The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, has escalated every night since the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer. Official details on what happened are still scarce—Brown’s friend and an eyewitness to the shooting, 22-year-old Dorin Johnson, has been interviewed by MSNBC in the days since Monday’s shooting, but not by local police. The public still doesn’t know the name of the officer or how many times Brown, who was unarmed, was shot. Police say Brown assaulted the officer and tried to take the officer’s gun; witnesses on the scene, including Johnson, refute that with a detailed recollection of the events.
In these types of situations, the character of the person who was killed quickly becomes fodder for discussion, and the evidence used against them tends to come from places like Facebook, where media outlets pull photos that depict the victims of the shootings in ways that make them look like bad guys from simplistic TV shows. The intial photos of Brown, for instance, showed him flashing a sideways peace sign, which media members questioned might be gang signs. This led to the formation of the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, where people began sharing pictures side by side—the first of themselves in a way that might match a stereotype of a threatening young person, and the second of themselves dressed in a way that’s more easily relatable to viewers whose understanding of good and bad kids comes, apparently, mostly from stereotypes.
One of the more striking images that appeared in the hashtag was by Tyler Atkins, a senior at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The young musician tweeted two side-by-side images of himself: One from a math project in which he and his friends made a rap video about polynomials, and a graduation photo of himself in a tuxedo, holding his saxophone after a school jazz concert.
— Felicia (@blackflautist) August 11, 2014
The Houston Press talked to Atkins, who didn’t start the hashtag, but who has become one of its faces after the New York Times prominently featured him in an article:
Atkins’ mom has already bought a copy of the New York Times and his friends have been posting photos of his face gracing the front page on Twitter and Facebook ever since the story came out. It’s pretty crazy, but Atkins is glad he has helped fuel the conversation on the issue. The depiction of African American males in the media is something that needs to be addressed, he says. “I’m tired of being portrayed a certain way. I feel like it’s because of these stereotypes being depicted over and over again that black men will be killed over and over again,” he says. “I don’t want someone to look at me and say he’s another Mike Brown, he’s another Trayvon Martin, he’s another black kid who needs to be got rid of.”
Atkins’ concerns about how he might be portrayed if he were shot by police are valid—even if he doesn’t live in Ferguson, Missouri. The choice of images used to depict Trayvon Martin became a major part of the controversy around his shooting in Florida; the fact that Renisha McBride had been smoking marijuana before she was shot and killed in Michigan by the owner of the home she approached for help after a car accident became a part of the media narrative and the homeowner’s defense (he was convicted of second-degree murder last week).
Since July 17, at least four unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police, and Texas has dealt with similar situations of unarmed minorities people being killed by officers. But some of these officers have been held accountable for their actions, a rare outcome. A grand jury indicted former Austin Police detective Charles Kleinert in May for the shooting death of Larry Jackson, Jr., who was unarmed and shot in the back of the head after attempting to visit a bank location that had been robbed earlier in the day. In Conroe, meanwhile, Jason Blackwelder, the officer who shot and killed unarmed nineteen-year-old Russell Rios after Rios was accused of shoplifting, was convicted of manslaughter in June. Bastrop deputy Daniel Willis was charged with murder for the February shooting 47-year-old Yvette Smith when she stood unarmed at a friend’s house.
Atkins and the rest of the young Americans posting with the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag will most likely be fine, of course. But in the wake of all of this, you can’t really blame them for wondering how they’d be portrayed if the worst were to happen.