Words of Influence: Johnetta Elzie
Text: Rahkia Nance
In the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Johnetta Elzie was one of the primary voices using Twitter to report from the scene of the shooting, showing scenes and perspectives that major news media outlets missed. Since then, Elzie has emerged as a civil rights activist and gained hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. She chatted with us about sudden social media fame and the joys of unplugging.
What was your social life like before August 2014?
JE: (laughs) Super chill. It was way chill. I feel like I had maybe 2,000 followers, which was a lot for me. Whenever I reached around 2,000 followers back then I would usually delete the account and start over after a break from Twitter. So, imagine my life now. It was such a sweet time. I talked about whatever was on my mind.
What made you start to record what you were seeing?
JE: Social media has been a part of my life since I was 14. It made sense to just say, “Let’s record this.” A lot of things we were seeing on TV at night, after being on West Florissant all day just didn’t seem possible. Some of it was just unrealistic. And because local media wasn’t really talking about the shooting at all. We felt like we needed to get people updated because people on Twitter cared, even if it isn’t on the news.
Social media is a prominent part of your activism. What made you choose that tactic?
JE: It made the most sense to me, really. It’s second nature. It’s the most comfortable and the fastest way. We couldn't write newspaper articles on the scene, but you can send this fast tweet. We just wanted people to read things the quickest, fastest way. Twitter and Instagram were the fastest options to use, while still being present during the early days of the uprising. It was important because it was home.
What was it like for you to be thrust into the public eye so suddenly?
JE: It was awful (laughs)! A lot of things I didn’t learn until I just had to learn them. I never knew I was an introvert. I’m not shy, but I’m definitely very reserved and quiet around people I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to be that way and answer questions in media by reporters you don't know. Even moments like this interview, someone writes you and is like “Hey, I want to talk…” It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do. It’s definitely been a learning experience.
Everything that you learned growing up comes back, and it’s one of the hardest tests for me. The things you’re told like, “be kind and respectful of others,” mind your manners even when other people aren’t”—it’s always a battle. When it comes to legitimate trolls, I usually don’t respond. Reacting is not something I have to do anymore.
Being so visible in such a public platform, you’re subject to a lot of harassment. How often does that happen and how do you handle it?
JE: It doesn’t happen as often anymore. I don’t see it as much as I possibly could and that’s a big difference. It’s not often than I tweet about things that are trigger points for certain audiences on Twitter, like the trolls and the alt-righters and the 45ers. I might say one thing a month that might get a lot of attention now. I haven’t removed myself , but my activity on Twitter is not as high. Maybe that’s a direct correlation, or maybe it’s me growing and my preferences changing as I get older.
In 2017, I deleted Twitter for five months. I existed only on Instagram and Snapchat, and it was such a peaceful experience. No trolls! There was no one trying to cause me any kind of mental or emotional harm. It was just photos. But on Twitter, it can be so much and it’s in silos. This is all you hear/read. Even if it’s not a real person, even if it’s just a troll account, you are still taking that in.
When I took those five months off, it was basically so I could sort through all the shit that had been said about/to me in the years before that. It was the first time in three years I had sorted through all of my shit, what people thought of me, what I thought of my own self. Being in this position had really taken a toll on me mentally. When I came back to Twitter and to Facebook, it was very warm and welcoming. I’ve been contemplating taking some time away again.
Was there a triggering moment that made you disconnect?
JE: I had been debating it before I did it. I had a lot of things that were happening in my personal life. I was moving across the country. And I thought after getting this accomplished, to reward myself I should take a break. Disconnecting from social media gave me a chance to connect with people in the city I had moved to and show up for friends in a way that I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do before. It presented a lot of opportunities for me. In this moment, I’m still maintaining that kind of life.
Being older is really wild . . . There are things that I wanted to accomplish in my life before Ferguson, like finishing school. But those preconceived lists of ‘by the time I’m 30 I’m going to have this and this and this’? I didn’t have that. At 24, my mom passed away in January 2014. In February, one of my good friends, Stephon Averyhart, was killed by the police in St. Louis City. By the time I turned 25 in April, I didn’t want to be here.
I didn’t want to experience this world without my mom. The only thing that kept me going really was my little sister. I thought about what world would she be living in and if I’m no longer living. I’m 11 years older than her. . I needed to figure out what it is I need to do to keep being a good example for my sister in a way my mom would approve . . .When I’m home in St. Louis, I’m fixated on my family. There are lots of things in my real, personal life that keep me rooted in reality so that I’m not looking for anything anywhere else.
How do you balance your very public persona with your private, personal life?
JE: That’s a good question. I don’t feel the need to be so present online anymore. I guess it’s me getting older and having so many intense online years because of Ferguson. In real life, I like how intentional I can be in conversations. I try to keep personal, personal and my work, work. I feel like I show up as a better friend.
Do you have a social media routine?
JE: I don’t have a routine really. I will say to myself, “You probably could share what you thought on this,” or “Go chat with your friends.” Sometimes a DM is faster than an email. And a DM is faster than a text. Sometimes if I’m watching TV, I have to remind myself I can watch TV and tweet at the same time. But I can go days without tweeting. However, if you go missing for too long on Twitter people might think you’re missing in real life.