The Faces of Black Twitter: Meet Johnetta 'Netta' Elzie
Johnetta ‘Netta’ Elzie photographed by Shayan Asgharnia for Okayplayer
Name: Johnetta ‘Netta’ Elzie
Twitter Handle: @Nettaaaaaaaa
On August 8th, 2014, Johnetta Elzie was 25 years old, living in St. Louis and had just finished a job as a phone interviewer for the United States Department of Agriculture. With thoughts of continuing her education, Elzie used social media to comment on topics such as pop culture, beauty, hair and sports. The next day, an unarmed Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. The sight of his prone, lifeless body in the middle of street sent shockwaves throughout the black and brown community. It was that moment that served as the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” for Elzie; she drove to Ferguson to join protests against the killing–and hasn’t looked back since. Known as @Nettaaaaaaaa on Twitter, this 21st century civil rights leader has become a force to be reckoned with, using her social media presence to advocate the fight against injustice.
An organizing member of WeTheProtesters.org, Elzie has been called one of the world’s greatest new leaders by Fortune and was the recipient of the Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award back in 2015. Alongside members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, DeRay McKesson and others online like Donovan X. Ramsey, Netta has helped collect data on people killed by police, been a field organizer for Amnesty International and served the people as a part of the Sophia Project in St. Louis. Like many others, she has used her voice to point attention to those who have been wronged, to those who need to be celebrated and to relate to the everyday up-and-downs that black-and-brown people go through in America. With 125K followers (and counting) — Netta’s social media following soared initially during the Ferguson protests thanks to her on-the-ground actions.
As a former Southeast Missouri State journalism student, Johnetta utilized Twitter and the power of the internet to fund, mobilize, execute protests and make demands on police departments. Such moves might have made anyone else concerned about just getting that blue check, but her online status has also made her a target of the intelligence monitoring community. Nonetheless, attempts by the trolls and stalkers have not stopped her in her quest to apply pressure to those in control of the laws and bylaws in this country. “I do share my first and last name online,” she told us in an emailed interview. “I didn’t want to share my name [originally] out of fear of trolls knowing my name, but I removed the fear and owned it online.” Her activism has turned her into a bright beacon, as presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton + Bernie Sanders, respectively) have sought her council in developing platforms around racial justice. “When I speak for myself, I call it ‘The Movement’ and I say that I’m a protester,” she told Complex‘s Aaron Randle in a March profile piece. “I don’t refer to myself as a ‘Black Lives Matter protester.”
While Netta cannot control how the media powers-that-be frame her and her narrative, the St. Louis native exemplifies strength by remaining herself on-and-offline. “I’ve worked hard to stay consistent on social media platforms and in real life,” she said. “I appreciate my privacy, which causes me to not share all things online or with certain people because so many people read not just my tweets but my replies too.” Johnetta Elzie became such a trusted source of information because she has presented herself as knowledgeable, excellent and a strong voice capable of executing change. “I honestly remember ‘Black Twitter’ before it was [actually] called ‘Black Twitter,” she shared with us. “I remember the horrible feeling of knowing the white gaze was interested in what black people were saying or talking about on our side of Twitter.” That particular form of digital gentrification has come back to bite publications such as Time, Glamour, Billboard and Elle in the ass when they’ve jumped on the bandwagon with pieces that showed a clear lack of understanding regarding the roots of black culture. And Netta has consistently been one of the many spreading the word on the ‘white gaze’ trying to monopolize and monetize black culture–without black people.
Joining Twitter in 2009, Johnetta was prompted by a friend who suggested she try it because she was over Facebook. As her social media following soared, the power she wielded through her Twitter was emboldened thanks to the beautiful friendships she made from #BlackTwitter. “I’ve made some lifelong friends offline, specifically from Twitter because of the community I built and became a part of years ago.” Her partner-in-protest, DeRay McKesson, is someone she is constantly associated with. The duo founded a newsletter, This Is the Movement, which provides tens of thousands of subscribers with “detailed statistics, first-person accounts and reported pieces on police brutality and social justice efforts in America.” Her online activity has not led to full-time employment because, according to her, being on the platforms and advocating IRL has “probably ruined my job opportunities.” “My platforms have helped me to become my own boss,” she said. Her activism on-and-offline has endeared her to those engrained in the fight such as filmmaker Ava DuVernay and activist Diane Nash.
