A Father Reacts to the Viral Hug: Keep Your Hands off my Child

Note: Since I wrote this story Dec. 1, the scene has changed. Pictures have emerged showing that the scene was clearly staged. I decided to post this anyway.


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This is Devonte Hart and Sgt. Bret Barnum. You might not know their names, but you know what they look like. Their picture has been shared well over a million times and has become the silver lining of the Ferguson turmoil.

Hart had joined the protest with a sign that said “Free Hugs.” He’s 12. This is his contribution, and I love him for it. Officer Barnum decided to take him up on that offer. I mean, look at him with his leather jacket and fedora. I don’t know what kind of monster could turn down free hugs from him. The same kind of black soul that hates the smell of warm cookies. This picture, with all of the tears and aww factor is the result.

You should know that Devonte isn’t the first hug hustler to be immortalized during a Ferguson protest. Way back during the summer, Sister Dragonfly was photographed in the warm embrace of an unnamed officer. She carried a sign that read “You are Killing Us” on one side, “Don’t Shoot” on the other.

Sister Dragonfly with the unknown officer. This happened only after she demanded he recognize her.

Sister Dragonfly with the unknown officer. This happened only after she demanded he recognize her.

The officer wouldn’t look at her or her sign. Not until she demanded it.

“Why do you all hate us so much?” Dragonfly pleaded, asking why the Ferguson and St. Louis area police officers seem to hate members of the African American community.

But the officer replied, “I don’t hate you, ma’am.”

Then the hug.  That photo went viral too, with absolutely no context. If there is anything that our nervous nation likes amidst turmoil, it’s pictures of Black folk in the warm embrace of white police officers.

And I’m totally over it.

It not the hugs that I abhor. I could see the pain and uncertainty in that child’s face. I am not so cynical as to deny him solace anywhere he finds it. It’s just, this isn’t one of those situations that we can hug ourselves out of. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Black men between the ages of 25 and 34 are more than six times more likely to die by cop. The only people in more danger from the men in blue are the Native Americans, who are about seven times more likely than white men of the same age.

The fact is, Black men are more likely to be pulled over in the first place. We are more likely to be arrested for the same crime, and more likely to be sentenced harshly once convicted. The deck is stacked against us. So, to all of the “Stop committing the crime” white folk, I hear your concern. But I’m not going to talk about how bad I am at playing the game until you talk about how good you are at stacking the deck.

As beloved as hugs are, they have absolutely no bearing on a person’s response in a high stress situation. The types of situations that police officers, white and Black, deal with everyday.  It’s the reason why a young man was shot in the head by the police not too long ago in New Orleans. Or the 12 year old boy that was killed by the police on video in Cleveland. Either one of them could easily replace the boy in the photo, only they were caught in the wrong position on the wrong day.

Those hugs and the resulting good feels don’t do anything to challenge the system. If you dig deeply enough, you might find a picture of Darren Wilson hugging a fourth grader at a school fair. He might even have dated a Black girl. But when it mattered most, he saw Mike Brown as a demon, and not a young man. He saw him as an IT. Police policies aside, it’s hard to demonstrate equity with a person whose personhood you do not recognize.

Our system is broken, not because of the presence of racist or power hungry police, but the willingness of our nation to support them at any cost. A Hug is not a sign of healing. It’s just a hug.

In my nirvana the police follow procedure from beginning to end. Save me the pictures of adorable children being hugged. I want to see  a black man being treated with respect and professionalism  by an officer who can’t stand Black men. Or better yet, show me the police who are brave enough to stand up against the system that they are part of and shout, “This isn’t right!”

But you can keep your hugs to yourself. I’m good.