In the wake of Michael Brown's shooting death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend, a new movement on Twitter is criticizing media portrayals of young black Americans as thuggish and violent with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.
Started by Twitter user @CJ_Musick_Lawya, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is populated by users posting two pictures of themselves, side by side, showing them in contrasting images — one clean-cut and accomplished, the other appearing stereotypically "thuggish." The hashtag accompanying the photos questions which image the media would use, out of context, in the case of their death.
The movement started as a way to draw attention to numerous news outlets' use of an image of Brown holding his fingers outspread in a peace sign, which many referred to as a "gang sign." The social media response to the photo, as well as to the larger trend of the publication of photos that show black victims of violence as "violent thugs with gang and drug affiliations", went viral quickly; the New York Times reports that #IfTheyGunnedMeDown has been used on Twitter more than 168,000 times.
Tyler Atkins, a 17-year-old student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, joined the campaign by posting a photo of himself in a tuxedo, holding a saxophone, next to an image that showed him stone-faced with a bandana tied around his head and his finger pointed at the camera. Atkins told the Times that "Had the media gained ahold of this picture, I feel it would be used to portray that I was in a gang, which is not true at all... This affects me deeply because the stories of Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and many more could have been me."
"They’re portrayed as if they deserved it, cop versus robbers, good guys versus bad guys," Jeremy Connally, a University of Texas computer science student, told the Times.
Trayvon Martin's depiction in the media was also highly criticized; like Brown, he was implied to be a thug, with news outlets circulating images of him shirtless, wearing gold grills on his teeth, and blowing smoke into the camera.
In the same way that Brown is being portrayed as a negative stereotype, "[t]here were no photos of Trayvon smiling with his family members or being just your average happy teen, which his family members said he was," writes Yesha Callahan of The Root.
You’d be hard-pressed to find mainstream media showing Brown at his high school graduation or with members of his family. Ironically, all of those photos exist courtesy of Brown’s Facebook page. Unfortunately, because of Ferguson police, we’ll never be able to see a photo of Brown attending his first day of college today.
Headlines as well as images have been culpable in perpetuating negative portrayals of the deaths of minorities, say critics. Many Twitter users admonished the Associated Press last week for publishing an article on the Renisha McBride trial titled, "Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch."
Fueled by the large Twitter base of black users often referred to collectively as "Black Twitter," a campaign emerged to satirize insensitive media headlines. "Police Officer Shoves Black Woman To The Ground; Ground Survives," reads one message. "Black youth charged with stealing police bullets: Found hidden in torso," reads another. "Overly Friendly New York City Police Hug Drug Dealing Man To Death." "[M]illions of Africans complain after free cruise to the Americas; slave traders find them 'ungrateful'."
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama called Brown's death "heartbreaking."
"I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding," Obama said in a press statement. "We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."
The St. Louis chapter of the NAACP also encouraged people on Twitter to use #blacklivesmatter, another hashtag quickly becoming viral in blogs and on social media.
Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson had told reporters on Monday that the department would release the name of the officer who killed Brown by 12pm the next day. But in a sudden announcement Tuesday, Jackson reneged, claiming that he feared for the officer's safety after alleged threats on social media.
#IfTheyGunnedMeDown is the second message to emerge from the protesters marching against police brutality in the St. Louis suburb this week. Protesters have also been addressing the armed forces descending on their peaceful demonstrations with the simple request of, "Don't shoot me!" They write it on t-shirts and chant it in unison, holding their hands in the air to show they are unarmed.