@stereowilliams wrote an essay on this topic yesterday: Sentimental Photos, Ben Carter, and why black people's anger is necessary
@dopegirlfresh and @thejournalista have tweeted extensively in the last day about this picture.
This storify includes most of @dopegirlfresh's tweets:
Complicating the narrative of the black boy hugging a cop
Today I've been watching a stream of posts on twitter and facebook about a 12 year old black boy in Portland, OR giving away free hugs at a #Ferguson protest. A police officer spotted the boy, who was crying, and asked for a hug. A photographer handily snapped the moment, somebody slapped a little context onto the photo and tossed it out to the internet. It's been racing through my timeline.
That photo has been tweeted and posted and retweeted and reposted, mostly by white folks in my timelines, with commentary like, "this gives me hope" and "this is how we roll in Portland".
Several people have taken me to task for being a grinch about this picture and story, and like I said earlier, on the one hand it's just a cute picture of a cute kid hugging a cop. But right now, in these times, in our U.S. context, a picture of a black boy hugging a white cop is not just a picture. I'm troubled by the manipulative use of this image (and this child).
First, as to "this is how we roll in Portland", THIS is ALSO how y'all roll in Portland. As in most other places, there are plenty of officer involved shootings to choose from.
Second, it's not a question as to whether there is hope for better change to come. There is always hope, and there are many many people working hard toward that better future. What gives me hope is not a fantasy snapshot moment, but the thousands of people protesting, refusing to allow the status quo to remain. What gives me hope is the people taking time and energy to focus on resourcing and loving marginalized youth. What gives me hope is when white folks stop saying "not all cops" or "not all white people" or "ALL lives matter", and move into a more critical awareness of our complicity in an oppressive system.
Change isn't coming because a young black boy hugged a white cop in kevlar. That photo tempts people to think that we have arrived at the change required. That photo distracts us from the reality that just a few days ago in Cleveland police officers shot and killed Tamir Rice, a different 12 year old black boy, while he was playing at the park with a toy gun. They rolled right up, got out of the car, and shot him.
We're not going to hug this out.
The implication of this photo is that if young black boys would just spend their days offering free hugs, we could solve this problem. If you probe further into the story behind the photo, you will find more details on this child's life. Adopted by two moms in Portland (at least one of whom is white), this child was born with drugs in his system and was subject to abuse from his birth family. The narrative hums along with a white savior track. Adopted out of his dreadful (black) circumstances he is thriving and expected to do great things with his life.
The reconciliation of black and white folks, the collapsing of oppressive authoritarian structures, is a lot of hope to put on this child's shoulders. What differentiates him from Tamir Rice? What happens when he goes to the park to play? Or wanders off to the corner store for skittles? What is going to change in white people's hearts to stop seeing black and brown children/people as threats? This photo says the change has happened. For too many of our black and brown sisters and brothers, this photo lies.
In these times, how does this picture hit our black brothers and sisters? If you are a supporter of the protest efforts across the nation, how does reposting this photo further those efforts? How does it undermine the message protesters are trying to get across by staging die ins at the mall? Does one free hug make up for tear gas and rubber bullets? Does the framing and display of that one free hug distract you, even for a minute, from the seriousness of what is happening?
Let me offer you an analogy: Imagine yourself at a rally protesting rape and intimate violence. Along comes a well-meaning friend who says, "I know we've been protesting rape for days. But LOOK! Here's a picture of a husband sweetly kissing his wife!" It's not that there aren't loving and tender couples out there in the world. It's that there's a whole LOT of intimate violence wrapped up in the middle of it, and your timing stinks.
We need to stop with the shell games.
Lastly, you may very well frame this photo as a boy overwhelmed by tears of joy/relief at the embrace of the officer. And that may be so. But tears come for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which are fear and anger.
When I saw that photo, this is the story that came to mind immediately:
Seven years ago I had to report to a church committee that I was getting divorced. The first thing the committee said to me was, "We want you to know this is not a trial." And then they proceeded to behave as if it was a trial. At stake was whether I would be allowed to continue in my ordination process, even though there was nothing precluding a divorced person from ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was a long meeting, punctuated by having to wait outside the room, alone. At the end of the meeting they voted to permit me to continue in my process, although the room was clearly divided. My liaison said, "Good luck" and walked away from me for good.
I felt shamed, angry, terrified, and beat up by that committee, in a time when I was already vulnerable. They smiled at me and said they wanted to lay on hands and pray.
I sat paralyzed in that chair while the committee of 10 or so (mostly men) gathered around me, put their hands on my body, and prayed for me. The consequences of expressing my rage or refusing that prayer were too great for my family and myself. I wept openly as they prayed, swallowing my rage, allowing their touch.
The committee interpreted my tears as relief. They thought I was joyful at the outcome of the meeting (never mind the process of the meeting). They thought I was moved to tears by the Holy Spirit moving through their prayers.
If someone had taken a picture of me during that prayer, what would you have seen? How would you have framed that photo?
If you had asked me in that moment, could I have spoken of the turmoil in my mind? Could I have tolerated the repercussions?
When the young black boy in this photo was approached by the officer and asked for a hug, what were his options? Could he have said no? Did he have that power?
Did this child know, when he set up his free hug project, that his name and abuse history would be published on the internet? Was that his choice or his parents'? Was that their choice or the media's? Was that the media's choice or was it ours, in our ever insatiable appetite for what isn't ours to know?
What do his tears mean? What are you projecting into those tears (as certainly I have projected myself, eh?)?
It's just a picture, Katie. Can't you allow us a moment of hope and joy?
Go watch that video. Tamir Rice didn't even get a second.