I love the hoodie meme.
I love the fact that within days of the revolting shooting murder of the 17-year-old African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by the self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, thousands of unlikely individuals put on their hoodies, took pictures, and shared them through social media. It was, to be sure, an unprecedented show of national solidarity within an often-ignored pattern, and it brought tears of pride to my eyes.
But the wearing of hoodies alone will not overturn the vicious Stand Your Ground laws that have proliferated throughout U.S. states in the last year. The hoodie is a meme, but it is not a movement. And only organized pressure can change the law.
According to Wikipedia, a meme is an element of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation. Despite the recent sexiness of this concept, and the focus on it by foundations, memes alone do not build social movements, nor do they adequately represent the complex process of strategic framing.
Memes are symbolic of an issue that has caught fire. They are an incredibly important way to measure the activation point of target audiences. They can be a significant jumping off point to advance policy and provide the foundation for successful presswork. But let’s not confuse the significance of the meme with the groundwork of organizing. In order for successful memes to do their job as symbolic and cultural fire, there needs to be something cooking in the pot, people to put the ingredients in and stir it, and leaders to serve it up. Memes are a part of movements, but they do not replace movements.
In the case of Travyon Martin, the hoodie meme has the potential to bring organizing against Stand Your Ground legislation, and gun control legislation, to a serious boil. If used well, memes like the hoodie can be a powerful spark. Used poorly, they fizzle out, leaving impacted communities with some dope artwork, but not much else.
Eighteenth century Italian strategist and philosopher Antonio Gramsci understood the relationship between culture and politics, and believed that cultural change precedes political change. Grounded in this principle, strategic framing needs to engage both the hidden transcripts and narratives that take place in people’s heads and on street corners, as well as official dialogues. But strategic frames are more than narratives, just as movements are more than memes. The key ingredient in both movements and frames, are human beings.
In order to build collective power, shift the relations of power, and make transform material conditions, stakeholders must make sure that the sexiness of memes and frames do not replace the laborious work of relationship building that is the life blood of community organizing. Building a progressive majority through face to face organizing of those pushed furthest to margins has always been the key, and will be the only way justice for Trayvon, and millions of Black people in the U.S., will be achieved.