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2014: The Year in Protest 

Tuesday, Dec 30 2014

Protests have become the theater in which Bay Area residents unleash their basest impulses, whether by looting a RadioShack, throwing a bottle at a police officer, or spraying graffiti onto a Wells Fargo ATM. Yet they're also bite-size, snackable threads that play out over social media, the big daunting issues that — like the Ebola Nurse, or the Ice Bucket challenge, or the phrase "Occupy Wall Street" — can easily be reduced to memes.

We saw it again and again this year, first with a spate of tech bus protests that distilled the city's housing crisis into a simple, oft-tweeted image (that of protesters in reflective traffic vests standing in front of a bus), then with the #MyNameIs hashtag that San Francisco drag queens launched to protest Facebook's "real name" policy, then with the current demonstrations against race-based police brutality, which all fell under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

That might be the most effective way to get a message across these days. Twitter and Facebook are known as the social media channels that set inanity free, but they've also helped power revolutions. Where 10 years ago, a Black Lives Matter organizer might have spent weeks on the rigmarole of securing permits and distributing fliers for a demonstration at Oakland City Hall, today she can post a single tweet and expect hundreds of people to show up on the fly. Journalists document these events in 140-character bits, much like sports broadcasters calling play-by-play for a football game. Social media have helped protests metastasize at the same time they've reduced them to tweetable chunks.

This could be a harbinger of a new, potent social movement that started with the Arab Spring in 2010, and may come to integrate all the most pressing issues of our day. Or it could be today's version of Che Guevara swag; perhaps it's no accident that LeBron James' now-iconic "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt, which he first sported during warm-ups prior to a Brooklyn Nets game, is now being sold on Amazon.

Cynics call that the merchandizing of a movement. Optimists say it's evidence of the movement's success.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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