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Last week, a clip from the popular culture talk show The Real went viral on Twitter. The segment, entitled “Tik Tok Lockdown,” was a discussion among the four hosts about how many incarcerated people have created Tik Tok accounts using contraband cell phones to document the realities of life in prison. The hosts of The Real discussed the pros and cons of these platforms: “Some people think that because phones are considered contraband that they shouldn’t be doing it,” one woman remarked. “But others think it helps combat the stereotypes associated with incarceration.” On Leftist Twitter, it seemed many had a third opinion: that not only should people in prison have the right to basic needs like a phone, but using social media to document the cruel realities of life behind bars is a brave and necessary feat, especially when mainstream media often shows a watered down version of the horrors behind the prison industrial complex.
Many incarcerated folks have turned to Tik Tok for a sense of entertainment or human connection with the outside world. But their videos also serve as investigations, uncovering the varied ways the state has neglected them: moldy food served, sparse outdoor time, cramped living conditions, and the like. Several Tik Toks show the lengths that people living in prison must go to in order to have their basic needs met: in some videos, incarcerated men cook their food with bed frames turned into hot plates or lighting fixtures wired up to boil water, risking electrocution for a proper meal. Though incarcerated people were using Tik Tok and other social platforms like Twitter to document their lives before 2020, many of these accounts have grown in popularity since George Floyd’s death in June, with more of the American population asking crucial questions about the ethics of policing and prisons. On Twitter, accounts run by incarcerated folks like @RailroadUnderg1 and @Kevodeep1 have garnered thousands of followers by tweeting about their lived experiences and how they’re organizing for abolition on the inside.
Though the hosts of The Real refused to take them seriously, the people behind these Tik Tok and Twitter accounts are performing two vital social services, serving as both political educators and incarcerated journalists by educating and informing the general public on topics that most schools or mainstream media outlets refuse to discuss. When we hear the term “education,” a Tik Tok video is not the first image that would come to most people’s minds. This is in part a valid association, but it’s also due to elitism: in the West and in America especially, we are taught to value the sort of learning that takes place in a classroom over any lessons learned through the lived experiences of members in our community. But the fact remains that without this Tik Tok journalism, many Americans would have no idea the lengths to which people in prison must go to eat a proper meal. The rise of educators on Twitter and Tik Tok throughout 2020 illustrates that although America ranks among the most educated nations in some respects, with more people completing high school and college here than in many other countries, it’s abundance of formal education is also met with a stark gap in political education, or knowledge about labor movements, the history of racialized criminalization, and anti-capitalist economic and social frameworks. Because these issues are normally vilified or deemed taboo, they are almost always taught outside of a traditional classroom. In the 21st Century, this means that incarcerated storytellers and political educators must often disseminate this information on the internet and over social media.
Many political educators use social media to reach the masses outside of prison as well. Deana Ayers, the political education coordinator with Black Visions in Minneapolis, says the internet has been crucial to their work this year. Over the summer, Ayers begun compiling a city-wide resource called “Abolition 101” that explained concepts like abolition, transformative justice, and accountability for people who had never encountered these ideas before. The guide also provides scripts to readers who might want to begin conversations with a parent or friend about abolition or anti capitalism but are unsure where to start.
“Recently I’ve done a lot of informal webinars so we can talk about things like community-led safety that does not involve the police,” Ayers said. “We can unpack what this actually means, what this looks like in a community, or on a hyper-local scale. It’s nice because even though we can’t all physically gather, we can still all do the readings and participate in these important conversations.”
