Amid the angry images connected to the events surrounding the trouble in Ferguson, one that wasn’t so angry got a lot of attention last week. It showed a sobbing African American boy in the arms of a white police officer in Portland, Oregon. According to the photographer, freelancer Johnny Nguyen, the picture got more than 400,000 likes on Facebook and was reposted on over 68,000 Tumblr as of Sunday.
“The photograph poignantly captured the hope that that gap could still be bridged,” said a CBS story.
Some thought it misleading as a representation of race relations. Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, went so far as to call it “a blatant lie….Massively unrepresentative of the wider facts and enthusiastically promoted to iconic status in a way that obscures those facts….Liking this picture as a definitive image of America’s race crisis is the equivalent of locking yourself in and turning up the volume to weep at Frozen while the streets are burning outside. Which is exactly what white Americans apparently want to do. Truth is a flimsy thing. It can be destroyed by a hug.”
Jones noted, in support of his argument, that the boy was holding a sign that said “free hugs” and the officer asked if he could have one.
That’s true. The boy in the photo, which first appeared in the Oregonian, was Devonte Hart. The officer in the picture was Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum. Both were at a Ferguson support rally in Portland, albeit for different reasons. Hart was indeed carrying a sign that said “free hugs.”
Jennifer Hart, the boy’s mother, told the AP that the day after the grand jury decision not to charge officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, they went downtown “with the intention of spreading love and kindness” by holding signs such as “You Matter’ and “Free Hugs.” The family then joined the nearby Ferguson rally.
Barnum, who works for the traffic division, was helping with crowd control. “In the middle of the block,” said AP, “hundreds of protesters listened to speeches about the relationship between police and black residents.”
Hart’s mother said the boy was trembling, with tears running down his eyes. Barnum noticed Hart looking upset at the rally and motioned for Hart to come over to his motorcycle. The AP reported:
The officer asked for his name and shook his hand. He also asked Devonte where he went to school (he is homeschooled), what he did this summer (he traveled around the U.S. with his family), and what he likes to do (art). The tears stopped….While continuing to talk to Devonte, he looked at the “Free Hugs” sign on the ground and asked if he might get a hug as well.
Devonte put his arms around the officer.
Was it a “lie?”
The boy’s mother didn’t think so. After the photograph was taken she shared the picture on Facebook the following passage, The Huffington Post reports:
“My son has a heart of a gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society..It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother.”