Radio host’s call for
today’s National Blackout boycott spread through the net
By Tammy Joyner, Rosalind Bentley
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
(November 2, 2007) Gwenola Grier learned about today's National Blackout
boycott through an e-mail forwarded by a friend that called for blacks to
spend no money at all to protest racial inequities and press for federal
hate crimes legislation.
The digital call to action struck the 57-year-old Lithonia resident enough
that she made her own lunch for today and forbade her husband from
spending a dime.
"Just on this small level I feel like I've climbed Mount Everest and
accomplished something, stood up for myself," she said.
What also struck Grier was that the directive came not through a flier or
phone call, but through the Internet.
It's the modern civil rights movement: Listservs instead of leaflets.
MySpace instead of mimeographs. Blogs in addition to pulpits. Cyberspace
is redefining the civil rights movement, its strategies, its message, its
very leadership. From the recent Jena 6 march to today's National
Blackout, bloggers and black talk radio more so than traditional leaders
are spreading the word and rallying people. Google the words "Nov. 2" and
"blackout" and scores of Web sites, from black professional networking
groups to a Tupac Shakur tribute, spring up.
"Whether we know it or not, it's honoring the efforts going before us, all
the way back to the Underground Railroad," says Christopher Rabb of
Philadelphia, who heads the Web site
www.afro-netizen.com. "Bloggers are creating new space to have
dialogue about issues. This is highly decentralized and doesn't center
around charismatic leadership."
Today's proposed economic boycott is a case in point.
Attorney and [Syndication One] radio talk show host Warren Ballentine came
up with the idea six weeks ago. Since then, the idea has caught fire
online, piggybacking off the momentum built by other causes, including the
calls for justice for Louisiana's Jena 6 and for Genarlow Wilson, the
Georgia man recently freed after serving nearly three years in prison for
having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was a teenager.
"This new generation of individuals are so tech-savvy you can spread the
word within 24 hours," Ballentine said.
To underscore that point, Ballentine cited a speech he made recently at
Duke University, where he pointed out that just 20 students with Facebook
accounts could spread the word about the Blackout to more than a million
people in a day's time.
Narrowing digital gap
Statistics show that the digital gap between blacks and whites is
narrowing, and at an ever-faster clip. In 1998, 43 percent of whites had
access to the Internet compared with 23 percent of blacks, according to
the Pew Center's Internet and American Life project. Today, 62 percent of
blacks have Web access versus 73 percent of whites.
Participation rates on social networking sites today are virtually the
same among blacks and whites, said Aaron Smith, a research specialist in
the Pew project.
"Whether it's civil rights or religious freedom or tax cuts, you see all
of these disparate groups diving into this field because of the way it
matches people with similar views," Smith said.
An ever-growing number of black bloggers are proving to be an alternative,
if not an antidote, to traditional charismatic civil rights leaders in
calling for mass action. Blogs such as whataboutourdaughters.com and
documentthesilence.wordpress.com have advocated for mass civil rights
At their best, these bloggers do in effect what Jo Ann Robinson did in
1955 with a mimeograph machine to rally support for the Montgomery bus
boycott: They tap into the fragile sense of citizenship many blacks feel
and encourage them to engage in civil action to change things, said James
Rucker, founder of the Color of Change, a Web-based social action network.
Rucker founded the network after the slow response in federal aid to
Hurricane Katrina victims as a way for average people to help. By the time
the Jena case rolled around, Rucker, a former director of grass-roots
mobilization for MoveOn.org, had built Color of Change into a
100,000-member online community. Jena seemed like a natural for the
organization to tackle.
"We sent an initial e-mail to 100,000 people on July 17, and we saw it
grow to 300,000 by the time the march came in September," Rucker said.
"People don't want just bad news, they want to play a role in fixing
things, and that was a big motivator."
Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, a veteran civil rights activist, acknowledged
recently that the turnout for Jena —- and the subsequent momentum
generated from it —- would not have been possible a decade ago without the
vast reach of the black blogging community.
The Jena march drew thousands and resulted in one of the defendants being
released, at least temporarily.
On a wider scale, it's much harder to quantify the economic impact of a
social protest like today's blackout.
"From a political perspective, these boycotts can be very effective, but
they have virtually no economic perspective," said Jeff Humphreys,
director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia's Terry
College of Business.
"A lot of household spending is on autopilot. Your utility bill gets paid.
Your mortgage gets paid. If you have a doctor appointment you're still
going to it. It doesn't make any difference to the economy if you write
the check on that day or the day before or after."
But for bloggers such as Rabb, that's not completely the point of a
boycott such as this.
"This is an issue we can mobilize around quite easily because we
understand it," Rabb said. "No matter who we are, we understand the
fragility of black citizenship and that's harder to communicate to others.
This is a communitywide endeavor."
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