Witnessing #NoJusticeNoLeBron: The promise and limitations of celebrity social media activism

Curator's Note

Celebrity activists have effectively used Twitter to promote causes, join activist conversations, and share symbolic gestures of solidarity. This slide show contextualizes one example of hashtag activism I have recently studied that illustrates how star images may also be co-opted by grassroots hashtag activism.

In December 2015, activist Tariq Touré launched the hashtag #NoJusticeNoLeBron to rally the Twittersphere, specifically Black Twitter users, to pressure LeBron James to sit out Cleveland Cavaliers NBA games in protest of a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. The hashtag went viral, garnering news media attention, and sparking discussions of the history of black athlete activism, black masculinity, and whether black celebrities have an obligation to represent fan communities, geographic communities, or communities of color.

Touré had repeatedly advocated for black athletes to protest police killings, but the unique nature of James’ celebrity and previous engagement with #BlackLivesMatter led to #NoJusticeNoLeBron being more prominent than Touré’s previous efforts. James received significant praise for displaying solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter by symbolically protesting the killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.

While James’ star status may have boosted the hashtag, James reasserted power over his own star image by ignoring the hashtag on Twitter and refusing to comment on Rice’s killing. Because Rice was killed in James’ adopted city of Cleveland, his claim that he was not knowledgeable enough to speak about the case elicited ridicule in many tweets.

Touré positioned himself as on of the fans who had supported James’ earlier advocacy for #BlackLivesMatter and expected deeper engagement. As a “social media activist,” Tariq Touré rose to higher prominence by centering a hashtag campaign around a celebrity who already supported #BlackLivesMatter.

Whether hashtag activism is deemed successful may depend upon news media coverage of the hashtag. News outlets picked up the story of #NoJusticeNoLeBron, thus driving the campaign to greater prominence. #NoJusticeNoLeBron illustrates how difficult is it to judge the “success” defined in social media activism, where enormous numbers of retweets and prominent news media coverage may occur, but the stated goal is not achieved.

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