Peace signs, gang signs and criminalizing people of color

A memorial was created in the middle of West Florissant Avenue where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. [Photo by Peoples World/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0]

A memorial was created in the middle of West Florissant Avenue where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. [Photo by Peoples World/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0]

The revolution may not be televised, but it definitely will be shared on social media and Twitter.

Mainstream media have traditionally set the tone and created the narrative around news events. But that hasn’t necessarily been the case in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old student who was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9. The anger and outrage expressed on social media about the biased reporting on Brown and the protests in Ferguson have fueled much of the media narrative—and inspired a hashtag, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

The hashtag was a virtual campaign that protested the ongoing racial stereotypes about brown and black people in the media. It was a response to a photo of Brown flashing a peace sign, which was interpreted as a gang sign.

Images that appear innocent and benign to many black people are often considered threatening, nefarious and even violent by many white people. Case in point: Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who was selected by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to coordinate the law enforcement response to the protests following Brown’s death. Johnson was accused of flashing gang signs in several photographs uploaded to the CNN iReport platform last week. The report, which “assert[ed] Johnson was aligning himself with the Bloods,” spread across Twitter, conservative weblogs and other media before it was removed. The Washington Post and Salon debunked the report, but bigger questions remain: Why did it even have to be refuted? Why would anyone believe that a senior law enforcement official would be a street gang member?”

In the photographs, Johnson poses with fellow fraternity brothers in Kappa Alpha Psi making the Kappa hand gesture. The historically black fraternity was founded in 1911 at Indiana University and boasts a who’s who roster of members, including talk show host Tavis Smiley, Chicago Defender founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

Apparently, any hand gesture made by a black man must be associated with crime.

“There’s some glaring cultural illiteracy when the top law enforcement officer installed by the governor of Missouri is accused of throwing up gang signs,” noted the Washington Post’s Soraya Nadia McDonald. “This actually makes Johnson not unlike Brown himself. The publication of a photo of Brown flashing the peace sign , which was also interpreted as a gang sign, is what sparked #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.”

The New York Times has been sharply criticized for its report that Brown’s peace sign could be “a gang sign,” despite the fact that Brown had no criminal record and no gang affiliation. Another outrageous front-page story by the nation’s newspaper of record published on Monday, Aug. 25, announced the slain teenager “was no angel … and dabbled in drugs and alcohol.”

The piece de resistance: “He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor,” John Eligon wrote in the New York Times.

One of the most unfortunate and enduring legacies of racism, slavery, segregation and white privilege is that African Americans have effectively been “othered” in their own nation and repeatedly forced to prove their own humanity —and innocence—on a daily basis. Is a fraternity greeting or peace symbol a gang sign? Do saggin’ jeans and a hooded sweat shirt symbolize criminal culture? Driving while black, walking while black, harassment and racial profiling by law enforcement, security guards and others add to a series of daily micro-aggressions experienced by African Americans and Latinos.

Even an unarmed black teenager has effectively become “weaponized” and is dangerous by default. The media narrative surrounding “Black victims is often harsher than it is of whites suspected of crimes, including murder,” reported the Huffington Post, which analyzed newspaper headlines from high-profile criminal cases. For example, the suspect in a 2012 Colorado theater shooting was described as a “brilliant science student.” James Eagan Holmes, by the way, is very much alive. Police captured him after he allegedly killed 12 people and injured 70. His trial is scheduled for December 2014.

In “post-racial” America, blacks and Latinos are considered dangerous and violent until proven innocent, while white men are afforded privilege, protection and presumed innocent—even when accused of a mass shooting.

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, Scientific American, The Atlantic, NBC Chicago and Ebony, among other news organizations. He began his journalism career at The Chicago Reporter.

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