Alarmed and frustrated by the news reports of a police officer shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager last weekend in a St. Louis suburb, C.J. Lawrence, an attorney from Jackson, Mississippi, monitored the horrific scenes as they unfolded on traditional and social media outlets. Through it all, Lawrence imagined what it might be like if he was the subject of the media’s unflinching stare.
Eighteen-year-old Mike Brown was shot shortly after noon on Saturday in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominately African American community of about 21,000 people just northwest of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. Details surrounding the shooting remain sketchy, but the outrage is undeniable, sparking protests against the police. Some rioting and looting occurred on Sunday night, and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. More-peaceful protests took place Monday night as marchers challenged police with shouts of “Don’t shoot me!” Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened on Monday a civil rights inquiry into the shooting.
Amid still-high tensions in the community, unrest continued for a third night and into the wee hours Wednesday as a police officer shot and critically wounded a man not far from where crowds stood in protest vigils. Another incident occurred when a woman was hit in the head by a bullet from an apparent drive-by shooting. According to Mike Colombo, a local reporter for KMOV-TV4 in St. Louis, police say the shootings were unrelated to protests over Brown’s death.
Lawrence, 33, is a self-described social activist who uses the Twitter handle @CJ_musick_lawya. He noticed one aspect of the coverage that drew his focused ire. Nearly all the reports of the shooting repeatedly showed Brown, who would be entering college this month, in a photo from his Facebook account, unsmiling and standing on a porch while flashing a hand sign of his thumb and first two fingers extended. Some speculated he might have been a gang member. Rarely did Lawrence see another, less provocative, and less menacing photo from Brown’s Facebook account—like the photo of him with a half-smile, wearing headphones at a video arcade, or the one of him in his high school cap-and-gown regalia. Those images would have told a different, more affirming, or at least value-neutral story in line with Brown’s life as a typical high school kid.
So Lawrence offered up a cyber challenge to his Twitter followers. He tweeted a pair of photographs of himself: one of him delivering a 2003 commencement address at Tougaloo College as President Bill Clinton laughed in the background and another of him clowning for a camera with a Hennessy bottle filled with cola. And he posed a hashtag question for his followers: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which photo would flash across television screens and newspaper front pages?
The reaction went viral. Almost immediately, friends and strangers posted their own two portraits, offering complex versions of their lives as scholars, workers, family members, and caregivers juxtaposed with playful images of them scowling, flashing finger signs, holding weapons, and drinking alcoholic beverages.
In a series of email interviews this week, Lawrence explained to me that he was moved by the way media images portrayed Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old high school student who was fatally shot in 2012 by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. “I was inspired by the fact that even during George Zimmerman’s trial, the image the defense painted was one of Trayvon Martin being a menace, a narrative that seems palatable for that jury in Florida,” he wrote. “It was believable to them that this poor kid that was simply walking home and being stalked by a stranger with the gun could somehow be in the wrong.”
Lawrence thought the media was doing it once again in showing Brown in a way that would turn public emotions against him and garner sympathy for the police. “A few people have questioned why [we] even have those ‘negative images’ of ourselves exist in the first place,” he wrote. “My answer to that is if nobody ever shoots us while we are simply playing our music, walking to the store for Skittles, leaving a convenience store, or simply riding the train on New Year’s—[the media] wouldn’t have to select a photo at all.”
Lawrence’s #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign makes a powerful statement. While stunning simply by the spontaneity and volume of people who responded, the photos also reveal a humanistic and complex narrative of young, black American lives. They’re more than mere pixels in cyberspace. Rather, these images represent a purposeful, nonviolent protest against what happened to a young black man in Missouri—and what many fear could happen to themselves or someone they love.
This is social media at its best, offering a real-time counternarrative to the media’s typically negative and stereotypical imagery of young black people as something to be feared. The side-by-side comparisons allow those people in the pictures to define themselves in a context of their choosing. Absent is the unspoken but overt filter so often imposed upon them by editors who lack awareness or sensitivity to the lives of black Americans.
Lawrence noted that someone made a profound observation about the pairs of photos in the hashtag campaign. “She said ‘The thing that’s so unsettling about the comparison and contrast of a lot of the photos is that in most of them they are just images of black people being black people in both pictures,’” he wrote.
Yesha Callahan was among the first in the blogosphere to echo Lawrence’s work with her Monday morning post to TheRoot.com. Media reports surrounding Brown’s death “ha[ve] once again shown that the narrative the media paints surrounding black people in America more often than not includes depicting us as violent thugs with gang and drug affiliations,” she wrote.
Lawrence said the attention that his hashtag campaign generated affirms his original outrage over the media coverage of Brown’s death and its aftermath.
“In a sense it is AMAZING because it proved that through our collective voice and creativity we DID SHOW that black voices matter and that black lives matter,” he wrote, adding that it was an absurd idea to have his followers choose a single picture to represent the totality of their life. “It doesn’t matter that I took [either] photo. I’m the same CJ whether I’m holding Hennessy or speaking in front of the president. I deserve to be treated like a human and not shot down in the street like a dog.”
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.