The Rise of Solidarity Activism in the Aftermath of Tragedy
On April 15, 2013, the 117th running of the Boston Marathon commenced with a starter’s pistol for mobility-impaired entrants at 9:00am; yet, unlike previous years, the 2013 marathon ended at 2:50pm when two explosive devices were detonated within a few hundred yards of the finish line. The bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon left three people dead – 8 year-old Martin Richard, 23 year-old Lu Lingzi and 29 year-old Krystle Campbell – and wounded more than 175 people. Due to the design of the bombs, many of the victims suffered severe shrapnel wounds to their lower extremities, with some so injured that amputation was necessary.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Boston, people from across the United States and around the world expressed their shock over the brutality of the bombings, their anger with those who would perpetrate such actions and their sympathy with those who suffered injury and trauma. As medical professionals treated the wounded and law enforcement began the arduous process of collecting evidence to identify those responsible for the bombings, hundreds and thousands of ordinary people began organizing solidarity and fundraising efforts through social media tools. Within only a few short hours after the bombs ripped through Boylston Street, small groups dedicated to standing united with the Boston Marathon victims as well as with the city of Boston began appearing on Facebook, Twitter, blog and websites. Some of these groups include:
We Run for Boston – A Facebook page created to organize a solidarity run on Saturday, April 20th for the Boston Marathon victims had 363 Facebook users signed up to attend as of 4:30pm on April 16th; by 5pm on April 17th this number had risen to 870. We Run for Boston groups have so far formed in New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Boston/Cambridge, and St. Louis.
Run for Boston 4-17 – A Facebook page designed to facilitate runs around the United States in solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombing victims. As of 5pm on April 17th, this Facebook page recorded nearly 20,000 likes.
Black Girls RUN! – A national group with more than 60 affiliate groups across the United States is dedicated to encouraging African-American women to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle by promoting running and jogging for fitness. On April 15th the group launched Black Girls RUN! for Boston, a solidarity campaign called on its members to run/walk 26.2 minutes or 2.62 miles or 26.2 miles between April 16th and April 19th in support of the Boston Marathon bombing victims.
For Boston, We Run – A Facebook page where runners can post workouts that were completed in the honor and memory of those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. As of 5pm on April 17th, there were 524 members of the For Boston, We Run Facebook page.
#runwithBoston – A Twitter hashtag designed to help runners find groups and races they can join in solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombing victims.
#runforBoston – A Twitter hashtag that enables runners to post the number of miles completed in support of the Boston Marathon runners, their families, the victims, the first responders and Bostonians in general. By 5pm on April 17th, more than 9,600 miles had been logged at #runforBoston.
#26Acts2 – A Twitter hashtag that encourages people to commit random acts of kindness in support of and solidarity with victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Initially formulated as #26Acts and promoted by NBC National and International Correspondent Ann Curry in honor the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre victims, the hashtag revived and revised to #26Acts2. The Twitter hashtag and associated Facebook page, functions as a registry for people to record acts of kindness and generosity that are dedicated to the victims of the Boston bombings.
These efforts represent only a small number of actions and events that have been and will be organized by people seeking a vehicle through which they can express their sympathy, solidarity and sadness with the events that marred the 2013 Boston Marathon. In Ashland, Ohio, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon and numerous other cities and towns throughout the United States, solidarity runs and vigils have been organized for people far removed from the events of Boston to engage in expressions of unity and sympathy.
Such activism has long been decried as “Slacktivism” – a sort of ‘feel-good activism’ that offers emotional catharsis for individuals but ultimately fails to significantly engage the realities of tragic events. While there is certainly some validity to the slacktivism critique, it is often mired in a sanctimoneous conceptualization of what constitutes “real activism” and what constitutes “real effects”. Such critics are often to quick to simply deride the organization of community runs, the logging of miles on a website or the enactment of random acts of kindness and generosity described above as little more than meaningless expressions of egotism and narcissism.
However, what the slacktivism critique fails to recognize is that our increasingly interconnected world has effectively diminished many of the boundaries that previously separated our lived environments with a distant and disconnected “over there”. Instead, due in large part to a perpetual and persistent news cycle and the ubiquity of social media platforms and mobile devices, traumatic events happening hundreds and thousands of miles away are now part of our daily lives. In such an environment, people need, and will seek out, those avenues that enable them to feel a degree of agency and empowerment in moments of abject helplessness. With each new tragedy, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, social media will continue to offer an avenue for people from around the world to engage in actions that express sympathy and solidarity with victims in faraway places; and rather than being criticized as merely narcissistic or egotistic acts, it would be better to celebrate them as acts of compassionate humanity.
Robert R. Sauders is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Geography and Anthropology and the Department of History at Eastern Washington University. His ongoing research examines the role of international activism in ethno-territorial conflicts. Currently, Robert is analyzing graffiti on the Israeli Separation Barrier as a means of understanding how international activism influences and, at times, alters the communication and narration of popular resistance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.