07/20/2012 01:50 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

A Rallying Cry

This coming weekend in Washington, D.C., the international community will come together for the International AIDS Conference from July 22-27. There will be panels, film screenings and private events, but it all starts with a march.

As I tweeted out that Rev. Al Sharpton would be participating in the march, one of my followers asked a simple question: "Is marching still effective in 2012?" It's a question many people ask, both silently and outright. My response to this follower was that yes, marching is still relevant. The problem is most people see no use for it until they are REALLY distressed by something and then they are motivated to march and rally.

I cited the Trayvon Martin case when there were marches and rallies across the country. The family called National Action Network and we had a rally in Florida with 30,000 people. In other cities like D.C., word of a rally was spread via Twitter and thousands of people showed up. The combined action across the country showed the obvious support for the Martin family and cries for justice were heard.

Shortly thereafter, Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, appointed a special prosecutor and charges were filed. This didn't happen because of the outpouring on Twitter alone. The combination of people's voices on twitter and their mass action of marches and rallies gave credence to their cries.

A month ago, National Action Network teamed up with SEIU 1199, NAACP and other groups to march in New York against the city's "Stop & Frisk" policy. Leading up to the march, I got an email about a rally that we'd be doing in the days leading up. But this wasn't your mother's or your grandmother's rally. We were hosting a Twitter rally.

I'm sure there are people reading this who have never heard of a Twitter rally. When we think about the world we live in, almost everything can be done virtually or through some new type of technology. Students attend school online, people date on the internet, banking can be done from a phone or a computer, people gather together in virtual chatrooms and have deep meaningful conversations or talk about nothing at all. This is the world we live in. It should be no different that people would gather together on one of the most popular microblogging sites in the country with the same purpose and shared sentiments. The Twitter rally was aimed at loudly raising our virtual voices and drawing attention to our cause in the same way that is done at a "real" rally. Our intended outcome was to echo the importance of the march through our individual networks and get others to join not only virtually, but in person as well.

As we live in a fast-paced, technology-driven world, we have to embrace technology as part of our lives, even in our fight for justice. When I think back to the days of Jena 6, long before Twitter or Instagram and before Facebook was the site that everyone joined, there was still the use of technology in the fight for justice.

What we think of today as a simple email was the most effective tool for communicating in 2007. I remember receiving regular emails with updates, requests, and instructions to engage others. But there were still the marches and rallies that allowed people to step from behind the computer and onto the streets.

Last year, when the Occupy movement began, one of the first things that the original protesters did was to start a website; two days after the movement began, a Facebook page was started and a month thereafter the group had over 100 Facebook pages dedicated to its cause.

But the movement did not exist solely online. It was the actual occupation of public spaces near and far that gave the movement real momentum. Not only were occupiers taking residence in parks across the country, but they were marching and rallying with other causes.

Finally, there's the claim that Egypt gained its freedom through Twitter. And while that sounds good in a technological age, the reality is that Twitter was a vehicle to communicate the broader message to the masses. The masses then showed up in Tahrir Square and other places around Egypt in rallies calling for the outster of Mubarak. Social media didn't create that on its own, it needed the physical presence to show that it was real.

Marching is a traditional means within civil rights to achieve a goal. Social media is a means by which people communicate their desire and methods to create change. As one of the Egyptian activists tweeted during the Egyptian revolution, "We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world." But the mass action still has to be part of the plan. Mass action is about showing solidarity, strength in numbers; it's about bringing attention to a cause. When thinking about the civil rights era of the '50s and '60s, there were marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, boycotts and other means to achieve equal rights. Those things were done before the advent of social media.

As we think about future movements and mass action, we need to be mindful that the rally does not really exist on Twitter or Facebook, but rather social media are the communication tool to spread the word; they are the megaphone. Marching still remains an effective way to demonstrate the mass numbers that stand together on certain issues, social media are there for the rallying cry.