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After Michael Brown’s killing, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown shows how selfies shape history

Lesley McSpadden, left, with her husband, Louis Head, after her 18-year-old son, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Huy Mach)

It sounds like something out of a Beverly Cleary novel: a mother exhorting her children to don clean underwear so that if something happens to them — heaven forbid — at least paramedics would know they were cared for.

It also hearkens back to a much simpler time. Today, those judging aren’t medical staff, but national media. And they’re not scrutinizing underwear, but photographs of victims posted on social media.

Now the concern is how media will portray a dead child’s life after he’s slain by police officers. This is the stuff of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, a Twitter hashtag that trended Sunday as part of the conversation surrounding the death of Michael Brown. Brown, 18, was an unarmed black teenager slain in Ferguson, Mo. He’d recently graduated high school. Black users shared pictures of themselves at their best — in uniforms or caps and gowns — juxtaposed with images that would garner less sympathy and perhaps paint more tawdry pictures of their lives.

Warning: Viewers may find photos offensive. After Trayvon Martin’s death attracted media attention, some outlets and social media circles chose to circulate photos of the teen smoking or giving the camera the middle finger. The Daily Caller published Martin’s purported Twitter feed. This was, some claimed, evidence Martin was not a child, but a violent thug who had it coming — though some of these photos weren’t of Martin at all.

Ultimately, it was a selfie of Martin in a hoodie that became the image associated with his death. Martin was wearing a hoodie when George Zimmerman killed him, and the hashtag #IAmTrayvonMartin allowed even the Miami Heat to share photographs of themselves wearing hoodies in a show of solidarity.

In his syndicated column, Leonard Pitts asked, “Why did some of us need Trayvon to be an angel in the first place? Why did they feel such a pressing urgency to magnify — and manufacture — his failings? Why was it so important to them to make him unworthy of sympathy?”

As with so many discussions, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown circles back to respectability politics. In Martin’s case, there was an argument over whether different wardrobe choices would have inoculated Martin from death because some claimed the hoodie made him appear menacing. Said Geraldo Rivera, in a “Fox & Friends” segment for which he was later excoriated:

I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was … When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation. Trayvon Martin’s you know, god bless him, he’s an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hand. He didn’t deserve to die. But I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that — that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown isn’t just demanding that people like Geraldo see past clothing. It’s questioning if it’s possible for people, especially young black men, to live their lives online without worry that an innocent photo of them gettin’ gully at a party will somehow become re-appropriated as evidence of black thuggery. Forget a doctor judging underwear — the entire nation may now judge whether a victim was a good kid or deserved to be shot. The hashtag asks if black teens have the same right as others to make mistakes — to do dumb things and post about it on Facebook or clown around with their friends — without becoming branded in perpetuity.

h/t Raw Story


Police killing prompts rioting, looting near St. Louis

After unarmed teen Michael Brown is killed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch front page captures Ferguson burning

People gather at the scene of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a Missouri teenager who was shot dead by police, sparking protests by area residents. (Reuters)
Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality.



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