Can public conversation be social work?
That question arose again in a grand conversation among hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter amid the turmoil and soul-searching of an extraordinary week.
When grand juries decided not to indict police either time, marches in Philadelphia and across the country over the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., dovetailed into more marches over the July 17 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island.
The question hovering over all was: Do this country's legal and law-enforcement system protect whites and African Americans equally?
And the hashtags arose. The first was #CrimingWhileWhite, started on Wednesday by Jason Ross, a writer for Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. Ross tweeted that he had run-ins with the law but had never been called a "thug" (as of 2014, a code word for "black criminal"). "Can't recommend being white highly enough," he tweeted.
An hour later, he called on "Other White People" to join in with stories of behaving badly but being excused because of white privilege: "Let's get #CrimingWhileWhite trending!" He got it: The hashtag had been used more than 378,000 times as of Friday night.
White people told tales of getting off easy, or totally, when speeding, shoplifting, or worse. Mark Agee of Hollywood tweeted: "When I was 17 I was caught shoplifting and they politely asked me to leave the store (with the merchandise) #crimingwhilewhite." Rianna Finch tweeted: "Helped stage a fake kidnapping as a prank in Philly, multiple people call 911. Cops tell us to warn them next time. #CrimingWhileWhite."
Kimberly Ellis, a scholar of American and Africana culture in Pittsburgh, said, "I welcomed it. It's important for white people to express how different the justice system is for them. It's where they live."
There are always abusers and trolls, but most of the posts appear to be sincere. From its beginning, however, many, especially African Americans, saw something "off" about #CrimingWhileWhite. These are white people feeling free to "confess" in a public place about stuff they got away with . . . because they are white. So something meant to lance white privilege ends up demonstrating it.
In a devastating piece for the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey wrote: "Consider how fortunate and secure you must be, to feel entitled to talk about yourself in the face of someone else's overwhelming pain and grief. . . . because, as per usual, you rule the narrative; yours is the dominant voice."
It did not remain the only voice. #LivingWhileBlack arose quickly. But the big response came Thursday morning, when Jamilah Lemieux, a prominent Web voice and, among many other things, senior editor at Ebony.com, tweeted, "Hey Black folk, how have police treated you for being #alivewhileblack." That went viral.
Abington resident and Pennsylvania State University senior Tariq Rashid tweeted: "Pulled over by two squad cars in Philadelphia under suspicion of a 'stolen license plate' from New York. Fit description. #AliveWhileBlack."
"I thought the hashtag was great," Rashid said. "So people who aren't people of color can see inside the black experience. It was a good way to voice how it is to be a young black man in America."
Cory Townes of Philadelphia decided to join in after a coworker used #AliveWhileBlack. By text message, he said he thought of "living in Northeast Philly in the early 2000s and dealing with police there. . . . I was placed on the hood of a cop car. . . . I had just left football practice and was still in my pads."
"When I got stopped," said Rashid, "I was going down Broad Street toward Northern Liberties. I hadn't had anything to drink, I was wearing a cable-knit sweater, I wasn't waving a gun out the window, nothing. It was a wake-up call. People of color get these calls every day. We're constantly reminded that there are systemic inequities."
"I see #AliveWhileBlack not as opposition to #CrimingWhileWhite, but as a complement to it, a dialogue of the kind we haven't had enough space for in this country," Ellis said. #AliveWhileBlack has been used more than 90,000 times. It joins a remarkable ferment of civil rights-related tweets. According to Twitter, in the Philadelphia area, among the top trending hashtags Friday were #EricGarner, #ICantBreathe, and #BlackLivesMatter. Also in the top 20 were #Garner and #Ferguson.
Mary Ellen Balchunis, professor of political science at La Salle University, stressed the "therapeutic value" of such conversation. "Not to have it," she said, "would doom us to the errors of our past."
Social media, after all, are a space that did not exist before. "This is a counternarrative many people know about and many, many people need to learn about," Ellis said. "It's literally, for black and white, a healing balm."
"Both hashtags are illuminating that some things are not fair," Rashid said, "that justice is not justice for all." Townes reflected that Michael Brown "probably watched the Trayvon Martin case and thought, 'Damn, that's crazy.' Now someone else is looking at . . . Brown's case and thinking the same."