In the 60s, activists used broadcast television and radio to magnify the images and sounds of Black resistance to Jim Crow segregation. Now, modern-day civil rights leader Malkia Cyril is carrying the fight for racial justice forward, championing a free and open internet to expose racism and injustice, organize and elevate the voices of a new generation of activists, and drive a 21st century movement as democratic and diverse as the platform on which it thrives.
“Black cable isn’t bringing the story of police brutality in Ferguson to your kitchen table, the Black Internet is. From digital activism that echoes local demands for police accountability, to the humbling bravery of Black bloggers that have traveled to Ferguson to speak truth to power—the open Internet is a critical battleground where Black communities can connect across geographic lines, fight media misrepresentation, and oppose the police violence we find in every city, in our own voices.”
The daughter of Black Panther Janet Cyril, who ran the party’s Breakfast Program in NY and was editor of its national newspaper, Malkia is breaking new ground while following in her mother’s footsteps. Guided by the belief that “political change depends upon cultural change,” she’s organizing social justice coalitions and advocacy for media rights, access, and representation, using the internet to transform Black lives and Black movements. “When I was a child growing up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn…my mom would sing this song to me as the gun shots ricocheted in the background: lay down body/lay down little while/trouble soon be over/lay down little while. What my mother knew then, what I would only learn later, is that song can not only put a child troubled by violence to sleep, it can raise that child to dream, and raise a nation of dissidents to voice, to action, to power.”
Malkia has harnessed the power of history and her mother’s example. Decades ago, when the white-owned media refused to report on the brutality of segregation, civil rights leaders challenged the broadcast license of a TV news station—and won. This case set the precedent for public participation as a mandatory element of the Federal Communications Commission’s regulatory process. It also spurred Malkia and an army of advocates to take on the FCC and demand net neutrality: the principle that internet service providers treat all data on the web equally, not discriminating against or blocking users or content. Malkia believes this to be the most significant first amendment free speech issue of the 21st century—one central to civil rights.
“Tests are being done online and homework is being provided online and [it’s] how people apply for jobs; our entire economy is becoming digitized. But these [technologies] that we use to make life easier…their usage and benefits are determined by who owns and controls them. So, when you push a set of people into a slow lane or if you push them out completely, they can’t engage in the economy, they can’t engage politically. I want to…work with my community to elevate our voice in the chimney of the mainstream media, and the only way to do that is to ensure that net neutrality is understood as a civil right, that internet freedom is understood as a civil right, that these are not only civil rights, but human rights.”
Malkia founded the Center for Media Justice and the Media Action Grassroots Network, a coalition of 175 community groups, to build a powerful, cross-sector movement that gives the marginalized a seat at the table and a voice in debates on the future of the internet. She traveled state to state, city to city, organizing and mobilizing more than 100 civil rights groups and seven million people to fight for net neutrality. They rallied in streets across the country and flooded the FCC with emails and phone calls, urging them to protect democracy with a free and open internet.
Despite extensive lobbying by some of the wealthiest and most powerful telecom companies in the world, in 2015, the FCC passed the strongest net neutrality rules to date. “My mom taught me that knowledge is not power…knowledge is power’s prerequisite. As such, an open, affordable and democratic internet is a requisite driver for democracy. I like to think that on that day, I carried forward my mother’s legacy.”
Beyond organizing and advocacy, Malkia is also developing strategies to help social movements use new media, which she details in “The Digital CultureSHIFT: From Scale to Power: How the Internet is Shaping Social Change, and Social Change is Shaping the Internet.” Movement leaders across generations and sectors have endorsed her ideas, including Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter: “This ground breaking report illustrates how powerful and important it is to re-imagine the way we look at the internet to build social movements. It is crucial that as we continue to fight for Black Lives, we also integrate a clear understanding of the technology and tools that have been so important in that fight.”
A gifted writer, poet, and public speaker, Malkia’s work has appeared in Politico, the Huffington Post, and Essence Magazine. Named one of the “Women who Won Net Neutrality” by Slate and a recipient of the prestigious Donald H. McGannon Award for advancing the roles of women and people of color in the media reform movement, Malkia believes: “We’ll know Black lives matter when access to and ownership of media, arts, and technology platforms is not determined by racial hierarchy; when Black communities have demand and won digital platforms that work for and not against us…and when the cultural terrain makes killing us an anomaly, birthing a new norm in which a growing digital Black power allows Black voices to speak powerfully for ourselves. My mom spent her short lifetime fighting for my voice so I could spend the rest of my life fighting for yours…I believe that we will win.”
News About Malkia Cyril
Slate, September 22, 2015
Al Jazeera, August 8, 2015
Forbes, March 19, 2014
San Francisco Chronicle, January 1, 2012
Politico, April 19, 2011
YouTube, April 12, 2011