August 13, 2014

Beyond the Hoodie: Michael Brown's Extended Arms

As Michael Brown “succeeds” Trayvon Martin as the catalyst of the next national “hard look in the mirror” at racial violence, there are powerful parallels. To the extent that police and a good swath of white culture perceive blacks and, especially, young black males as stereotyped objects, the main object of the conversation passes (and evolves, I hope) from the hoodie to the body itself.

Certainly, the examination that took place around the hoodie (1, 2) was fundamental. As body language is the most visceral language, however, this new conversation (assuming it gains traction) addresses stereotyping and miscommunication at a still most basic level. After the Michael Brown killing, the symbolism that emerges as standing for the systemic dehumanization of young black males is the gesture of extending one’s arms to the sky, communicating to the man that one is not a threat and that one is unarmed. I’m interested to see whether and how this gesture permeates traditional and social media. But, since Michael Brown’s body language and his gestures are now in play, the following photo — which quickly surfaced from his Facebook page (similar to the iconic photos of emerged of Trayvon as a youth in that Hollister shirt and also in the hoodie) is the place to start.

As evidenced by the overnight Twitter meme, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, what’s blatantly obvious, in a way that’s been blatantly ignored, is that white culture can’t physically see or “read” black youth — not with all that fear and ignorance, and the consequent stereotypes in the way. Michael Brown offers a peace sign and white culture can’t distinguish it from a gang sign? That’s a disconnect at the most primal level.

Still, the visual narrative of the hands raised is already off and running, as evidence by the chilling photo above leading the NYT’s Ferguson slideshow yesterday.

This photo was also in that slideshow, the backlight (from emergency vehicles?) literally outlining the body language of this protester. (Of course, the effect itself  is quite evocative, conjuring, among other things, the chalk mark outline so familiar to homicides.)

I thought I’d add this photo, also, so you can see a less abstract and a clearly more “proactive” protest example. Here we see young men in Ferguson “assuming the position,” this instance of the gesture just one of many.

But back to the photo leading this post, the one also leading the NYT slideshow. There is so much going on in, I’m hoping you’ll weigh in with your take. For my part, one thing that’s brilliant about the photo is the non-verbal analogy between “arms” and “arms.” The black man displays the universal symbol of pacification, of knowing the drill, of surrender, of demonstrating he’s in no position to threaten the man even if he was armed. And then, there’s the appreciation of how little that even matters in the face of such overkill.

Given events of this week, what the man in the blue shirt now also represents is solidarity with Michael Brown. If this man has zero power to speak of, the power of the photo is how blatantly it exposes how the black man — still so unnerving to the white culture — can’t even surrender.

Also see yesterday’s post, If it Loots, it Leads: Stereotyping the Police Shooting of Michael Brown.

Updated 7:50am PST with additional image.

(photos 1 and 3: Whitney Curtis for The New York Times. caption 1: Police officers in riot gear confronted a man Monday night during a protest in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, over the weekend. photo 2: Facebook. caption 3: A protester stood in front of the police line, holding his hands in the air, as the slain teenager was said to have been doing. photo 4: Robert Cohen, caption: Protestors blocking Florissant Road got in a brief confrontation with members of the clergy who asked them to leave the street and come pray with them in front of the Ferguson police department on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, one day after a Ferguson officer shot and killed Michael Brown)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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