The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story behind the viral #DontShoot photo at Howard University

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Before he stood in the crowd with his hands in the air, before the photo of him doing that went viral, before he heard about the 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer, Khalil Saadiq was a senior in high school ready for his moment.

He had come from Birmingham, Ala. to explore a historically black college in D.C.  At his high school, all his peers seemed to talk about was when the next party was, or when the next shoe was being released. As he walked through the campus of Howard University that March, the chatter he heard was about the death of Trayvon Martin and the upcoming trial. The students around him weren’t just talking about what had happened — they were trying to decide what they could do about it.

That’s exactly what Saadiq was doing a year and a half later, while getting his dorm room ready this week for his sophomore year at Howard.

“If you’re not a part of the discussion of how to contribute to progress, then you’re part of the problem,” he had learned.

It was Wednesday, and by now, everyone understood that the problem in the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown wasn’t just a Missouri problem. It was the same problem that Saadiq felt he’d been dealing with for 19 years.

As he organized his clothes, he thought of his parents: a cosmetologist and an Army reservist who made it possible for him to be majoring in economics at Howard.

He thought about his friend who also lived in Ferguson, and how scared she had sounded when she told him about that night.

He thought about the times he had been followed around by store clerks at the mall, and the way it seemed they assumed he would steal.

And then, the idea. That night, roughly 300 students would gather at Howard for a meeting about helping with freshman move-in. Three hundred students, black students, who could make a statement.

Saadiq called a friend. They called a few more friends. They got approval from the meeting’s coordinator.

And by Wednesday evening, Saadiq was on stage at the Cramton Auditorium, holding a microphone and saying, “I am guilty until proven innocent every single day.”

He wore khaki slacks and a plaid Tommy Hilfiger button-up. Like those students deciding what to do about Trayvon Martin, this is what Saadiq would do about Michael Brown.

The students would put their hands in the air, just as the police instruct — the same way, he said, that Brown had been standing when he was shot.

“To show that even our innocence is threatening,” Saadiq told the crowd.

He set down the microphone, climbed off the stage, and stood in the center of the group. No one had to participate, but it seemed to him that everyone did. By the time they would be moving in the freshmen the next day, the photo would be re-tweeted more than 10,000 times.

They raised their hands. He stared into the camera that a fellow classmate was holding.