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Using Social Media to Build Community…and Resistance

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We broadcast from Las Vegas, the site of the Netroots Nation convention, where thousands of people have gathered and social media is the watchword of the day. We host a roundtable discussion on social media with Aimee Allison, founder of OaklandSeen; hip-hop journalist and activist, Davey D; and Cheryl Contee, aka Jill Tubman, co-founder of the political blog “Jack and Jill Politics.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Las Vegas, Netroots Nation, a convention where thousands of people have gathered, and “social media” is the watchword of the day. This is Chicago-based blogger Veronica Arreola. Her blog is

    VERONICA ARREOLA: I got involved in blogging, late 2000, after the election. There was a lot of discussions online and LISTSERVs, and I really felt like I needed a place of my own to get my views out, opinions out, talk about what was going on in terms of the election and the election results and how long it had dragged out. So I’ve been doing that since late 2000, got onto Facebook pretty early, because I work at a university, and that’s where the students are, and that’s where I need to talk to them and get them to events, and then jumped on Twitter after some friends said I needed to get on. And I’ve really used — I’ve really found it very helpful in terms of activism, in terms of community work.


    VERONICA ARREOLA: Just spreading messages, talking about events. I’m on the board of the Chicago Abortion Fund. And this past spring there was a national bowl-a-thon, and I did a lot of my fundraising through social media, through Facebook, Twitter, just asking people to please —-

    AMY GOODMAN: And how effective was it?

    VERONICA ARREOLA: I think it was really highly effective. I think I raised more money through Facebook and Twitter than I would have just sending emails or calling people and talking to people one-on-one, because I was able to dip into a larger pool.

    AMY GOODMAN: What’s your blog called?

    VERONICA ARREOLA: My blog is Viva la Feminista.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what has been your project this summer?

    VERONICA ARREOLA: This summer, I’m asking Latinas to post about being Latina and their thoughts about feminism -— good, bad, long, short, academic, or just personal stories. I’m getting mostly personal stories. And I call it “Summer of Feminista.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Veronica Arreola of She was speaking to me at the Netroots Nation convention.

Well, for more on the use of social media in building community, I’m joined here in Las Vegas by Aimee Allison. She’s a Bay Area radio host, producer of the daily KPFA Morning Show, and she’s also founded this innovated local media project called OaklandSeen, as in S-E-E-N, seen and heard.

Also here with us, Davey D is a hip-hop journalist and activist. He runs the popular website “Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner” at, co-host also on KPFA of HardKnock Radio.

And we’re joined by the Cheryl Contee. She is the founder of “Jack and Jill Politics.” Well, she’s actually Cheryl to us here, but she’s Jill Tubman at “Jack and Jill Politics.”

I want to welcome you all to Democracy Now!, to be with you all in Las Vegas. Aimee, talk about social media, what it means to you. I mean, you’re a longtime radio broadcaster; interesting also, you’re a veteran. But why go from radio to social media?

AIMEE ALLISON: Here’s what we’re facing in 2010: radio being an old media that accesses — it’s low-tech, and lots of people can access it, but, as we saw earlier this week, one of thirteen human beings are on Facebook. That means that social media is becoming more and more the way that people access their news and connect with other people. So, through, it was an effort to fill the local reporting gap that we found in Oakland to engage more people and to facilitate people reporting their own news and to talk to each other about issues that they’re facing the most. And what we found when we combined old technology, radio, with new technology, social networks and blogs, we have a level of engagement that supports the development of local communities, constituencies and democracy at home. It’s fantastic.

AMY GOODMAN: Cheryl Contee, you’ve been doing “Jack and Jill Politics” for how long?

CHERYL CONTEE: For three years.

AMY GOODMAN: What does “social media” mean?

CHERYL CONTEE: Social media, to me, means the opportunity to reach people in a way never before possible. When we founded “Jack and Jill Politics,” it was not long after the last — the original Netroots Nation YearlyKos. And at the time, we were talking about isn’t it a shame that more blacks aren’t blogging. Today we have a vibrant community at Jack and Jill Politics. We’ve changed the racial narrative in this country many times. And now African Americans, in many ways, are at parity. When you factor in mobile internet access, there is no digital divide, according to a Pew internet study last year. And Business Insider, just this year, says that 25 percent of those on Twitter are African American, which is twice their population percentage.

AMY GOODMAN: Davey D, talk about what you’re doing, also longtime radio broadcaster on commercial radio, then at Pacific Radio, but you also have been doing this social media thing for a long time.

