LA Riots vs Twitter Revolution: Social media and how we voice dissent now

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Twenty years ago today, parts of Los Angeles were in cindered ruins. From South LA to West Adams to Koreatown and Hollywood, thousands of Angelenos turned on one another, and then lit a match. Racial and ethnic tensions in the city had been bubbling for years. But when KTLA broadcast one video of LAPD officers beating Rodney King, the bubbling turned into fire. And months later, when a mostly white jury acquitted those police officers, the fire spread. And spread. And spread. KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis has this story:

Two decades later, today’s atmosphere for protest and unrest has new layers. The Internet, smartphones and applications that can identify and place anybody, anywhere, in a split second has made a world where information is ‘right now.’  So even with an events so far in the past, we’re able to follow the riots on Twitter through an account called RealTimeLARiots.

One tweet says “Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton criticizes the verdict.”  Another says “multiple bullet holes on fire engines, says LAFD.”

Olsen Ebright is an NBC content producer and the man behind the twitter curtain. He says social media has totally changed how TV news operates. “They would send out reporters, and we’d take the chopper shots… and there was no way of getting that instantaneous feel that you get with social media,” Ebright said. With Twitter, though, people are telling NBC what’s going on.

Ramesh Srinivasan. He teaches information studies at UCLA. The Rodney King incident is one example, he said, of how user-generated content provoked a community response. Back then, there were video cameras, computers and even a few cell phones.  But not near the number there are today.  Or the split-second ways by which we can record, transmit and react to those things. Srinivasan said that can push people to take action, or not.

“If people choose that they really want to get into some sort of physical confrontation, the tools can help them not only access real time information but to coordinate with one another or to spread their messages very quickly,” Srinivasan said. “But many people can choose to use social media in a much more spectator-oriented manner.” He called it “slacktivism.”

Michael Kearns teaches computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes about how social media affects human behavior. “I think its worth distinguishing the uses of things like Twitter for organizational forces and logistical purposes, versus mere communication,” Kearns said. “And now you’re starting to see a seamless blend of these two things.”

That’s the impetus of one organization here in Los Angeles. Good Jobs LA – which seeks economic and corporate fairness in economically-depressed parts of the city. Organizers here are on the front lines – even if they’re behind the scenes on laptops and smartphones.  Good Jobs LA focuses on some of the more impoverished areas of Los Angeles.  Those most affected by the riots.  Compton.  Inglewood.  West Adams.  South LA.  There, they say at least 25 percent of residents are either unemployed or underemployed.  Statistics similar to 20 years ago, when the U.S. was trying to climb out of another recession.  Today, Good Jobs LA is using every digital platform to spread their word.

Crystal Page is New Media Coordinator at Good Jobs LA. Knowing not everyone is connected in the same way, her group reaches out on different platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, email and text messages. Like the text messages she’s sending out, rallying support for airport workers. People wrote back texts in solidarity with the workers, and then the group read them back to the workers as a show of support.

It’s a useful tool for law enforcement too. Officers and deputies on the beat can put out information as well. And even see simmering reaction before it comes to a head.  Before it hits the street. “It’s essentially a forum instead of a megaphone on a street corner,” said Capt. Michael Parker with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “I think it’s a fair way to help people enjoy their rights as Americans, and frankly to vent their frustrations in a peaceful way.”

In the aftermath of the riots, community policing was introduced to bridge those gaps between the police and the public. Social media, Captain Parker says, is the next step in that evolution. “You have a direct avenue of mass communications for the public, whereas before it was a more narrow way,” Parker said. “Any member of the public, especially with a large following, can have a voice.”

UCLA’s Ramesh Srinivasan says whether we like it or not, advancements in technology mean people are closer, more connected and able to react immediately. Los Angeles – and the world – is a much different place, 20 years later.

“We live in an extremely diverse city here, and that’s something we should celebrate.” To do that, he said we should create “various layers of media to speak to and talk to one another.” And those don’t have to be digital, online social media – it could be public events, educational initiatives, even radio – but those forums are needed. We have the battle wounds to prove it.