“I have no choice but to live. That’s what they hate, right? The fact that we’re still alive. That we can still smile.”
Online harassment, or cyber bullying, is not uncommon to public figures who enjoy a healthy following through social media. And Netta has had her fair share of instigation from stalkers and trolls–not to mention multiple branches of the US government. At worst, she’s been called degrading names, threatened with physical violence and told that committing suicide would be “awesome,” yet Netta continues to toe her own line when it comes to sharing with her followers. “I have to remind myself not everyone who follows me likes me or wishes me the best,” she said. “I don’t share much about my family or friends or current relationships. Everything is usually very vague unless I’m sharing a specific story in the past.” She has had local police waiting for her at the airport on multiple occasions, and her activities have been monitored by the Dept. Of Homeland Security, among others.
It is unsurprising that even though Netta is one of the most prominent voices in the movement, she doesn’t receive the same sort of positive treatment that others involved receive. Loneliness, stress and attacks on the mind, body and soul are just a few of the items that one carries when devoting themselves wholly to the equality of others. Yet, unlike those women + men in history’s past who have had their stories discarded by ignorance and time, Ms. Elzie will not let history relegate her to the background. As one of the developers behind U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch‘s ‘Campaign Zero’ initiative, Johnetta is unbothered because the focal point behind her drive is not press or retweets, it is making an impact live and in living color. “I care about [hair, beauty, plus-size fashion], social justice and music. That will never change, no matter who my audience is,” she confidently stated to us.
During our chat, we asked if Netta, a person who rarely divulges the inner-workings of her personal life online, had ever been mistaken for another sexual preference during her online adventures. As the story goes an unnamed “white online publication” had Netta as its No. 1 queer person of 2015. “[They] hadn’t reached out to me to participate, or [inquired] if I wanted to be included of if I was even queer,” she told us. The awkwardness between the publication and the protestor only became worst after Netta took to Twitter to get a response. “I tweeted them to ask why this happened and their response was to ‘make a correction’ while still using my name and photo on this botched story as their leading [article].” It wasn’t up to that publication to decide Netta’s sexual orientation for her, yet thankfully after going public, the infamy behind it caused the publication to take the entire article down.
In person, Netta is as cool as the other side of the pillow. Effortlessly charismatic, clever with the quips and as engaging offline as she is online, she shared with us her greatest tweet (hint, hint: it is pinned to her page) that was retweeted in only the way she can. “I tweeted ‘shoutout to all the black girls’ and a young white woman wrote back, saying, ‘And the white girls, the hispanic girls and the asian girls.'” Quoting the tweet, Netta responded and simultaneously shared to her audience her immediate thoughts. “GIRL. I said Black,” she posted on October 2015. “18K retweets. I’m sure it’s my most popular tweet because it is an accurate description of how black people, black women and girls specifically, can not have one moment or thing for ourselves without someone trying to actively center whiteness.” Erasure in real time is an ongoing circumstance that finds #BlackTwitter routinely sending knowledge darts to knock offenders back into the learning position.
Johnetta Elzie has no meaningful fucks to give to the bullshit. All her energy is committed to making sure racial injustice and police brutality against people of color comes to a halt. From helping DeRay run for mayor in Baltimore to applying pressure to this fall’s presidential hopefuls, Netta is helping others to understand inclusivity, expansiveness, diversity and equality. Being a member of this advocacy platform and fighting for change is a life one doesn’t get groomed for. Instead, Netta and her activist crew keep themselves and us sane through clapback-tivism, humor and real talk. With an appeal that is made up of the women in her family (“My great-grandma. She built a couch. She can do anything.”) to the activists in her crew (Alexis Templeton, Brittany Packnett + Kayla Reed to name a few) — Johnetta Elzie is an empowering medley of strength, style and swagger who offers an all-encompassing view of blackness.
>>>Follow Ms. Johnetta Elzie on Twitter @Nettaaaaaaaa.