DAVEY D: Well, I’ve been on the net since 1991, so I’ve been around for a minute. But at the crux of it is, it’s just about communication. And you’re looking at a variety of communities that have often been exed out of the opportunity to talk to themselves without a media middleman or to talk to their communities without having their messages distorted. So, this is a continuum. You know, when I first started, the reason why people went on the internet was for that very reason. And over the years, you’ve seen different variations of technology come along that have made it a little bit more efficient. So social media right now, in the form of Facebook or Twitter, which, you know, many of us are on, just really allows us to get around this increasing consolidation and regulation of speech between different communities. So, that’s been the attraction.

And what’s interesting is that old media doesn’t seem to get it. You know, they seem to want to have more of a situation where they talk at you, for the purposes of marketing, increasingly more for the purposes of just blanketing us with a particular political or social message, and to marginalize the voices of dissent, various angles that people have on a particular issue, and to challenge a narrative that oftentimes only serves the purposes of a particular corporation.

AMY GOODMAN: Davey D, you’ve been tweeting a lot about Oscar Grant. Tell us quicly that story and how social media has been used in his killing.

DAVEY D: Well, I think the main thing is that before the word could get out —- well, let me just back up. The police had a narrative, from day one. They went and looked at his background and put that out there, and it was quickly countered by those of us who were on the internet, to say, well, let me show you the cop’s background, and let me show you what other people saw that night.

AMY GOODMAN: And this, again, is about the young man who was killed.

DAVEY D: Right, that was killed. Going up to the verdict -—

AMY GOODMAN: On the subway platform.

DAVEY D: Yeah. Going up to the verdict —-

AMY GOODMAN: By a police officer.

DAVEY D: Yeah. Going up to the verdict, there was a narrative that they painted around the country, which people started to build off of, and it mainly centered around “Why don’t black people just learn how to behave?” when it was the multi-ethnic crowd that was out there, you know, protesting, speaking truth to power, and some of them rebelling, you know? And so, when you looked at the national pictures, you saw black folks. But people like me were filming, and we saw a variety of people. So, when you put it up against mainstream media versus what many of us were able to say, then you saw that there was a falsehood in what mainstream was doing, and you saw that falsehood connected with political, economic and social agendas that have nothing to do with the variety of communities that were outraged about a cop being -— who got away with murder, as far as we’re concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Aimee Allison?

AIMEE ALLISON: The protest in Oakland after Johannes Mehserle, the former BART officer, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which many people thought was a very easy verdict after what we saw — social media spread the word and let everyone see the video, so we all saw it. And then, the verdict was surprising to many people. If you compare, though, the way that the protests were covered two weeks ago and the way they were covered a year ago, it was night and day. Social media came and changed the whole conversation about what Oaklanders think. It was a lot more diverse and nuanced and powerful. We were able to capture and share the message out beyond, not only to Oakland, but to the world, of how Oaklanders had come together in nonviolence. We were able to tell a story about how the local peace movement had taken the lead in working with the city.

But all of this happened in the context locally of a very important urban issue, which is that Oakland is struggling, as many cities are, with revenue and with dealing with deficits. And we had just had the fight with the police officers’ union and a sense of how the city was going to avoid cutting more libraries and schools, and so the whole coverage of the protest happened in a political environment where social media was able to say, “Look, we want to hold police accountable for their activities out in the street. We want to have a broader conversation about crime and public safety. And we’re not going to accept the narrative a year ago that there was just a bunch of rioting and we need more cops.” That was directly as a result of citizens themselves and bloggers, as well as other folks, telling the story and talking to each other about the impact of not only the violence that happened against Oscar Grant in the first place, but the policing and the aftermath.


DAVEY D: One thing that I think is important is that there’s a context to even revolting. And what social media allowed us to do was explain what happened the first time there were riots in the street, which was seven days of non — seven days of the mayor not speaking, seven days of the district attorney not speaking, seven days of people going up and going, “what’s going on?” and then people saying, “OK, we’ll let you know what’s going on,” and having a revolt and having a political and social context to that. Even what happened after the verdict, there was a way to explain that narrative, which was counter to what the mainstream was.

The other thing that’s important is that mainstream has become increasingly more embedded. What they didn’t tell you in the recent verdict was the fact that many of the mainstream journalists were standing right next to the police. They were embedded with them, so they had the best angles. And I’ve never seen that before. I know that it goes on overseas in war, but to come here and say, “Hey, wait a second. You’re ABC, CBS. You’re right there next to the cops!” So what does that mean at the end of the day when the story is told? I couldn’t cover the way that I would normally, even with a press pass, because they said, “We made new press passes, and you have to have a special one, and you have to be standing next to the police.” That’s very different, and that’s very dangerous, because it’s in the context of news being censored and controlled and manipulated by corporations all over the country. And that was just a prime example of that taking place in Oakland, in this case, with the police. But corporations and police are the same thing, if you look at what BP is doing, censoring media. So I don’t see it as being very different. It’s just controlling the narrative.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting you raise this, because when we were arrested in St. Paul — my colleagues Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar and I arrested by the St. Paul police covering the Republican National Convention — we weren’t alone among journalists.

