott-Heron was speaking about nearly half a century ago seemed to be the same revolution I was witnessing today—or was it? The Civil Rights Movement was a battle of radio and television; George Floyd’s name and his plaintive cry of “I Can’t Breathe” slingshotted across Facebook and Instagram. Scott-Heron himself later reminded us that his lyrics weren’t only about the role of media in social movements, but about finding revolution within oneself. But has our modern media landscape changed the fight for racial justice both within our minds and our communities?
To find out, I sat down with Allen Linton. Allen is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago, specializing in American politics with a concentration in youth politics, new/social media, and local political participation. He is also the Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, the 2020-21 Curator for the Chicago Global Shapers, and was a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth & Participatory Politics, coordinating the Black Youth Project Digital Research Chicago Team for the Educating for Participatory Politics project. In practice, he uses an antiracist approach and equity lens to support more underrepresented communities in gaining access to academia and equipping them to thrive in their environments. His political commentary has been featured on WGN-TV and in the Chicago Tribune.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
VJ: How do you relate the lyrics of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to everything that’s been going on? Do they still hold still true, or how do they apply to our present moment?
AL: I certainly think that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is as true today—even with the affordances of new and social media—as it was at the time when Gil Scott-Heron put this together. Social media has been a game changer for organizers and the revolutionaries. Everyone has a voice, everyone has a platform, and everyone’s already within the network and the ecosystem. You don’t need to get through an editor to get your call on air or to get your op-ed read; you put a hashtag out there with a tweet or a post on Instagram, and that thing can catch fire in its own organic way. So from that standpoint, the tools are new.
But understand that for the types of change that we’ve always wanted, the big obstacle is getting other people to care. And television is still the go-to medium for a range of people across race, certainly across age gaps and generational gaps. Television is the ground zero for determining how narratives are formed and shaped, what is valuable versus not in terms of news, and ultimately, it’s where the stakes of building collective consciousness happen. It’s on TV, and it’s on live TV.
With everything that’s happening, one of the things I think about is Not in Our Lifetimes; it’s a book by Michael Dawson. Something he talks about is dating back to Hurricane Katrina and the election of Barack Obama and why there was still—after a certain period of time—such pessimism among Black people that racial equality would come. And one of the reasons why is the difficulty of maintaining these topics in the national consciousness. You have communities of color and mainstream white communities that feel differently about the topics at hand, in terms of public opinion, let alone whether they should be covered in a national way. One of the obstacles is how do you get people to care today, and then how do you get them to keep caring several weeks from now, when you traditionally don’t have the same avenues and access to TV or mainstream media more generally.
And so for me, it’s not just the organizing that has kept the spotlight, but the fact that the video of George Floyd being murdered was played over and over on national television. And then people came together, and that became a story to cover day after day. How they came together, how they chose to organize, frankly the accountability that you start to see—because remember the video that we get of George Floyd’s death is not from an officer body cam, that’s from bystanders—that piece is different. But where the video gets elevated and how it enters and is sustained in the national consciousness, that is still through television. And that part is consistent from, hell, back in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. The brutality of policing and Jim Crow and, frankly, just overt racism, it was there. But it wasn’t until people saw the dogs and the hoses being used that they realized, “Oh, what the hell is going on in our country, this is a problem.” It’s the same kind of thing happening today.
VJ: What are your thoughts on performative activism or “slacktivism”—like what was happening around Blackout Tuesday?
AL: There’s a lot there to unpack. There has always been and will always be various types of actors in what we could call “revolutionary change,” certainly a rejection in the status quo and a push to fundamentally alter the norms that we have. And I think we as a people, and sometimes the people that came before us, can misremember how active everyone was in these movements.
There are always people that are going to be on the ground. But not everyone’s on the ground. Most people aren’t. There is a role for people to elevate the voices that are on the ground; there’s a role of information sharing on where things are happening, what things are happening; there’s a role in providing support and aid and comfort for people that are processing this. Of the voting eligible population, half the people don’t vote, more or less. So it’s not as if we exist in a place where everyone’s doing all this stuff except when we get to protesting, then it’s a select few.
Five or six years ago, companies would actively avoid statements about social issues like Black Lives Matter (BLM) or police brutality. Whereas today, you stand out if you haven’t commented on this. But something that hasn’t changed—and it sounds kind of basic to say—is that the jobs of organizers and activists are hard. It is a skill to be an organizer, it is a skill to be an activist. You may wake up and want to be one of these things, but to do it and to do it well, requires a skill set in the same way as becoming a great public speaker or a great manager or an entrepreneur.
When you look at what happened with Blackout Tuesday, if you’re not clued in, then you don’t appreciate that there’s an aggregation of information attached to this hashtag. And so your desire to make sure that this issue is elevated on these platforms is running into a tactical problem, which is impacting people doing more work on the ground that rely on this channel to sustain the movement. And I think that’s where you get the tension. The tension is not “we don’t want you to be here,” it’s more, if you’re gonna be here, don’t consult with others to the point where your good intentions have interrupted a lot of infrastructure and, potentially, the tactics, the strategy.
