As we saw in both the Trayvon Martin saga and in the recent coverage of the murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD, this weekend brought yet another reminder of how the narratives surrounding young black men who are murdered by police and authority figures, (hundreds of instances per year), are regularly distorted. Reporting on the news of the shooting death of 18 year old St Louis man Mike Brown by police, NBC News, to use one notable example, used this image of Brown to illustrate the tweet.
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 10, 2014
Almost instantly readers began speculating as to whether or not that was a “gang symbol” Brown was using. Setting aside the obvious, that even gang members and criminals don’t deserve to be executed by police when, especially when, as eye witness accounts have suggested, Brown was either down on his knees with his hands in the air, or attempting to flee when he was gunned down, this is an example of the insidious type of editorializing that often happens when it comes to the types of images the media chooses when they report on young black men.
Again, as with Martin, you’ll remember much of the media chose images in which he was posing in a so-called threatening, or “thuggish” manner, as opposed to ones in which he appeared like a normal, smiling, goofy teen. A quick search of Brown’s Facebook, from which the image in question was sourced, turned up plenty of other more neutral options. Yes, there were more than a few where Brown was mean-mugging, or making what one could interpret as “gang signs” if one wanted to. But mixed in with those were an assortment of smiling, friendly, loving, and innocuous photos of the boy posing with a baby, or appearing, well, like any of us:
— luke oneil (@lukeoneil47) August 10, 2014
No, NBC did not outright say that Brown was a gang member, but the thing is they didn’t need to. The picture did the work for them.
I made light of this in a tweet, that seems to have resonated with a lot of people, saying, isn’t it weird that when young white people throw-deuces, or what have you, in pictures, (which is exceptionally common), it’s automatically understood that they’re just playing around, but when young black men do it it’s because they’re violent thugs.
All of which leads to an interesting question: If something were to happen where any of us made national news, either for perpetrating a crime ourselves, or being the victim of one, what picture would they choose? The one of us partying and drunk if we were in some sort of car accident? What if we were raped? Would they choose the image of us dressed provocatively, by which to suggest that we were somehow asking for it?
That’s a question at the heart of the powerful hashtag going on right now (not something you can often say), called #iftheygunnedmedown. In it Twitter users are sharing images of themselves both as “upstanding citizens” and those that read as more “stereotypically black.” A distinguished veteran on one side, a scowling man in a hoodie in another. A college graduate here, a partier with a bottle of alcohol there. A happy father and a pot-smoker, and on and on.
— Steve Marmel (@Marmel) August 10, 2014
The point is evident, but it’s worth repeating, especially after an incident like this one: We are not stereotypes easily distilled for media narratives. We are people. All of us. Every last fucking one of us.