Informational webinars and clear and easily accessible guides like Ayers’ “Abolition 101” are crucial in combating misinformation about anti capitalist frameworks that are often perpetuated in mainstream media. For example, as the Black Lives Matter protests took off in June, many news outlets like Brookings and CNN published guides on the meaning behind and real-life applications of the term “defund the police.” While a helpful idea in theory, many of these “explanatory” guides only served to further a reformist agenda, squash progressive policies, and water down the movement to end policing in America. Most abolitionists agree that the terms “defund the police” and “abolish the police” are synonymous: both agendas aim to strip police forces of their budget, giving this money to public sectors such as housing and education, while simultaneously destroying our current criminal justice system and creating a radical new version of community safety that does not rely on punishment or incarceration. (In her June 12th op-ed in The New York Times, prominent abolitionist activist Mariame Kaba said plainly: “Enough. We can’t reform the police. The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.”) This is not, however, the definition that most Americans would have learned if they were reading mainstream news outlets in June: on June 15th, CNBC reported that activists merely want cities to stop increasing police budgets each year. And June 19th reporting from Brookings insisted that “defund does not mean abolish policing. And, even some who say abolish, do not necessarily mean to do away with law enforcement altogether. Rather, they want to see the rotten trees of policing chopped down and fresh roots replanted anew.” Though mainstream media produced these guides under the guise of a helpful explainer, these articles only served to further sew confusion among the public and deter people who had not been previously exposed to issues like abolition from learning what these concepts can actually look like. These gross miscommunications illustrate the grave need for political education: though most reporters in the United States are college educated, they are still clearly not well-read enough to be explaining abolition to the masses.
Twitter and Tik Tok are further relevant sources of political education because issues like police violence or abolition are rarely mentioned in most public school curriculum, and many schools use extremely regressive frameworks to teach about race or America’s history of racial violence. In 2015, for example, The Washington Post reported that a McGraw-Hill World Geography textbook read that the mid-19th Century “brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations,” without once mentioning the trans Atlantic slavery trade or even using the word “slavery.” In 2018, a Texas school teacher asked students to list the “positive” aspects of slavery. And in 2019, school officials in Maplewood, New Jersey allowed white students to “sell” their Black classmates as part of a mock slave auction during History class. Many abolitionist educators and organizers today see the current movement to abolish police and prisons as a continuation of 19th Century slave rebellions to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This clearly does not coincide with the agenda of most US public schools if these institutions still refuse to print the word “slavery” in textbooks or are making light of slave auctions. Private American colleges are also known to teach a warped history of race as well as perpetuate racism and gentrification as institutions: The University of Chicago is known for arresting non-white Chicago residents on the city’s South Side at alarming rates, for example, while earlier this year Princeton University was under investigation by the Department of Education due to institutional racism. Formal education, and particularly a college education, is a privilege, and often a necessary step to obtaining financial stability in America. But despite the economic and social benefits of a college degree, when it comes to studying or organizing towards anti capitalism, a university-level degree often becomes less relevant.
Reina Sultan, a journalist and abolitionist organizer based in Brooklyn, knows the limits of a formal education in politics first hand. Though she studied politics in college, she told me she didn’t truly develop her political vision until after she graduated. “I think that many universities are just liberal breeding grounds,” she said. “What I mean is that they portray a certain narrative of the world that upholds the status quo created by rich, cishet white men. I wasn’t learning about the revolutionaries that challenged the colonial powers—I was learning about the colonial powers. That wasn’t what I needed to know.”
For Sultan, Twitter was crucial in shaping her current politics. “As I was on Twitter, I began following more radical accounts,” she recalled. “It became clear that the liberal politic I’d had wasn’t going to lead to anyone’s liberation. I began following more accounts that talked about anti-capitalism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy. That’s where it all began basically!”
In late May 2020, Sultan was one of many organizers who created the #8toabolition campaign, an 8-step guide to abolishing police and prisons in America and building towards community-led safety. The ten organizers in charge of this campaign lived in different cities across the US and relied on the internet entirely for communication, creation, and distribution of their ideas. #8toabolition was created in response to #8can’twait, an earlier May 2020 project made by Campaign Zero, a Black-led research facility co-founded by prominent civil rights activist Deray Mckesson. The #8can’twait campaign, which describes itself as a “campaign to bring immediate change to police departments” on the homepage of it’s website, calls for several reforms to policing such as banning chokeholds and requiring officers to warn before shooting anyone. The campaign frustrated many radical organizers who believe that the police are beyond reform and that we should be calling for abolition instead. The #8toabolition team created a campaign that not only highlighted these frustrations but made alternatives to policing easily understandable and accessible to the public. In addition to the campaign’s eight tenets, which begin with defunding the police and end with investing in “care, not cops”, #8toabolition’s website provides crucial information on police violence, resources to learn more about divesting from police, and models of radical organizations that provide communities with essential goods like housing and food without relying on police for safety. The #8toabolition campaign quickly went viral, and after more people were educated on the importance of community-led safety strategies, the #8can’twait team added abolition as one of the goals on their website.
