Meditating on the First Amendment

The intersectional nature of traumatic events tends to be covered in ways that are surface-level and glazed over. A pandemic that disproportionately impacts oppressed groups interacts complexly with protests that fight much more visible forms of racism. Meanwhile, at Twitter HQ, 2,900 miles away from my school, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, wields his immense power to fight the President – and misinformation – minimally, but also (somehow) novelly. How are we supposed to make sense of the President of the United States claiming that Twitter is violating his First Amendment rights while citizens and journalists are incarcerated, shot at, and gassed in protests? How do we understand what it means for a CEO of English, Irish, and Italian descent1 to have such an undemocratically disproportionate voice at the precipice of upheaval in a movement that’s fighting for Black lives?

This week I learned about the beauty in the structure of the First Amendment, and how the assumptions of this eminent amendment affect oppressed groups in a democratic society.

The Lyricism of the First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

“The order of the words in the First Amendment [outline] the life cycle of a Democratic idea.” 2

The first two clauses “create a free space inside your mind to think and believe as you wish.” They create a space for the seeds of an idea to be sown.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

The third clause allows this thought to flower: “once you’ve believed and thought something, then then it’s natural for you to want to say it.”

…or abridging the freedom of speech…

The fourth acknowledges individuals need not only speech but also reach. “If you really want to make a real dent in a society…you need some way to be able to speak to a mass of people. To speak in a very loud voice.”

…or of the press…

Fifth: “Once you’ve gotten your message out to a large number of people, when people have listened to these ideas and moved by them, it’s natural for those people to want to do something about it. To move together, to organize.”

…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…

Finally flowered, the movement, grown from that seed of an idea, is brought to the government.

…and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Of course, this democratic process is subject to several assumptions of the powerful white men that outlined it. Namely:

The first two clauses assume the sacred space saved to sow the seeds of a societal shift is itself clear. It’s not encumbered by poverty, intergenerational stressors, trauma, scarcity, systemic oppression, or violence.

The third clause assumes that you believe it’s safe to share what you believe and that you can do so privately and securely. Centralized corporations don’t mediate the very fabric of conversation by designing spaces for “engagement.” The government doesn’t spy on what you share to perform “counter-terrorist” actions. Sharing what you believe won’t result in violence against you.

The fourth assumes that you can gain access to the outlets that may share your idea and that there are no systemic barriers that prevent you from doing so. The algorithms that control the reach of your speech are unbiased against your identity markers. Traditional media doesn’t perpetuate racism.

Assumed in the fifth is that the state’s monopoly on violence will not be used against your peaceful assembly.

And, finally, the sixth’s assumption is that the idea will have demands that the government can address. It also assumes that the core democratic mechanism – voting – is accessible to all and is used to hold those in power accountable. It assumes that those in power in a democratic society…actually believe in democratic ideals.

It goes without saying that these assumptions are fundamentally flawed.

The Rebel Archive

When people feel like the system is rigged, that they want justice, that they are unheard or unimportant, they find new ways of expressing their experience, of sharing their outrage.

When Kelly Lytle Hernández was researching the history of mass incarceration in Los Angeles for City of Inmates, she “quickly discovered that an archival void blankets much of the history.” The history of violent policing was not only neglected, but destroyed (emphasis mine):

Sometime after Edward Escobar conducted research for his influential study, Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Depart­ment, 1900–1945, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as well as the L.A. City Archives destroyed all but four boxes of the LAPD’s historical records. Similarly, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) either does not have or will not share its records. The California Public Records Act exempts the state’s police forces from archiving most of the records they create. Therefore, the core institutional records related to the history of filling and managing the jails of Los Angeles are unavailable for public inquiry. But I was confident that the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles could not be so easily erased.

[pg. 3]

Out of necessity, Lytle Hernández decided that instead of going to the state to examine its faults, she would go to the rebels:

Many people fought the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles. They were an eclectic bunch, including the incarcerated as well as journalists, musicians, migrants, mothers, and many others. They, too, left records. In fact, rebels and their many struggles with incarceration clog the historical record. The words and deeds of dissidents constitute what I call a “rebel archive” that evaded LAPD and LASD destruction. Comprised mostly of broken locks, secret codes, handbills, scribbled manifestos, and songs, the rebel archive found refuge in far-flung boxes and obscure remnants. But it also thrives in plain sight. The rebels’ words thundered in the halls of the U.S. Congress, their resistance forced the U.S. Supreme Court to issue emergency rulings, and their rebellions broke across bars and borders, changing the world in which we live…I collected every scribble, song, and ember I could find.

[pg. 4]

As it turns out, when you move beyond the arbitrary belief that reputable knowledge can only be created by the powerful and their institutions, you learn a lot more about the world. Let’s examine some of the rebel archive.

The songs chosen below were heavily influenced by the suggestions of my good friend and colleague, Isiah Cash, who has always done an incredible job being introspective and has always been gracious when I ask for a favor. If you’d like to listen along, I created an Apple Music playlist with these songs.

