I was eight when my grandmother threw on a Hands Across America T-shirt, grabbed my hand, and walked from her apartment to the corner of 51st and Cottage Grove in the heart of Chicago’s South Side to join hands with other strangers protesting hunger and homelessness. It was her way of reconciling her absence from the March on Washington 23 years prior, something she’d missed because, well, she had to work, and activism didn’t pay rent. Though she was never able to attend the major demonstrations, she still supported the cause however she could. Because, in her mind, it was the least she could do. “No act is too big, or too small,” she’d tell me.
My grandmother was a teen mom and a high school dropout who left Pittsburgh, PA, in search of something bigger than herself. I don’t know if she found it. I’d like to think at some point, she did. The impromptu history lessons she’d give me in the darkness of her living room as we’d wait out thunderstorms (and the occasional power outage) make me believe she’d at least come close. I learned about Martin, Malcolm, and JFK at her knee; knew what the Cuban Missile Crisis was before I mastered tying my own shoes.
We tend to think of activism as an “all-in” sort of affair where one eats, sleeps, and shits the struggle. If you don’t live up to this romanticized notion, you’re a fraud. In reality, many of the people fighting for basic things like access to clean water, good schools, and affordable housing are, in fact, people with lives and families and other responsibilities. A lot of folks don’t have the luxury of taking off from work. They, like my grandmother (and my mother), helped the best they could. I’m sure, had Twitter been around back then, they would’ve been hashtagging up a storm. (Or at least making ME do it on their behalf. Old folks and technology, you know.)
Much has been said about hashtag activism, and most of it hasn’t been good. Or nuanced. Critics tend to believe that most hashtags are more about career building and less about actual activism. While that may be the case for a few, hashtag activism allows folks who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate the chance to join the conversation, to build with likeminded people from various parts of the world. People with social anxiety disorders. People with physical disabilities. People, again, like the women in my family who relied on low-wage jobs to provide for their households.
Anyone who’s still denying the power of hashtags need only look to #MikeBrown and #Ferguson to see how a handful of characters can motivate people to action. In the weeks since the murder, people all over the world have rallied behind the beleaguered Midwestern town, from donating supplies, to joining the front lines themselves. When writer Feminista Jones started the #NMOS14 tag, cities across the country stood in solidarity to remember a life taken too soon. It can even help overthrow governments, despite what pundits may tell you. (Note that many critics denouncing the method are doing so on sites enjoying sizable followings themselves.)
Every MoveOn petition you sign, every retweet of a hashtag is action. It counts. Anyone still denying that after what the entire world witnessed in Ferguson, MO, is either out of touch or has an agenda of their own.