Images of a police-force-turned-militia and violent protests shown on TV effectively turned attention away from a crucial U.S. problem: the seemingly unwarranted killing and subsequent lack of justice afforded unarmed black youth killed by police, citizens in alleged "positions of authority" and white Americans.
The all too common stories about, to be frank, white people feeling threatened, shooting and killing unarmed black people convey an incendiary, racial narrative but usually don't ask why.
Why does a U.S. government authority kill one African-American without any imposed legal proceeding every 28 hours, according to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement? Why did at least four unarmed black men die at the hands of police in the last month? Why can so many otherwise respectable citizens sans criminal records, free of hate group ties and even beloved by neighbors, coworkers and friends, murder someone's unarmed child?
The answer may be on your TV screen.
After Officer Darren Wilson, 28, of the Ferguson Police Department, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, college-bound 18-year-old walking down the street, Twitter user CJ Lawrence created the Twitter hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown.
The hashtag begs the question, "Which photo does the media use if the police shot me down?" with two contrasting images. In one picture from 2003, Lawrence, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney at Lumumba & Associates in Jackson, Miss., speaks at his college graduation with former President Bill Clinton laughing hysterically in the background. In the second photo, Lawrence poses in a Kanye West Halloween costume holding a bottle of Hennessy, which he says is actually filled with soda.
A picture is worth a thousand words
#Iftheygunnedmedown gained national attention and was created in response to public opinion about widely circulated images of Brown released to the public. The picture showed the teen standing on a stoop and holding his hand in a position that has been called a peace sign by some and a gang sign by others. The idea behind Lawrence's juxtaposition is that one image cannot define an entire person, though often images that adhere to a dangerous narrative are used in the media to represent young black victims.
"With the lack of interaction with one another outside of media, it's easy to craft that narrative when people don't know you, based on a snapshot," Lawrence said in a phone interview from the St. Louis region where he traveled to offer his expertise to the community currently in crisis.
"I think that media has a job to do," said Lawrence, "and perpetuating fear sometimes is one of those jobs. ... It gets people to watch the TV station."
A lot of times, racialized images on TV alter public opinion. Daniel Chomsky, a political science professor at Temple University, said a study on race and poverty in the media by Martin Gilens called "Why Americans Hate Welfare" makes this same point.
According to the media, people on welfare are mostly black, Chomsky said. In reality, there are many more whites on welfare than blacks, the study said, but American's don't know that. Gilens' study showed public perceptions mirror media portrayals.
Local TV news coverage disproportionately shows black criminals and white victims, according to the Entman and Rojecki study. White, middle-class citizens, therefore, always think there's some black attacker lurking in the shadows ready to pounce with little reason. Philadelphia was one area extensively studied, Entman and Rojecki say, and that attitude rings true here, too.
"While it could be that the media are projecting images that people have, it is almost certainly the reverse case as well," Chomsky said.
What you see shapes what you do
Chomsky went so far as to suggest that laws targeting blacks exist because of media crime coverage. Young black males look dangerous and threatening on TV, he said, which has led to policies like small-town police departments investing in the type of militarized resources seen in Ferguson and mass incarceration.
Media projections have power. They create public opinion and institutional policy, two forces at play when unarmed blacks are killed and the accused is acquitted.
History repeats itself
Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of the African-American Studies Department at Temple University, said slave-era fears created a narrative that says blacks, specifically black men, are threatening and justifies the need to control them.
"The first thing that police tend to think about is violence…because they have this notion that young African-American males are out of control," Asante said of young black males in tense situations with police.
The book The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad explains why. Muhammad links "Black Codes," policies enforced after the Civil War designed to restrict black freedom using the criminal justice system, to the repressive justice system he says still exists today.
Asante said there's a "notion to treat blacks not as human beings, but with a certain degree of force" — degree of force that allowed Officer Wilson to shoot Brown, and responding investigators to leave his body in the street for four hours, uncovered for the first 30 minutes.
Who's to blame?
So are journalists the problem? Chomsky and Asante, who used to head the SUNY-Buffalo Communications Department, say no. Journalists likely subscribe unconsciously to racist narratives perpetuated for decades.
Sociologist Herbert Gans argued that media institutions create a set of norms that journalists simply follow.
Chomsky says journalists take cues from corporate owners explaining how even with more black TV news anchors, media outlets continue to portray blacks in a negative way.
#Iftheygunnedmedown and social media as a catalyst for change
Lawrence's poignant question — which image would the media use #iftheygunnedmedown? — challenges journalists, editors and other media executives to defy the status quo and police themselves.