DAVEY D: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: There were more than forty journalists arrested. When I went the next morning, after I was released, to the police chief’s news conference and asked him what does he expect journalists to do and what has he instructed his police to do if they’re arresting journalists, he said we could embed, embed with a mobile field force, using that model of reporters embedding in the frontlines of troops as a way to cover American cities. Cheryl Contee, did you want to weigh in here?

CHERYL CONTEE: Right. And so, in this changing environment in the media, social media provides an unfiltered voice. No longer do we have an intermediary to tell us the story, as we did before, where journalists represented the community’s voice, now the community has their own voice. And during the Oscar Grant protests and rallies, you know, you got pictures live from the scene. And on our blog, we actually listed some of the Twitter reports, just to show this is what’s actually happening on the ground, just to provide a balance with the mainstream media.

AMY GOODMAN: It reminds me of the Battle of Seattle ten years ago when you had CNN saying that — repeating the police line that they weren’t using rubber bullets, but we were picking them up by the handfuls. And it was Indymedia and that really exploded on the scene then, when these pictures were being showed and you had more people hitting than Aimee?

AIMEE ALLISON: And see, I think that’s an excellent point, because through the Johannes Mehserle protests, OaklandSeen Facebook and Twitter followers grew more than 40 percent. And people started to acknowledge, “Hey, you know what? For the information on the ground and the real unfiltered stuff that’s happening, I’ve got to go to a source like OaklandSeen, because if I turn on the news, I’m really going to get the same stories, and it’s not really reflective of what I think about my own city or the — you know, kind of the details I’m looking for.” So people are starting to turn in a city like Oakland to alternative news sources, and I think that that’s fabulous, particularly in a place locally where our papers have consolidated and local coverage has suffered so much.


DAVEY D: I think one of the other important things is that when you look at a situation like the Oscar Grant scenario, none of us are really organizers. I’m not an organizer. But there was dozens of organizers there whose voices never get heard. They don’t show up on the evening news. They’re not often quoted. And there’s a context to which they speak. And so, one of the things that social media allowed us to do was really get the full narrative from their perspective, whether it was Uncle Bobby, you know, Oscar’s uncle, why he condemned some of the coverage that was going on, or why
he talked about what the police were doing. We got to hear his full thing, why he rejected Mehserle’s apology, without just the thirty-second sound bite that was played around the nation, but the full four-minute speech that he gave. And that becomes important. What did the organizers think, what were they doing, you know, how did they all come together, were just as important as the trial and the verdict itself. And those important stories got out to the rest of the country in a way that inspired folks, let people know that there’s a richer context to what was taking place in Oakland. And lastly, it put a spotlight on the media, because it showed how lazy they were, when all these stories were being unearthed, and you’re going, “Well, wait a second. You’re the mainstream media with millions of dollars in the budget. How come we just got this very two-dimensional narrative?”

AMY GOODMAN: Cheryl Contee, as we wrap up, tomorrow you’re going to be hosting Nancy Pelosi. She’ll be addressing the Netroots Nation convention. You’re Jill Tubman at “Jack and Jill Politics.” Why Jill Tubman?

CHERYL CONTEE: Originally, many of the black political bloggers wrote under pseudonyms, because the history of the United States shows that outspoken African Americans are often targets, one way or another. And so, I was frankly afraid to write under my full voice until I really understood the consequences of what that would be. And it allowed me to write more freely.

I came out of the closet, if you will, of the blog closet, about two years ago, and it was fantastic to really receive a lot of applause. So I’m really looking forward to sitting down with Speaker Pelosi and representing the community. It’s an interactive session, so we’ve been taking comments from the internet. People are voting with their feet. People really want to know about the Youth Promise Act, for example. They want to know about Social Security, the economy, jobs. And so, I’m really looking forward to having a chance to reflect that.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to participate, where do they go? How do they tap in?

CHERYL CONTEE: Oh, right. So if people — you can still ask questions to me. You can use the hash tag nn10pelosi on Twitter. You can go to the Netroots Nation Facebook. Or you can go to “””>Jack and Jill Politics,” and you’ll see there’s a blog post stuck to the top right now, and leave a comment.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do people go to find OaklandSeen, Aimee Allison?

AIMEE ALLISON: OaklandSeen, And we have a Facebook group and a Twitter group. So we not only report and encourage people to blog and contribute media, but we’re talking to each other, which is amazing.


DAVEY D: You can reach me at or mrdaveyd, D-A-V-E-Y-D, on Twitter.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks very much for being with us here at the Netroots Nation, Davey D, Cheryl Contee aka Jill Tubman, and Aimee Allison.

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