Then there is the final piece: there are people that do this for performance, for likes, for clicks. Because they have to do it, because it’s the hot topic. And those folks are kind of in the way, in a very direct sense, of “are you here because you want to be here, because this is important, or are you here because this is where the eyeballs are? Does your organization usually care about these topics, or is your organization here because the money and the foundations are here, because the TV cameras are here?”
And I think that is a very real question, because protests can be a lot of things. They can be cathartic; they can be places where people are angry; they can be the only places where people find hope. It can be a safe space; it can be an expression of kind of years and generations of being ignored, finally let go. It’s also a place that you see where people are smiling and taking pictures and kind of being joyous, and that can be either a good thing or it could be “this isn’t a parade, this is a protest.” This is an event about, fundamentally, some real messed up stuff. It’s not a celebration; it’s about a demand, several demands, a call for action.
VJ: How was momentum during the Civil Rights Movement maintained? Does social media’s instant or fleeting nature play a role in the sustainability of these movements? Or in sparking the collective to care about them?
AL: There’s a lot of big differences between this current movement and the Civil Rights Movement. The biggest, more than anything else is that the entire environment for people is so different, in terms of communication. Not just news, and here I want to emphasize, the information landscape is wildly different. For one, think about the 50s and 60s; here’s a time where the access to entertainment and news is much more restricted. TV is relatively new at this point in time. There isn’t a whole set of cable channels. There’s no internet, there’s no unplugging and just doing your own thing. There’s no 24 hour anything back then. More people read the newspaper and listened to the same types of things, simply because there weren’t as many options there as there are today. And so I think there was a greater sense of, “this is a collective moment;” that happened, again, through a lot of organizing. The story of our heroes, many of them whitewashed, like Dr. King, or ignored altogether, like a lot of the Black women in the Civil Rights Movement such as Ella Baker—they don’t get any kind of attention, but they did a lot of work, as did the institutions across many states. The church had a role as a safe haven but also an organizing space. There was lots of work and action, over and over again, to bring attention to this.
When you look at today, we’re living in a notable moment, but it can't be forgotten that this issue isn’t an especially new one. Furthermore, BLM itself has been around for six years. But if you look at what was the confluence of this moment, you can't take it away from COVID-19. We were in a time where people had been apart and experiencing more or less the same type of thing. Mainly, no one could be anywhere. You have more time. There are no sports, no concerts to plug into; the same types of things we’d regularly be reaching for or consuming were not there. So then you have this incident, amid economic turmoil that’s affecting communities of color more than white communities, and you have an election year with an incumbent president who at best traffics in white supremacist language and at worst is simply an unchecked racist sexist misogynist dinosaur. You have all these tensions stoked, and then this video comes out. More people are able to watch the video and not escape it than they could’ve six months ago. And I think then you have this anger that is fresh because, here’s another reality that we have to contend with, people need the visuals, especially when you’re confronting deeply held values and feelings, like those surrounding the police.
You have a community of people who've said “your experience with police is not my experience with police, and we have a lot of systemic issues.” And when those things are denied, and then you slap a video that’s 10 minutes long, and 8 minutes and around 40 seconds of that video is a person being murdered right in front of you, that’s hard to look away from. You have to sit with, “ok what do i do with this?” And then you learn that this was the norm. Remember, this was coming off of Memorial Day weekend when the Amy Cooper video came out in New York. This is coming off the reveal of the Ahmaud Arbery murder. This is coming on the heels of Breonna Taylor, who was in her home sleeping—again, happened months before we learned about it.
I think for a community that’s been disproportionately impacted by the financial crisis of COVID-19 and an American public that is unable to look away, it becomes the thing that we have to reckon with. And race is always a controversial thing to reckon with, and we do a pretty piss poor job in this country of doing it. But it’s here in front of us, and then you get a wave of reaction.
VJ: BLM is intentionally more grassroots rather than focusing on particular leaders. How does this approach influence the movement?
AL: It represents a fundamental shift in how we think about organizing from older generations. It’s kind of interesting that we’re talking today…50 or 60 years ago to the day that Medgar Evers was assassinated. I only bring that up because, if you look at the faces of movements of generations before, people like Medgar Evers or Malcolm X or Dr. King, there’s a long history of Black organizers that were killed before 40 years old, fighting for freedom.
But it also represents a different era from now. BLM’s founders, Patrisse, Alicia, and Opal—they represent that this is not about a singular person or a singular voice; it’s about millions of voices and millions of people. Leaders in the past have perpetuated many -isms and ceilings, even while organizing within communities of color. You had singular male voices, without as much attention to the role of women. Do they have to be straight or cisgender people? What is the intersectionality of the organizing that is happening? With a diversity of people, you see a change in leadership; there doesn’t need to be one voice because the relationships to the institutions that are around can be different. What about a larger international voice or international communities within BLM? It’s not just Black Americans. These issues cut across a lot of different groups.
