The shattering events of 2014, beginning with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, did more than touch off a national debate about police behavior, criminal justice and widening inequality in America. They also gave a new birth of passion and energy to a civil rights movement that had almost faded into history, and which had been in the throes of a slow comeback since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. That the nation became riveted to the meta-story of Ferguson—and later the videotaped killing of Eric Garner in New York—was due in large part to the work of a loose but increasingly coordinated network of millennial activists who had been beating the drum for the past few years. In 2014, the new social justice movement became a force that the political mainstream had to reckon with.
This re-energized millennial movement, which will make itself felt all the more in 2015, differs from its half-century-old civil rights-era forebear in a number of important ways. One, it is driven far more by social media and hashtags than marches and open-air rallies. Indeed, if you wanted a megaphone for a movement spearheaded by young people of color, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than Twitter, whose users skew younger and browner than the general public, which often has the effect of magnifying that group’s broad priorities and fascinations. It’s not a coincidence that the Twitterverse helped surface and magnify the stories of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Michael Brown.