Ellis Harrison wasn’t expecting to go viral on TikTok.
Harrison, a freshman at MU, was inspired to run every day to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by three armed white men who followed him in their trucks. Harrison has been documenting his runs on TikTok every day for more than a year and says he will continue to do so until Arbery receives justice.
To his surprise, his TikTok account has attracted more than 60,000 followers and generated more than 2 million likes.
Harrison said he was inspired to protest because he was particularly struck by the killing of Arbery in February 2020.
“I was in the Army before, so I kind of ran, just like maybe once a week. I would go out and run, and then I was just thinking that could literally happen to me,” he said. “Like if I ran in, say, a neighborhood and they didn’t recognize me, that is something that could possibly happen to me.”
Harrison said he was also prompted to protest after witnessing emotional footage of Arbery’s heartbroken mother. He said he wanted to protest racial injustice in his own way.
“We had a lot of protests in Kansas City, where I’m from,” he said. “And my mom’s a cop, and she was there, and people were throwing stuff at her, so I didn’t really want to be in one of those protests, so I just kind of thought of my own thing.”
Harrison said receiving likes on social media was not his goal but that he appreciates that people are supporting the fight for justice.
Harrison is going on Day 378 of his protest; although three men have been indicted in Arbery's killing, Harrison said he plans to continue running until a guilty verdict is in place.
Harrison, 24, films himself with background music for about 10 seconds every day, showing a short clip of his runs, which are typically 2 miles. Harrison also links to The Ahmaud Arbery Foundation in his bio to help raise money to support at-risk youths and honor the legacy of Arbery.
“Once his case is settled, we’re not going to be happy per se, but everybody would at least know that somebody got held accountable,” he said. “That’s what we all really want, to be honest.”
Harrison is not the only MU student using social media to push change.
Mikaela Ashley, a senior at MU, was named one of the nation’s 50 most promising multicultural students by the American Advertising Federation. She said social media, particularly Instagram, has been a useful tool to reach thousands of people and share her beliefs.
“A ton of the people who follow me are not following social justice advocates, so they’re not getting that kind of messaging from the people that they’re following,” she said. “I basically try to make posts as easy and digestible as possible for anyone from varying education levels on things like racism and Juneteenth, and things like that.”
Ashley has a “BLM” tab on her Instagram homepage, which includes about 100 posts she has curated or reposted related to racial issues in America. Some of her original content encourages people to watch documentaries like “13th,” and read books including “The New Jim Crow” and “White Fragility.” In addition to encouraging education and activism about race, she said that her 2,200-plus followers are welcome to direct-message her with questions.
Ashley said she often receives messages from people who are interested in engaging in conversations about race or wanting to learn more.
“I feel like social media has made it a lot easier for people to have access to people of varying life experiences to them,” she said “It’s just basically allowed completely different groups of people who would typically not interact or even really know anything about each other, it gives them the chance to truly learn about varied cultures different from their own.”
Similarly, Key Banks, a junior at MU and vice president of the MU Black Pre-Law Students Association, said he also uses social media as an avenue for building understanding.
Banks said he uses Twitter and Instagram to repost information from other accounts and add his own opinion to it. He said the Instagram account “soyouwanttotalkabout” is one from which he often reshares posts. Banks said the account does thorough breakdowns on sensitive issues, many of which are race related.
“I think just in general, the way content is curated or created on social media, I think that’s very useful in getting a point across to people who may not have a lot of knowledge on a particular subject matter,” he said.
Banks also said social media is a space that reaches a diverse audience with differing opinions and experiences.
“I think especially in a place like a university, not even just Mizzou, you have so many people who come from so many different walks of life, who experienced so many different things,” he said. “I think social media has really just given us the opportunity to share our experiences, to share our opinion, to let our voices go farther than they ever have before.”