The words followed a well-worn refrain: “An unarmed, black teenager was shot and killed by police in….” Fill in the place. In this case, it was Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. Later, we heard his name: Michael Brown, 18. Brown was fatally shot by a white member of the Ferguson police department, Officer Darren Wilson. Brown was unarmed, walking in his own neighborhood, then shot at least six times by Wilson, and his body left in the street for over four hours to be seen by his friends, family and neighbors. Anger flickered into a flare. On the evening following the shooting, protesters coming from a vigil at the site of Brown’s killing were met by police with military weapons. In addition to peaceful protests, rioting and looting did occur off and on over the last month.
The ease and speed with which the police donned military armor and weapons, while supported by military vehicles, to meet fellow citizens is disturbing. These images are a warning to all American citizens. A “militarized police” (a new phrase for the common lexicon) has become a standard police action. Most recently, police used similar military weapons both during the Occupy protests and in the search for the Boston Marathon terror suspects. Lines that should be firm — between protest groups with an agenda; a search for violent, unknown terrorists; and a shocked, angry, and grieving community — have been worryingly shattered.
Before we knew Michael Brown’s name, images appeared on social media. Antonio French, an alderman from St. Louis, posted a photograph on Twitter, on August 9 at 4:55 pm. It is a strange tableau: a row of nearly all-white policemen stand on one side of a tape cordon. Their stance — legs firm, hands on their belt buckles — projects arrogance in its studied nonchalance. A lone black officer stands at the far left edge of the photograph, as if stepping out of it. A handful of black men and women sit and stand on the other side of the cordon. One man faces the police, gesturing; another looks at him with arms crossed; three men sit on the ground with their backs to the police. The monotone deportment of the policemen contrasts with the restless uncertainty among those on the other side of the tape. The contradiction in French’s comment, “Tensions are high, but the scene is peaceful in #Ferguson,” adds to the confused disquiet. David Carson, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff photographer, posted a photograph at 5:07 pm. People coming together from different places begin to head in the same direction. Carson writes: “Cops have cleared the scene of shooting in Ferguson upset crowd gathering talking about marching to police station… [sic]” In the forefront of the image a couple and child are talking together. Another woman watches the accumulating crowd. In every place along the road, people’s postures are becoming decisive.
The subsequent images of black protesters and white police are familiar. To see them is to see the marches against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. The police relentlessly attempted to subjugate the marchers with high-pressure hoses, police dogs and arrests. Now-iconic photographs of young African-Americans, with their hands on their heads as they are sprayed with torrents of water or bitten by dogs, galvanized support for the Civil Rights movement. On August 9, 2014, at 9:04 pm, Carson posted a quadriptych: a snarling German Shepherd held back by a policeman; protesters with arms raised; a confusing but clearly agitated interaction between police and protesters; a group all looking at the place where Brown died. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the protests of the Birmingham campaign as a series of deliberate, non-violent actions intended to challenge the laws of segregation, inevitably resulting in black youth in conflict with white police. In contrast, the protests in Ferguson began spontaneously (though they are now planned). Images of the protests first circulated through social media and then were picked up by other media outlets. Much like the protesters themselves, the images stuttered into tremendous activity. In contrast to the photographs of the Civil Rights movement, the effect of the unstructured exchange of images is harder to pinpoint. The glut of images momentarily overwhelms. How does it spur change?
The high-resolution media images of the interactions between police, protesters, and looters differ from the amateur images coming out of Ferguson. The saturated colors and sharp details produced by professionals have a sense of stability and act as part of a narrative. Scott Olson, a photographer for Getty Images, was arrested for photographing outside the designated media area. This restriction seems to violate first amendment press protections and appears completely arbitrary considering the ubiquitous presence of cellphone cameras and social media. Olson’s photograph of August 11 shows a dozen police officers in army fatigues, gas masks, and Kevlar tactical body armor, aiming rifles at a single protester with his hands over his head. Someone has graffitied, “Fuck the police” on a mailbox. The gross disparity in force is unjust in the extreme and a cause for distrust. By contrast, cellphone images bring action on the fringe into the heart. The images of looting on a loop — nighttime, fire, masked, tear gas, at the QuikTrip or Shoe Carnival — are bewildering in their daily repetition and indeterminacy. The impression, it is only that, is of indistinct violence. Cellphone photographs and films are blurred, raw, shaky and unexpected. They catch the act as it is occurring and as quickly pass it on. Chaos and panic are echoed in rapid movements, grainy stills and spontaneous utterances. The iconic images of the social media era will not have the visual clarity of Olson’s photographs, or those of Birmingham. As the ease of production and access to images increases, the idea of a single iconic photograph as an agent of change will no longer exist. Instead, it is the exchange of imagery — tweet, retweet, like, favorite — as the galvanizing action.
Of all the images to come out of Ferguson, pictures of Michael Brown himself are those that most need to be seen and valued. In a haunting video, Piaget Crenshaw, a witness to the shooting from her apartment, captured the immediate moments after Wilson shot Brown. Wilson stands, shoulders slumped, looking at Michael Brown’s body. No details can be seen clearly, heightening the shocking simplicity and tension in the aftermath of the encounter between the man and the teenage boy. However, the sequence’s broadcast on CNN distracts from its poignancy. Michaela Pereira interviews Crenshaw, sitting with her lawyer. As it played on CNN’s program New Day, the video, shot on the cellphone vertically, has to be adapted to fit the horizontal aspect ratio of the television. In the central third, Wilson paces with Brown’s blurred body. On either side, the two pillar boxes are distorted echoes. The effect is like tunnel vision. The faces of Pereira and Crenshaw join the looping film on screen to discuss what Crenshaw saw. In its raw form the video pierces; mediated by CNN (as such videos were on other cable news shows) it is surreal, even grotesque.
A much-circulated photograph of Michael Brown shows him in green and red robes for his recent high school graduation. He has a little smile and a little facial hair, both in keeping for a boy of his age. His posture is tall and straight. Officer Wilson did not see the Brown in that photograph when he shot him. Instead of an unarmed teenager, he probably “saw” someone much like the looter photographed by Carson for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That man’s face is covered and a gun sticks out of his belt. He is anonymous and threatening. Hilton Als, in his essay, “GWTW,” which addresses photographs of lynching, writes, “So much care, so much care is taken not to scare white people simply with my existence.” He recounts crossing the street to avoid frightening white women, not coming up behind a neighbor at his front door, and more than one encounter with the police where he is surrounded with guns pointing at him.
Wanted (a collaboration between Harlem youth, Dread Scott, No Longer Empty, Stop Mass Incarceration Network, Kevin Blythe Sampson, and Street Attack) tackles the misperception of Black and Latino youth as criminals. Wanted posters, featuring individuals rendered anonymous except for race, were included as part of an exhibition organized by No Longer Empty, “If You Build It,” at Sugar Hill Apartments in Harlem that ran from June 25 to August 10, 2014. The posters continue to be displayed on sidewalk sheds and storefronts throughout Harlem, drawing crowds, unsure of what they are seeing at first, looking closely and reading the details. Using bureaucratic, police-like reports of “suspicious behavior,” such as walking or gesturing, they account the systemic view of Black and Latino teenagers: they are threats and they are disavowed as individuals. They are anonymous — until death. On too many occasions and in too many places, unarmed black teenagers have been threatened and/or killed by the police and armed civilians. The widespread dis-recognition of teenagers like Michael Brown is a profound social crisis and must end.
Hilton Als, “GWTW,” Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), 42.