On Tuesday, in downtown Manhattan, I watched a tense moment unfold between New Yorkers who’d taken to the streets in protest of police brutality and a large group of NYPD officers. Maybe about 20 to 30 protesters, outnumbered, were pushed up against the police line, chanting the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A looser web of onlookers, reporters, and photojournalists pooled around them, ready to bear witness to whatever happened next. “Remember who you are when you take off your uniform!” someone in the crowd yelled at the black officers in the line. The protesters were trying to engage the officers on a more personal level, encouraging them to stand down and march beside them. When both sides of the line started raising their voices, organizers encouraged white allies to push to the front, and to use their bodies as shields from any potential police violence. In the middle of the fray, one black man who had been pleading with the police to understand his point of view offered a hug.
Seemingly out of nowhere, dozens of cameras started flashing and a large news video camera was hoisted over the heads in the crowd. Members of the media were quick to document what’s become an often-viral hallmark of the past decade of police brutality protests: imagery of white police officers embracing the black people they’ve been deployed to police.
It makes sense why these sorts of photos tend to take off during times of social upheaval and unrest. Against a backdrop of chaotic and often partisan coverage of huge, complicated movements, a simple, seemingly personal demonstration of warring factions temporarily setting aside their own agendas to recognize each other’s humanity can act like a balm. Celebrities and other prominent public figures might share these photos to advocate for peace, or “solidarity,” as Hugh Jackman did today on Twitter. Social media users aggregate the photos to call for “less finger pointing and more of THIS!” with hashtags like #LoveOneAnother.
As the protests against police killings of black people continue to unfurl in staggering numbers across the country — and around the world — seemingly well-meaning white allies uncomfortable with the violent imagery of cops clashing with protesters are instead clogging their feeds with counterprogramming: photos of police officers kneeling with protesters or giving them hugs. If only everyone could just stop the “finger pointing,” put aside their differences, and recognize that we are all part of one race — the human race! — then perhaps, the thinking goes, we wouldn’t all be embroiled in yet another national uprising against state-sanctioned violence and bloodshed.
In the age of social media, viral photos and videos are quickly stripped of their context.
But in the age of social media, viral photos and videos are quickly stripped of their context. One video of NYPD officers kneeling with cheering protesters on Sunday, which spread across Twitter and got picked up by local news, was filmed before the officers charged into that same peaceful and cheering crowd. “They beat the living shit out of us one hour after this,” tweeted one protester who was present during those protests. In different cities around the country, police officers have knelt with protesters one moment, then maced, teargassed, and arrested them en masse in the next. According to the journalist Touré, one activist during demonstrations in Brooklyn on Sunday arranged for a photo op in which he and police leadership knelt together — which angered people in the crowd who consider these sorts of gestures hollow PR attempts that overlook the institutional problem of excessive policing. “Maybe 15 minutes after cops and leadership were kneeling together and literally holding hands,” Touré tweeted, “the cops were in attack mode.”
Photos and videos of police officers hugging black people as positive markers of postracial harmony have been going around for years now. In one of the most famous of the genre, a 12-year-old boy named Devonte Hart was photographed tearfully hugging an officer at a demonstration in Oregon in 2014, during the height of the Ferguson protests. After it was first published in the Oregonian, the photo was shared hundreds of thousands of times, becoming “the hug shared round the world.” But the context behind the image is much more sinister, and much more devastating. Devonte and his other black adopted siblings were frequently trotted out for photo ops by his white parents, Sarah and Jennifer Hart, so they’d be viewed as a “happy, if eccentric, family.” Later Jennifer drove the entire family off a cliff in what was ruled a murder-suicide. Devonte’s body was never found. When the photo reliably resurfaces during anti-police protests like the ones happening now, it’s a grisly reminder of how often these seemingly feel-good moments can be cynically manufactured to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with preserving black life.
The problem isn’t only one of context. Sharing images of police officers and protesters hugging it out suggests that antiblack racism and police brutality are best addressed with niceness, with one-on-one promises of understanding and care. But protesters aren’t out in the streets because they want individual police officers to be nicer to them. They’re angry that the US spends $100 billion annually on policing, making up anywhere from a third to 60% of entire local budgets — while health, education, housing, and other social services are frequently gutted. They’re angry that, for decades, the military and police force have been infiltrated by covert white supremacists. They’re angry about qualified immunity, a legal doctrine which has long shielded officers from liability for using excessive force. They’re angry that police officers across the country are currently suiting up in state-of-the-art body armor and face visors while doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic have been forced to do life-saving work in trash bags. They’re angry at a society that places more financial and symbolic value in policing than in funding our communities.
Protesters aren’t out in the streets because they want individual police officers to be nicer to them.
If you share pictures of cops kneeling or hugging protesters, you’re not advancing the cause against police brutality; if anything, you’re impeding it. As many have pointed out, continually promoting narratives of individuals rising above only serves to collectively lull the (white) public into a sense of complacency around the scale of this problem. While in the moment, scrolling through terror and destruction on your feed, you might think you’re promoting a nice little moment of compassion amid all the chaos, but it’s worth thinking critically before disseminating them. This movement is not about individuals. Police departments and unions that reject calls by advocates to drastically reduce their funding have a vested interest in people sharing lighthearted hugging snapshots as opposed to videos of officers tear gassing pregnant bystanders or beating up commuters on their way home.
But it’s not like there’s a dearth of heartwarming content to go around right now. While the nightly news might be obsessively playing looting videos on a loop, and more clips of horrifying instances of police brutality crop up every day the protests rage on, the marches have offered us plenty of beautiful and life-affirming moments: bus drivers refusing to transport arrested protesters; community members waving and cheering marchers on from their windows; marchers taking care of each other with free water, snacks, and hand sanitizer; unprecedented demonstrations of solidarity in small towns across the nation. We don’t need to thoughtlessly share pro-police videos to remind ourselves there’s still love and beauty in the world — or to convince ourselves that an even better world is possible. ●