The fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ensuing protests and riots have galvanized social media with the hot-trending hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.
The campaign was spawned by the specific use of a photo of Brown, who was set to begin his first day of college on Monday. The photo, from his Twitter page, shows him in a red Nike tank top flashing a peace sign. Critics say the photo can imply that Brown was throwing up a gang sign and that there were dozens of other photos – of him smiling, laughing, or even in his high school cap and gown that could have been used.
Linda Chavers, an African-American literature professor who recently taught at Temple University, said people are using social media as a way to write their own story.
“Black Twitter does a really good job of reframing the traditional ways that we talk about issues such as police brutality, discrimination and violence,” said Chavers, who tweets at @contrarynegress. “Specifically, it is a way for us to talk about things that concern us, such as when we are killed. The hashtag is saying, this is my narrative, versus mainstream media talking about what I am wearing or my troubles in school.”
The premise of the hashtag campaign is simple.
Posters tweeted two photographs of themselves and asked the question, “Which one of these photographs would the media use if I were gunned down in the streets?”
The results were compelling. Read some of the Tweets.
@King_Ghidorah5 posted a photo of him lying mean-faced on a bed with his sweat pants sagging. He contrasted that with a photo of himself in a military uniform, reading books to children in a school.
In his post, @MandingoRFC looks at the camera while his friend flashes a peace sign. Next to it is a photo of him holding a poster of a young Nigerian girl. He was wearing a T-shirt reading #BringBackOurGirls, to call attention to their kidnappings. His gaze is more worried than intimidating.
On his Facebook page, more than 90 percent of the photos of Muhammad Malik, an inventory control manager at Versace USA, show him in a suit and tie.
So he posted one of them, with a picture of him in a black tank top wearing a black doo-rag. His arms are folded, showing his arms full of tattoos.
He said he took the selfie one day on vacation while he was getting ready to put on a suit and go out.
“Any time we have one of these tragedies, the media doesn’t pick the best picture to portray the victim. It is not fair,” he said. “So when I saw the hashtag, I said, ‘If it happened to me, what picture would they use? Someone could pick one picture and paint a picture of me.”
With that, Malik also cleaned up his Facebook page. Taking out vacation and party photos that might misrepresent him.
“I have a 23-year-old son. He is out there being a young guy,” said Malik, who tweets as @mr_mookie. “I always tell him the same thing, you have to really be careful of what you post, because you never know when that is gonna come back to bite you. If you not around to speak, these photos are gonna speak for you.”
Fahamu Pecou is an artist and scholar who specializes in representations of black masculinity.
The typical narrative in America “has historically worked to justify inequitable treatment of black males within society by imaging them as violent and criminal,” Pecou said. “The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign is a smart and savvy response to the propaganda machine that continues to perpetuate an implied inherent criminality of black men.
“A part of resisting the outright assault on people of color is raising awareness to the way hegemonic systems of racism and prejudice inform and influence not only police reaction to young black people, but society as well.”