Last night, in Ferguson, Missouri, police in riot gear entered residential neighbourhoods and lobbed teargas, flash bombs, rubber bullets, and noise cannons (also known as LRAD or Long Range Acoustic Devices) at people who were gathered peacefully to protest the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by a still un-identified policeman. I watched the livestreams of video being tweeted out by reporters and bystanders. Not much has changed in America, I thought; it’s just that now, the police are using the equipment that the military has deployed in wars, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, on American civilians. And the wars waged on those who are portrayed as threatening, dangerous Others — be they young, black men, or America’s new Other, Arabs and Muslims — is always two pronged: there is the militarized violence, and there is the cultural propaganda used to justify that violence. That second part of the war is partially waged through narrative — talk show hosts’ incendiary rhetoric and politicians’ carefully managed speeches — but in the 2000s, it also comes through visual mediums: television, images in print and online media, and now, more than ever, social media. Just think of the picture you conjure up the moment you hear about a black person meeting a violent end: a gangster (yes, that picture) who had it coming. As Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) noted on Twitter, “Previous arrests and low level criminal records first to surface when young unarmed black men are shot by police.”
In the past week, ever since the police murder of Michael Brown, many Americans have been focusing on the need to change the conversation around the way young, black men are viewed by police, mainstream media, and white people. One of the most striking attempts has come from those young, black men themselves, who’ve been tweeting dual, contrasting portrait photos under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Begun by Twitter user @CJ_Musick_Lawya, these tweets (all of which are now being collected and posted on Tumblr) consist of two elements: the diptych of photographs and a text of 140 characters or less. In each diptych, one photograph depicts the young man that all suburban mothers want their sons to be: freshly shorn, well-groomed, posing with elderly people, a puppy, or a classical musical instrument. The other is the one you worry your son wants to emulate, or your daughter will date on the sly: the young man wearing a sports jersey and low-riders, looks somewhat unkempt, his arms maneuvered into elaborate angles and fingers fashioned into some mysterious sign.
These sets of contrasting images may seem simplistic, didactic, or like they’re trying too hard. But they resonated with people around the world. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was at the top of Twitter’s list of trending hashtags this past week.
Most who posted these tweets, like D. Corleone (@Dakari_Hill), asked followers a direct question: “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Which pic would they use? The thug on the left or the 4.0 GPA scholar on the right?” Similarly, Randy S. Henley (@SKYYorRocky) asked, “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown would they show hugging my dad as a first generation college grad or when I drank like most kids.” Others, like BlackHistoryStudies (@BlkHistStudies) used the hashtag to educate, reflect, and theorize: “Why The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Hashtag Proves Racism Exists Long After Someone Dies.”
A Twitter user named Aayan (@Yung_PopEYE) kept to the original, simple refrain — “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown what pic would the news use?” — but accompanied it with an especially eloquent diptych. Photograph 1 is evidently a selfie, a grainy phone close-up, shot in yellow indoor light. We see that Aayan is bare chested, in order to better display a massive tattoo splashed across his entire thorax region: a detailed, menacing skull sprouting two angelic wings. Above it, in decorative script, the legend: “Live life with no regrets just lessons learned.” (The words are actually impossible to decipher in the selfie, so I tweeted and asked him.) His head is covered by a woolen cap, branded with a machine-embroidered Houston Texans logo. A wide band of smooth gold flows down his neck, detouring a little at his collarbone. But what incriminates him most? Aayan is baring his lips in order to display a mouth full of metal: both his upper and lower teeth are adorned by “grillwork” (also known as “fronts” or “golds”). Because grills are associated with hip-hop artists — particularly those promoting themselves as “ghetto,” most notably the Dirty South rappers of the mid-2000s — they are also associated with a “thug” (read: black-gangster) lifestyle. (This even if an aging Madonna, ever-eager to associate herself youthful rebellion, has been known to wear them.)
In the second image, we see Aayan’s entire person. This photograph was evidently taken by a friend, at a military base; in it Aayan wears full US Navy camouflage gear. Whereas an army man would have predominantly brown or green splotches on his camouflage gear, the US Navy outfit, we see, has splashes of blue and purple; the cap on Aayan’s head, set very straight, shielding his head and face from the hot sunlight streaming in from his left, is splotched in the same camouflage colors. The young man is smiling — and this time we see that his teeth are remarkably even, brilliant-white; these are stereotypically American teeth, with origins in good neo-natal care and the subsequent advantages of fluoride, calcium-fortified milk, and orthodontics. He is holding, at a diagonal, an imposing military-issue rifle, and what looks to be a large handgun in his other hand. This diptych, at the time of writing, has been retweeted 6,022 times, and favorited 4,056.
In a way, one could say that both halves of these diptychs portray the ordinary inanity in the daily life of the adolescent American male: posing and preening, playacting at being powerful. They are bricoleurs of the symbols that reflect cultural capital and “cool.” These are images of young men (and many young women, too) enjoying the ability to experiment, engaging in the freedom to fashion selves according to the demands of the moment, location, and peer-group. Each boy is trying on personas like costume changes. This freedom is something many adults envy, because by now we’re stuck in the “costume” by which we want to portray ourselves, yet we find that it’s often ill-fitting, even as it provides security and respectability. Yet, the young men who construct these collages of their variable selves also show that they’re controlled by the demands of family, society, and the state; they serve in the military, clean up for a school event because mom asked them to, dutifully hang out with the family. Jeremy Connally, in a moment of neither playacting at being cool nor being controlled by the voice of authority, nuzzles his bunny rabbit (whose heart wouldn’t melt at that?).
What sets this hashtag apart is that the images in #IfTheyGunnedMeDown are produced by the very young men who are the targets of stereotypes that paint them as only capable of being one thing: one half of the diptych, unable to play with the possibilities of being or grow and change as they learn about themselves and the world around them. That sort of self-fashioning and self-parodying is usually only acceptable to those who have power in a given culture. Those with little power tend to be regarded as shifty and untrustworthy when they do play with persona — and evidence of such “shiftiness” is used to illustrate the danger they pose. As the perpetual other in American culture, young, black men must always be aware: when they experiment with self-image, responding either playfully or semi-seriously to cultural symbols, those ubiquitous selfies may, one day, should they be gunned down by a white authority figure, be used to illustrate that this young man was precisely as threatening as the white man thought.
That’s why this hashtag resonated so widely and deeply. By using it, the contrasting images and the 140 characters, those in our culture who are usually controlled, shaped, and silenced by a barrage of images projecting their “hostile” nature have been able to break open a closed dialogue. Those young, black men have been able to make mainstream media question their standard practices, and compel the general public to think about the presumptions under which they blindly operate.
Correction: This post originally stated that the cap Aayan is wearing shows the Chicago Bulls logo, but it is the Houston Texans logo. It has been fixed.