The goal is to empower those groups to be the voice and leadership in a more horizontal structure. It’s tough, because historically we’re used to, if I want to know about x, I will reach out to this person, and they will give me the policy positions, the rousing speech, they’ll do all the media shows and events. It’s also then harder to wrangle if you’re an institution of power when there is no singular leader. It’s a communal voice that’s speaking loudly and organizing specifically in the locales that they’re in. And so I think that learning the mistakes of previous organizers, who had narrower visions of who could be a leader and what leadership looks like, allows for a more robust and wide-ranging set of voices that can champion these issues more broadly.
VJ: What is history’s role in this moment and in current social movements? Where does it fit in?
AL: I think we can learn a lot of lessons from history. I talk about this concept “the reservoir of trust.” And historically, based on how we understand and think about perceptions of police, of policing, of good and bad people...police have a reservoir of trust that seems to be limitless. And I think we need to learn from history that police have historically lied and manipulated the truth and the narrative, and that is part of the problem. When you look up the original reporting of the incident involving George Floyd, look at the way it’s written up by police and then look at the video. It’s not the same thing. When you look at the incident report involving Breonna Taylor and it lists injuries and it says “none,” and we know that she was shot eight times in her home, we’ve got a problem here. If you look up how the Laquan McDonald story here in Chicago was reported, and then the video came out, those were not the same incidents. For me, that says we should learn to be skeptical. And we haven’t learned that lesson at all. And that’s the thing I think history can teach us.
There’s a lot of stuff here on top of the historical inequitable policing of Black and Brown communities. We’re having our biannual conversation about what to do about the Confederate flag and Confederate statues and Confederacy-named things. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, why did these places build statues for confederate leaders and not abolitionists? History gives us a lot of symbols and touch points for things that are happening today. Rarely are things decidedly new. And so maybe it’s not just “If we don’t learn history we’re damned to repeat it” but something more tangible like “If we don’t reconcile what our history is, then we’ll never be able to identify solutions for these present problems.”
History, I think, has a landscape to suggest that these aren’t a few bad apples. This isn’t just a new development in the last five years. This isn’t really new to the Trump administration—racial animus being stoked. And I think the role of history there can be to enlighten people, in an accurate portrayal of the extent to which these types of inequalities have done systemic and total damage to, in this case, Black people, but communities of color more generally. And so I think history is crucial in contextualizing, but also it’s something we’re fighting about because of complaints that “we’re not telling an accurate or full history, we’re telling a partial history.” Indigenous communities are almost entirely left out of history textbooks in schools. We’re now having a fight about, “do schools talk about slavery?" That’s a pretty notable thing. The number of people who learned from Watchmen or something else about the burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa. The number of people that are learning about the history of slavery through Ava Duvernay’s 13th documentary. These things aren’t new. And I’m happy that folks are learning about them today. But if we’re still doing states’ rights versus not states’ rights when talking about the Civil War, if we’re talking about slavery as “well they provided shelter and food to these people,” then I think that the manipulation and not reconciling of history will continue.
And this is how you get MLK, America’s favorite nonviolent unifier, and we forget that he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and was murdered before he was 40 years old. For everyone that brings up the “I Have a Dream” speech, it has to be included that the things MLK was talking about back in the 1960s are in many ways the exact things we are talking and fighting about today. And that should be troubling for people. I want people to read MLK, and I want to remind them that there are other great leaders that they can learn from and other organizers and institutions; but do understand that every time you bring out MLK, it is a reminder that he died fighting for the exact same stuff that we’re fighting for. And it’s as relevant today as it was then.
So that’s what I’ll say about history—that it’s crucial because we can see the signposts. But we also don’t get an accurate understanding because history is loaded with—and I would argue corrupted by—symbolism. Patriotic, national symbols. The flag, unity, us, strength, Nixonian law and order. These things become symbols, rhetoric, dogma; and if we don’t understand the context in which they occur, then we definitely do risk trivializing and then repeating the error of our ways.
These things are happening, but months later, when the video isn’t in front of you, what action is being done? That, for me, is going to be the telltale sign of how this will be different, or if this will be more of the same. What action is taken when the videos, and things open up more, and there’s more entertainment? Are people going to treat racial injustice and racial inequality with the same attention as they treat tax policy, or healthcare, or even environmental concerns? Is racial injustice going to be up there? Or is it going to be relegated to a secondary more specific community concern and “not all of our concern?”
What I can’t say is how sustainable this is. I can say that it feels different. When I look at the cities and people that have been protesting, it’s not just people of color out there, and that feels different. And we know from political science and polling that the sometimes made fun of “white liberal,” the young white liberal, is more active and engaged and concerned about issues of inequality than any other time in the nation’s history. Those feel like significant changes. When I talk to my mom—I'm 31 now, she’s 64—she says, yeah this feels different. But so did ‘64, so did ‘66 in and around Cleveland, so did '67, so did '80 in Miami, so did ‘92 in Los Angeles. Like she can go down the line. And I can pick up and say, yeah so did Ferguson and so did this. And yet here we are. So I hope it’s different—I want to hope it’s different, but I can’t point to history and say that it will be.