Like so many others, "Fruitvale Station" filmmaker Ryan Coogler was devastated when a St. Louis grand jury failed to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of black, unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. And he was livid when, nearly a week later, a Staten Island grand jury exonerated Daniel Pantaleno, the white cop who killed unarmed black civilian Eric Garner in a chokehold.
"The pain and helplessness we feel now will be fuel in our struggle for a day when no American citizen will have to live in fear of having their human rights violated without consequence by an incompetent, irrational, fearful, poorly trained, violent, under equipped, bigoted or downright hateful member of law enforcement, empowered by a system that has never seen some of its citizens as equal to others," Coogler declared in statement Thursday.
The filmmaker is intimately familiar with racially charged police brutality: His 2013 debut, "Fruitvale Station," chronicled the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old unarmed black man killed by a Bay Area transit cop in 2009. Since that film’s release he’s been searching for ways to engage communities off-screen about the hazards posed by ill-equipped police officers. That’s why he cofounded Blackout for Human Rights,a diverse network of about 100 artists, activists and faith leaders across the country who came together after Brown’s killing last August.
Blackout for Human Rights kicked off its first major action just before Thanksgiving. The group issued a call to boycott Black Friday, America’s busiest shopping day of the year, to protest of the extrajudicial killings of black men by police. On Instagram, the call came in the form of photos of protesters throughout history, most recently those in Ferguson. Accompanying the images read the message: "#BlackOutBlackFriday: A Nationwide Day of Action and Unified Retail Boycott."
But some of the most meaningful action happened offline. That’s where Pastor Michael McBride was working with his congregation at The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, Calif. He devoted part of his Thanksgiving message to the boycott. That message eventually spread across eight statewide networks working in 150 cities as part of the PICO National Network, a coalition of faith-based organizations and churches across the country.
"I can’t say for sure that all several thousand participated," McBride said later. "I can say that across the country we’ve had other faith leaders and other congregations do their own version of this and I think it’s helped inspire people to see that when our communities stand in solidarity together we can actually shift systems and change perceptions."
Blackout’s Black Friday action was unique because of the public figures behind it. Among Blackout’s members are Jesse Williams, David Oyelowo, Michael B. Jordan, Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover, Russell Simmons and Niecy Nash. But Coogler said celebrity and connections aren’t a prerequisite for joining.
"The only thing you have to do to join the network is be passionate about human rights and want to see a society where these type of situations aren’t happening," said Coogler. "We’re looking for people who are passionate about community dialogue and ready to have those conversations with the right folks. We got poor people in the network, wealthy people in the network and everything in between." Blackout, he noted, also includes members of law enforcement who are fed up with what the filmmaker called "human rights violations being committed by public servants."
Members of the group meet on conference calls, write press releases, shoot and edit videos and speak out in public. For example, in New York City on Black Friday Spike Lee held a live script reading of "Do the Right Thing" at Lincoln Center. In Los Angeles, Duvernay and Coogler held a food drive and screening of their critically acclaimed films "Middle of Nowhere" and "Fruitvale Station." In one video posted to the group’s YouTube page, filmmaker Shaka King interviews Emerald Garner, one of Eric Garner’s children. "I can’t speak to him, I can’t let him know that I love him anymore," she says of her father.
In a press release, Blackout noted, "We live in a nation where the levers of power — civic, corporate, industrial, capital — are tied to one another and to our economy. Our lives are joined by the money we spend as consumers." That message was buttressed by research that projected black buying power to reach $1.1 trillion by as early as next year. In total, the #BlackOutBlackFriday hashtag was used more than 7,000 times on Instagram and thousands more times on Twitter.
It was widely reported that Black Friday spending dropped 11 percent this year. Coogler declined to take any credit for it but said a larger picture was made clear. "I think that what it’s about is just people coming together and showing solidarity. It’s showing people who think that they’re powerless–because there’s a lot of that feeling of helplessness inside communities that are repeatedly victimized–showing them that you’re actually not."
Coogler tried to downplay the impact of celebrity in Blackout’s strategy, but it is clearly an important selling point. That was true for Chinaka Hodge, a playwright and poet who joined the network at the behest of friends in the entertainment industry. "I’ve done a lot of organizing and worked with non-profit folks, but for me to say these are connected people in Hollywood, I thought that we might be able to have a different groundswell of support," she said.
According to Coogler the group is eyeing Martin Luther King Day on January 19 for its next action. "We’re asking ourselves, ‘What issues would he be working toward? What things would be his focus?’" he said. "We’ll hopefully be doing some events inspired by that question."