Cornel West was arrested during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests yesterday, and in the news photos he was uniquely identifiable — the scholar wearing a formal black tie and scarf amidst the throng of demonstrators in T-shirts. But though it featured a photograph of his detention, the Times account was not very interested in West. Instead, the paper led with the news that Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson, two prominent Black Lives Matter activists with large Twitter followings, had been arrested. The Washington Post story from the scene made the same distinction: Elzie and Mckesson were its lede, with West and others mentioned farther down. Newspaper articles are formed from architectures of arbitrary hierarchy, but these hierarchies didn’t seem imbalanced, or arbitrary, or unearned. They just confirmed what has been apparent the whole long year since Michael Brown’s death: The activists, each of them totally unknown a year ago, matter most of all.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been fascinating and transformative in many ways, but one has been to suggest that the mechanisms of power and status in politics and media have been subtly adjusted. The two powerful protest movements that preceded this one (the tea party and Occupy Wall Street) both obeyed the general pattern of demonstration politics. As politicians, intellectuals, and media celebrities took up positions for and against these movements, the main theater of their activity moved from the streets to more traditional stages: filibusters in empty Senate chambers, cable-television fulminations. And yet even as politicians and media celebrities have gathered under the Black Lives Matter banner, none of them has personified the movement in the way that first Rick Santelli and then Rand Paul did for the tea-party movement, or Elizabeth Warren did for Occupy. Instead, at least so far, the visible faces of the movement have been only the activists themselves, the same people who have drawn the interest of the Department of Homeland Security and who were featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in May: @deray, @nettaaaaaaaa.
One piece of news here is that the establishment media is now reflecting the status preferences of the internet itself: For documentation instead of theory, for the unfiltered first-person perspective rather than the group consensus, for the bottom up rather than the top down. From this perspective the exceptional individual is less interesting than the person who can convene a social mass. That Times account quoted the activist Zellie Imani on Twitter: “They arrested @Nettaaaaaaaa for documenting police. They arrested @deray for questioning the arrest. This is the black experience.” That last note (“This is the black experience”) seemed a little broad, the kind of thing that the Times wouldn’t quote West as saying, even in a tweet, without challenging him. But now the most mainstream of media are looking for something different, not authority but social power, an arena in which the Cornel Wests of the world matter less than they always have.