Of all the responses to the recent police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. — tear gas, looting, arrests — none has been more dispiriting than the mantra adopted by protesters: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” If the local police are so coldblooded that they will shoot a man with his hands up, then why put yours up, too?
“Two hands raised in the air is a classic gesture of surrender to authority,” Lauren Williams wrote on the Vox last week. But protesters “have turned it into a defiant symbol and a rallying cry,” she said.
No, it is what it is: a sign of surrender, another instance of using symbols instead of doing the substantive work required for African Americans to protect themselves — especially when living among hateful people.
In many predominantly black communities, of which Ferguson is typical, that work involves community organizing, voter education and creating schools that help students understand what it means to be black in a country founded on a belief in white supremacy.
“We think it’s about a system,” Kenny Wiley, organizer of a protest in Denver, told the city’s CBS affiliate last week. “We just feel like the system of racism and inequality is such a problem, pervasively, that black people and people of color are seen as criminal before they do anything.”
True, except that the “system” was not set up just to make whites view blacks as criminal; it was to make blacks see themselves as inferior. The problem may not be of black people’s making, but — unfairly or not — it is ours to solve.
And hand signs won’t be enough, unless you think that plaintive looks and chants will shame police into showing more respect.
Nearly two-thirds of Ferguson’s 21,100 residents are black. Black residents outvoted whites during the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama was on the ticket. But too many stayed home for municipal elections, and now they are stuck with a police force that is 94 percent white and hostile to them.
There is a way to fix that. But it’s not by holding hands up.
Look what happened to the hoodie, another “symbol of defiance” that emerged after the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. Wearing hooded jackets turned out to be less a show of solidarity with Martin than a fashion show of selfies on social media.
In the two years since, there has been no justice for Martin, only additional tweets. And with the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson on Aug. 9, another Twitter campaign has begun.
A much “favorited” protest photograph, which can be viewed on Vox , shows two solemn if not bewildered-looking black toddlers holding cardboard placards that read “Don’t shoot.”
Why put such soul-scarring signage in a baby’s hands? The next thing you know, they’ll be running and hiding every time they see a police officer. That’s not the kind of thinking you want to instill in a black child.
Megan Sims, a junior at Howard University, took a striking photograph of her school mates, a large group of them tightly packed into an auditorium-size room, hands up. But the looks on many of their faces was more of despair than defiance. Some of the upperclassmen had been helping incoming freshmen get settled into their rooms before breaking for the photo op, and I hope they went back to performing those good deeds.
Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has double-digit poverty and unemployment rates that mirror the rest of black America. The needs are essentially the same all over. Help from the Missouri ACLU was certainly welcomed in Ferguson, but other groups in the St. Louis area could also make a difference.
AmericaSCORES St. Louis, for instance, helps youngsters become more confident in their intellectual abilities and develop the character needed to make good choices, no matter how hard. And Keystone of St. Louis, an organization made up of “community-conscious young professionals” who raise money for worthy causes while hosting happy hours and other social events. Put your hands in the air and “party with a purpose,” they say.
Come to think of it, the Washington area could use more community-conscious young professionals, too.
As for the shooting death of Brown, justice delayed will certainly be justice denied. And so far, no amount of chanting has caused the FBI to be any more forthcoming than the Ferguson police.
Concern about injustice was poignantly conveyed in a photograph that showed five black men on their knees, backs turned and hands up. The hashtag was #DontShoot, followed by “because we have young life to support.”
Now stand up, put your hands down and roll up your sleeves.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.