Continuing tension in Ferguson, Missouri where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police last Saturday, has prompted youth across the country to comment on social media with a rash of “If They Gunned Me Down” posts. Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer has stirred up racial tensions not only in Ferguson but throughout the country. The story has continued to play out in the media as reports of violence continue.
There are conflicting reports about what really happened. The police say that Brown’s shooting was the unfortunate result of a physical altercation with the officer but witnesses on the scene tell a different story. There have been reports of looting and violence as well as reports that the police response has been unnecessarily excessive.
Scenes of police in protective gear and protesters running amidst gunfire and tear gas have incited protests all over the country, protests against racial inequality and protests against police brutality. In the midst of all the violence, the chaos, the anger and the sorrow at the loss of life, scores of teenagers have chosen to come together to send another kind of message. The police shooting in Ferguson has prompted teens across the nation to post a rash of pictures of themselves on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag, “If they gunned me down.”
These posts consist of either two pictures or a photo grid of two different pictures. In one picture, the teen may be in a cap and gown or they may be dressed in business attire, clean-shaven and professional. In the other picture they may have posed in a hoodie, reminiscent of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teen killed in Sanford Florida in 2012, or some other casual attire. They may also be engaging in some socially unacceptable activity like smoking or drinking.
Though a few white teens have shared their photos, the majority of the posts are from African-American or other minority teens. The teens seem to think that the media, when given a choice, will use the picture of the teen engaging in the inappropriate behavior rather than the one in which they appear to be doing something positive. African-American teens, it appears, are of the opinion that public opinion about their value or public sympathy in the event of their deaths is driven by the photo that the media chooses to use. The teens appear to believe that their worth or the perception of their worth is then based on the activity they were engaged in rather than on their GPA or their potential for a bright future. One young lady wanted to know if she would be portrayed as a classy lady or a gang member.
Some white teens joined the effort by posting their own side by side photos, some in solidarity, some in jest. While some teens welcome the support, thanking their white peers, others are of the opinion that the media portrayal of white teens would be markedly different. One young man posted a comment to all the white teens, “If you posted the exact same thing, they would choose the better one.”
Clearly the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Missouri, just 48 hours before he was to start college, has caused violence to erupt and sparks to fly. News reports have likened the situation in Ferguson to a powder keg and protests and vigils have been held all over the country. In a loud voice, however, this country’s teens have asked an important question. In the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, teens, black and white, want to know if this country values their lives and they have been prompted to ask the question in the form of a rash of social media posts entitled, hashtag “If they gunned me down.”
By Constance Spruill