Media critic David Zurawik says that while a wise man once said "the revolution will not be televised," they had no idea the role that live-streaming would end up playing in modern day society. (Ulysses Munoz / Baltimore Sun)
In 1970, jazz musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron recorded an enduring piece of pre-rap social prophecy titled "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." You can hear a bit of it at the end of the opening montage on Showtime's "Homeland" each week.
Heron was talking about the commercial medium of network TV and its reluctance to honestly cover the unrest roiling American streets at the time. In that sense he was right on.
But today, the revolution is being streamed — often live — on social media outlets that are replacing television as the principal storyteller of American life. And it is shaking the pillars of the power structure at their very base with official versions of events constantly under attack along with the authority of the institutions that had traditionally created those narratives.
Examples have been arriving on a regular basis since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in 2015. This week, in Baltimore, came another stunning moment with the live-streamed arrest of Antonio T. Wright, who is charged with two counts of murder, as well as attempted murder and dozens of other crimes, in a firebombing caught on a city surveillance camera.
Police had designated Wright "Public Enemy No. 1" before he turned himself in Monday with a woman who identified herself as his wife live-streaming his surrender on Facebook.
Police say Wright threw two Molotov cocktails into a home in the 1200 block of Greenmount Ave. killing two teenagers and injuring six other persons.
Beyond the horror of the crime itself, what makes this social media moment especially compelling is the way video and Facebook are being used by Wright and the woman who live-streamed his arrest to create a narrative that counters the official version of events from law enforcement authorities.
Wright's narrative not only says he is innocent, but that a Baltimore police officer in the neighborhood where the firebombing took place sold an AR-15 rifle on the street and is now trying to get it back. Selling such weapons is illegal in Maryland. The implication: The police are the criminals, not him; perhaps, he is being framed. Police dispute the claims.
As reported by The Sun's Justin Fenton, Wright insisted on his innocence on the video even as he was being handcuffed by police.
"I did not commit the crime," he said. "I will not allow them to bring me in like an animal to portray what y'all saying on TV. ... Y'all judged me before y'all even knew anything. Y'all convicted me off assumption. And I didn't do it."
The woman, who has not responded to Sun requests for comment, has posted several videos since Wright was identified in the media as a suspect saying he is going to expose the officer who allegedly sold the AR-15. One of the videos has been viewed more than 30,000 times.
One of the videos also shows Wright interacting with a man who the police department confirmed is the officer against whom Wright is making allegations.
The result: A counter-narrative has been created that essentially put police on the defensive. It forced the department to respond in The Sun report to the suspect's charges against police.
I have no knowledge of the innocence or guilt of Wright, who was denied bail on Wednesday. I don't cover crime.
But this is a case study in media, society and power. If you can challenge the authority of those in power to establish and control official narratives, you have changed society in a revolutionary way — a way that maybe even guns cannot do. And that's what video and social media are now doing at the grassiest of grass roots levels with a moment like the one in east Baltimore this week.
I have long been been a champion of socially-conscious TV dramas and mini-series. But after watching the first six hours of "Shots Fired," a Fox mini-series about two racially-charged police shootings in North Carolina, I am not so sure. I am still trying to come to terms with that loss of faith.
There is room for disagreement about when and where the one that brought us to Wright's live-stream this week started. But I vote for March 3, 1991, when a citizen in Los Angeles filmed a 12-minute video of Rodney King being tazed, beaten and kicked by four LAPD officers as he knelt helpless in the street.
We didn't have social media then, so it didn't instantly go viral the way it would today. But the imagery was so graphic, violent, ugly and challenging to the dominant narrative of police protecting and serving all citizens that the mainstream media of the day could do nothing but spread it worldwide — gatekeepers be damned.
With the arrival of social media, we have seen the process explode through American life since Ferguson.
In 2015, citizen video of the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina as he ran from a police officer following a traffic stop directly contradicted the officer's report of what happened. The officer was indicted for murder.
(A first trial ended in a hung jury; a re-trial is scheduled for August. A federal trial on charges that the officer violated Scott's civil rights is scheduled for May.)
One of the most dramatic live-stream videos in recent years showed Philando Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor in Minnesota, shot and killed in July 2016 during a traffic stop as he reached for his ID. His death was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, who along with her 4-year-old daughter was a passenger in the car. The video led to protests across the country, including in Baltimore.
That same week, Baltimore activist DeRay Mckesson was arrested in Baton Rouge for protesting the shooting at a convenience store there of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by two white police officers.
Mckesson, a skilled practitioner in the political use of social media, owned the narrative of his arrest by live-streaming images of what appeared to be a lawful protest with his voice providing a reportorial account of what was taking place on the streets.
Thanks to his video, which had been live-streamed with the Periscope app, his narrative was running red hot though the media ecosystem before Baton Rouge police could even put out its story line of a locally organized peaceful protest turning violent after "individuals from outside our Baton Rouge community" arrived.
Media columnist David Zurawik discusses the producers of "Undisclosed" the podcast who brought “The State vs. Adnan Syed” podcast to millions of listeners. They have a new podcast titled, “The Killing of Freddie Gray.” (Baltimore Sun video)
Mckesson's arrest and version of events even dominated next-day coverage in such legacy venues as CNN and The New York Times. The official version created by law enforcement authorities never had a chance.
During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, anti-war protesters in the streets of Chicago outside the convention hall chanted "The whole world is watching" as TV cameras filmed police brutally attacking and beating them.
The whole world wasn't really watching, because gatekeepers still controlled the flow of such images, and some news executives at local TV stations around the country limited how much their audiences got to see. That's the way TV worked in those days — with the networks going out of their way to defer on matters of regional taste to keep affiliates happy. This was especially true of stations in the South.
That's part of the dishonesty of corporate TV during the era of three-network hegemony that Scott-Heron was addressing when he rapped, "There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay," in "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."
But today, the gatekeepers are mostly gone. And thanks to the tools of digital media, even a man designated "Public Enemy No. 1" by police for allegedly firebombing a home in Baltimore can produce his own video of innocence and stream it with the reasonable hope that anyone anywhere in the world could be watching.
Literally and metaphorically, we now have video of police "shooting down brothers" appearing on all kinds of screens and they can be replayed an infinite number of times at our discretion rather than that of some unknown person in a network control room.