Clauses 1 and 2: A Seed in the Mind

Clause 3: Speaking Up

Clause 4: Speaking Louder

Clause 5: Assembly

Clause 6: Addressing the Government

Epilogue: Necropolitics

When we take the time to listen, we make the most of the rebel archive – we learn that charging the police officers complicit in the murder of George Floyd has the luster of justice, but none of the substance.

The Revolution Is Being Tweeted

If the rebel archive has always held the knowledge, and we’ve had the movers and shakers to advocate for this knowledge, but we’re only now at a point of reckoning, then we haven’t been listening.

Sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduced the notion of the danger of a single story to the world, she had a point to make: when we believe that one story defines a person or a group, we inherently dehumanize them; we cut out the nuance and perform a favor for cultural inertia and social efficiency. Without striving for sonder, we default to dichotomy as a framework for understanding, ending up with images printed in black and white instead of color.

I recently was considering the role of social media in a modern revolution – discussing it with several others, who had strong takes on the Internet’s role in an uprising. During these discussions, I recalled an article assigned to me in 12th grade: Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 New Yorker piece “Small Change.” In the deck, Gladwell proclaims that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” His thesis, ultimately, is that the Internet is good at spurring action – if that action is low-risk and very easily done. Gladwell picks apart the claims that early Twitter was instrumental in organizing uprisings in Moldova and Iran, claiming that “high-risk activism…is a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon.” In other words, Gladwell suggests that close-knit communities are what enable protestors’ resilience in the face of terrifying situations.

What Gladwell didn’t anticipate was that the deep polarization of Americans, aided by systemic disinformation, has led to tighter-knit communities online3. Disinformation is a key vector for attacks on democracy, but it also enables the formation of virtual strong-tie communities – communities that then become hierarchical and can affect change, whether that change is good or bad.

Beyond this fact, I have to say that most people I talked to about “Small Change” misunderstood Gladwell’s key thrust – that social media is bad at systematic organizing. In this thesis, I see shades of grey: of course, social platforms can be used as a utility for organizing hierarchical teams – Facebook groups, Instagram DMs, and Subreddits can be just as effective at organizing as the NAACP was (as Gladwell suggests), but that is certainly not what these platforms are designed for. They were, in fact, designed for the opposite.

Towards the end of the article, Gladwell concludes that social media “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” I get it, but it’s an odd claim to make, considering he spent the rest of the article simply distinguishing what social media is and isn’t good for. Activists’ online expression probably doesn’t directly lead to high-risk activism4 because this expression doesn’t create strong ties, but it probably does amplify disseminated information when information is already coordinated by a centralized organizer.

In Scaling Social Movements Through Social Media: The Case of Black Lives Matter, Mundt et al. provide a seemingly dissenting opinion. They suggest that social media, in the case of Black Lives Matter, provides opportunities for strong growth in activist groups. Ultimately, I don’t think this is mutually exclusive with Gladwell’s conclusion. Social media is a tool. Activists will use it, but so will their detractors…whoever understands the platforms better will have an advantage, as long as the platforms continue to be designed to amplify voices.

Here, it makes sense to conclude that expression on social media creates a more readable rebel archive. Online virality encourages shocking and unintuitive information to be shared, especially in a polarized political environment5. In a sense, social media has given a megaphone to the rebel archive, and maybe that’s why it feels like social media has played such a critical role in the BLM movement, which was designed to be nebulous and decentralized. This, again, can be either good or bad, but it is ultimately safe to say that social media has the power to elevate – or silence – voices.

Circling Back

The fact that social media has become the visible, viral rebel archive is important for the future of activism. What is seen and what is not seen will directly influence the ways that organizing institutions fight for their ideals. In this look at current events through the First Amendment, it’s important to question where power is isolated and how this isolation affects freedom of speech. What if the tech giants were monopolies, but didn’t have idealistic executives to at least put on the façade of a benevolent dictatorship? As we work on questioning policing as a racist, institutionalized kernel of power, we also need to look at the other places power is concentrated, and begin to dismantle the racist and oppressive practices in those institutions as well.

Thanks

Special thanks to my mom, Beth, and sister, Emma for copy editing and peer reviewing this piece multiple times before posting here. They expanded and clarified my thought greatly, especially given the frenetic nature of this piece.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Dorsey?wprov=sfti1
  2. Below, I’ll be referring to the interview with Burt Neuborne from WNYC’s More Perfect: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolabmoreperfect/episodes/most-perfect-album-episode-one-first-second-third-amendments
  3. The NYT’s series Rabbit Hole examines one key case of the tightening of communities around coordinated disinformation – unpacking the tangled web that is Pizzagate, QAnon, and the Christchurch shooting.
  4. This is a point that I’ve really struggled to come to a conclusion on. I tend to agree with Gladwell’s argument and intuition, but people I’ve talked to have given me resources that try to argue the opposite is true. However, on the whole, I think that the literature suggests that strong-tie activism is not a direct product of social media…though social media can facilitate communication between those with strong ties. A comprehensive article that provides a dissenting opinion lives here if you are interested.
  5. Casey Newton’s analysis of the spread of the “Plandemic” disinformation video is a case study of this phenomenon.