“I got messages from folks who had never heard of abolition who said this finally made it digestible to them,” Sultan said of the campaign’s success. “It was amazing because our work was just distilling a small portion of the work of Black theorists into a graphic and some bullet points, but it really showed the power of the internet.”
The success of the #8toabolition campaign demonstrates two things: first, how the internet can be used to educate people on issues that schools or mainstream media choose to villainize or ignore, and second, how conversations online can greatly influence in-person debate and even policy. Although internet activism has been growing for years with accounts like No White Saviors, the Zinn Ed Project, and the Claudia Jones School for Political Education on Twitter and Instagram garnering huge followings by advocating for causes like abolition and socialism, many are still quick to diminish online education, arguing that people cannot properly teach without formal training or a degree. This line of thinking is not only elitist, valuing ideas more because they are approved by a private university, but also erases the enormous impact that many social media campaigns have had on social justice movements across the country and across the world. In the last decade, social media movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, which were both created by Black women and popularized online, helped fuel conversations about race and gendered violence by centering Black female perspectives and normalizing openly talking about issues like racial violence and sexual assault. But these campaigns had an impact beyond Twitter: in 2019, VICE reported that fifteen states have passed new laws protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace following the rise of #MeToo, and earlier this year, The New York Times called 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests the longest sustained movement in America’s history. These social media campaigns are not only educating the public on the realities of the Black lived experience in America, but making every day people feel involved and invested in politics and change making. Where a formal education requires one to separate the personal from the political, political education asks people to merge the two, to see learning radical politics as a deeply personal investment that is necessary for imagining and creating a better future.
Angie Jaime, a journalist, editor and audience strategist in New York, confirms the benefits of using social media as a means of political education. “Social media is an invaluable way for organizers to educate the public on political issues or make them aware of how a particular area of political discourse impacts real people,” she told me. “It's inherently a way for people to become more civically engaged on a one-to-one basis with a publisher, individual, or with each other.”
But, she continued, using the internet for political education also has its drawbacks: namely, although the internet can put people in touch with millions around the world, there are also many limitations as to who you can reach through social media. According to 2019 data from Pew Research Center, only 22% of American adults have Twitter, and a larger portion of Twitter users identify as Democrats than the general American public. Because Twitter is host to a smaller, more liberal portion of the United States, content can often end up in echo chambers, which, according to Jaime, are “a space, online or otherwise, that limits information to those that only reflect one's own.” According to Jaime, this should not deter people from using the internet as political education, but rather encourage folks to also engage in in-person or community-specific conversations about topics like defunding the police and community safety as well.
“Reaching "right-leaning" audiences and exposing them with "left-leaning" content with the goal of changing their political behavior in the real world is a huge mountain to climb without addressing real-world, off-line limitations and contexts that inform their political beliefs and actions,” said Jaime. “It's not as straightforward as a social media campaign.”
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to learn what abolition is on Twitter––the tools we need to dismantle racial capitalism would be embedded into school curriculums and spread across headlines as front page news. But until this happens, it is imperative that we organize using every tool that is at our disposal, and this includes social media. There’s a reason that History textbooks refuse to print the word “slavery,” and it’s the same reason the hosts of The Real dismiss the content of “Tik Tok Lockdown”: the wealthy, politically elite class recognizes that information is power, and understand that if enough people were in the know about the horrors of the prison industrial complex, it would be impossible to stop mass demands to abolish prisons and overthrow capitalism as a whole. If we want to organize to overthrow the violent systems that currently rule our lives, we must first understand how they operate, and political education is the key to this mission.
***If you’re looking to be exposed to more radical politics on Twitter, here is a list I’ve compiled of some accounts to get you started.***
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*Art by Megan Wang (@studiomeggy on Instagram and Twitter).