Spend even a little time reading up on social justice, and you’ll notice that some people do some pretty awful things. You’ll also notice that often, these people try to cover up the awful things they’ve done. People want a reputation of being honest and good, even if they don’t want to actually deserve such a reputation.
This is a plea to you to pay attention. As advocates of non-awfulness, we can take advantage of the human desire to, if not be decent, at least seem to be decent. We can bear witness, let the sunlight shine on the actions of those who’d prefer to hide how corrupt or oppressive they are. The events surrounding Wendy Davis’s filibuster are a perfect illustration not just of how this works, but of how social media are making it easier to let the sunlight in than ever before.
Late Tuesday night, the entire internet (or at least about 150,000 of us) watched Texas State Senator Wendy Davis as she drew toward the end of an attempted 13 hour filibuster to defeat an abortion bill that would effectively shut down almost every abortion clinic in the state.
Like so many of us glued to our computer screens, I watched the Texas Tribune‘s livestream from the senate chambers, followed their livetweeting of events, and read and tweeted (from the DDP twitter account). The drama had me on the edge of my seat, and you really should read a recap that captures the emotional rollercoaster. This is a good, short one– go learn the details or relive the excitement now.
Back? Okay, here’s the part I want to talk about today:
Journalist and Twitter-hound Anthony DeRosa posted a screenshot of the official Texas legislative record, which recorded the vote as taking place on June 26th, i.e. after midnight. Others were doing the same. This was nuts. Could they possibly be brazen enough to sail through that midnight deadline and think that would fly? Apparently not, because DeRosa posted another screenshot: the official record now recorded the vote as having occurred on June 25th…
Before an actual audience of hundreds and a virtual audience of thousands, the Texas GOP had falsified a record. Never mind that the filibuster had actually been honestly won, never mind that the clock had run out on its own course — this was fraud.
The senators squabbled over rules and timestamps in person while on the Internet screenshots whipped back and forth, multiplying. The protestors yelled shame.The senators retreated to chambers. Supporters tweeted mournfully. The cable networks ran reruns.
Well friends, as you know if you read the whole recap, at around 4am on the east coast, when I was fast asleep, the Texas state senate announced that the bill had died after all, because the vote was, in fact, after midnight. I awoke to joyful celebrations of victory in Texas. Truth and justice prevail! Hurray!
But back up a minute; let’s talk about all those post-midnight-voting, timestamp-tampering shenanigans. Clearly, the senate was trying to get away with an illegal passage of the bill. So why did they change course?
You’d better believe if no one was watching, if they could have post-midnight-voted and timestamp-altered in the impunity of the mainstream media’s silence, forty odd clinics would be closing in Texas soon. They weren’t able to get away with it because over 100K people were watching the livestream, were following the Texas Tribune’s tweets, had seen with their own eyes what time it was when the vote happened, had visited the page with the datestamps before they tampered with them, and knew they were committing fraud.
Wendy Davis’s 11 hours of filibustering, the delaying tactics of her colleagues (including Leticia van de Putte’s cathartic dig), and all the chanting and noise from the rotunda–a successful and hard-earned victory– could have been for nothing if the Republicans had thought they could get away with the fraud they had already begun orchestrating. Those of us following the proceedings at home didn’t just watch the filibuster succeed; by watching we played a part in its success.
Watching makes a difference. It’s the same principle I recently challenged my students to explore as we read a social studies chapter about UN peacekeeping observer troops. It’s the idea behind Peace Brigades International and part of the purpose of Human Rights Watch. These groups don’t intervene. They don’t march in the streets, and they neither boycott, sit in, nor filibuster. They don’t “do” anything. They watch, and they let the world know what they see. They let the perpetrators know the world can see them. They let the sunlight in, and in doing so, they protect the honesty and safety of people subject to the actions of those who’d prefer to operate in the dark.
In 1993, during his speech at the dedication of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in front of 30 heads of state, Eli Wiesel turned to President Clinton and called him out about the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia:
I turned and I said, “Look, I just came back from Sarajevo.” I said, “What I have seen there robbed me of my sleep,” and that was the first time I met Clinton, and he waited for me afterwards in an adjacent room, and he said, “What should I do?” And he promised me to do something, and then he kept his promise…Sometimes words do carry weight.
Not only did Wiesel bear witness to this atrocity, he turned around and spread that awareness to others. As he once famously said, “Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.” The Texas Tribune, and those protesters crowding the rotunda well past midnight were the first witnesses, but in this new age, we don’t have to wait very long to hear from them. Their tweets, vines, and livestreams allowed us to see through their eyes. Through their witness, we became witnesses as well.
And here’s where our era differs from any other: social media.
As CNN ran footage about the caloric content of muffins and not a single television network was reporting on the story, anyone with internet access could nevertheless follow each breaking piece of information about Senator Davis (and those who stepped up to delay the vote with those much celebrated “points of order” after she was cut short for lack of “germanity”). Not only could we still see the proceedings in Austin, we could take the time to throw some good old internet snark toward the networks who chose not to air them.
This is the democratization of witness. Spreading the daylight, for those with access to technology, has become instantaneous and grassroots. The results can be seen from Iran’s Green Revolution through Arab Spring, Occupy, Gezi Park, and the S.B. 5 filibuster, among many others. No longer is our ability to observe dependent on large media companies; instead it’s dependent on ordinary people on the scene–and it’s changing outcomes.
Make no mistake: bearing witness to heroes is no replacement for heroism. A thousand tweeps glued to the screen to #standwithwendy are useless without a Wendy Davis with whom to stand. The world needs people who will run for local and state office as Sen. Davis did, who will march through the streets under a rallying cry of democracy, who will sit in Gezi Park despite police brutality. If you can be that hero, in at least one small arena, please, please do so.
But if you can’t, at least be aware enough to know that someone’s sitting in that park, to see that police are attacking them, to let the police know you see them, and to tell others to watch as well. At least help to keep the heroes safe.
If you can’t be the hero, at least be the sunlight.