If They Gunned Me Down

Monday, August 11, 2014 - 10:30 AM


On Saturday, in Ferguson, MO, police killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. 

Brown was eighteen years old. In the NBC News tweet about the story, the network chose a photo of an unsmiling Brown standing outside of a nondescript building, wearing a basketball jersey. 

 In the photo, Brown is making what looks to me like a straightforward peace sign with his left hand. Some online commenters interpreted the hand gesture as a 'gang sign.' 

The police say that Brown struggled with a cop over the gun. Brown's family is very skeptical, as is the  larger African-American community in Ferguson. A photo can be an argument, and the photo NBC News chose made a different argument than a more typical victim photo (at a graduation, or at home) would have. In response, people of color began tweeting pairs of photos of themselves under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown

Among other things, this is what social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is good at. It's hard to talk through the semiotics of an NBC News social media editor's photo choice. You can spend a long, bogged-down time using words to parse pictures. It's easier, clearer, and more powerful to see that argument made with just a few words and a couple of pictures. 


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Comments [10]

Malik from Bronx, NY

I seriously doubt that white people deny that Michael Brown's graduation photo was authentic.

What do they find (including myself) incredulous are that many blacks believe that the video of Brown committing a robbery and an assault is a fake.


Aug. 16 2014 09:39 PM
Tyler from Oregon

I think this is a great example of racist systems that are hard for white people (this includes myself) to see and understand. The reason it's hard to identify is that it is so pervasive and unchanging that it's difficult not to accept it as the reality in the end. If they showed Michael Brown in a graduation gown, many would deny it's authenticity (reference Obama's birth certificate). I bet the editor was just looking for a photo that looked like a kid that had been shot by the cops and that photo matched the ongoing narrative that black people are scary.

There is another great post floating around on tumblr comparing headlines between White suspects and black victims. For the white suspects they read something like "Gunman graduated with honors" but for black victims the headlines read "Shooting victim had many run-ins with the law". I don't think it's always intentional but people are accidentally racist all the damn time.

Don't forget that white people have the privilege of going through our day not thinking about our race. But lots of black people in America don't have that luxury.

Aug. 16 2014 08:38 PM
Malik from Bronx, NY

Actually, there are many pictures of Brown showing signs the Bloods would use.


Aug. 16 2014 08:19 PM
john from United States

With all due respect. .. what about Trayvon Martin's photo shopped pictures? Were those acceptable or misleading? Im not for or against (because i dont know all of the details) what happened but I am aware of the police state that we are in and it needs to stop. Pointing fingers at black white red brown or police isn't the answer. We should be coming together as a whole and demanding action so it doesn't happen again. The system is broken and the politicians aren't going to fix it. Its up to us to do it. So lets take action peacefully but firmly. And I dont mean you Sharpton. Take your garbage to the dump.

Aug. 15 2014 11:13 AM
Darrel Hutchinson from New York

Is there a picture of the physical confrontation? That's the picture to see...if it exists.

Aug. 15 2014 10:17 AM
Ben from the void of space

I had always assumed that news organizations used social media profile pictures for tweets and stories under the idea that profile picture -> how one wants to be seen.

Was that not true in this case?

Aug. 12 2014 12:26 PM
Dr. C, Art Historian from New Jersey

NBC's picture editor ought to be - if he is not - fully aware of what he is doing. He does not choose a formal photograph like a graduation picture which shows social status but not much else - translate 'respectability'. Neither does he choose an informal picture - the ind that goes into a family album - which reveals personality traits known to family and friends (usually in a loving or humorous way). What he chose was a picture of an eighteen year old posing for a friend trying to appear cool and more mature than he really is. He is towering over the camera - read intimidating; there is a slight pout - read 'disdain'; and he flashes a sign the uninitiated reads as 'gang' in other words 'evil'. The editor made his choice not because he know who Michael Brown really is, but what he wants the viewer to believe he is. He surely knows the power of images. He may be instinctively or actually aware that facial expressions are genetic (see FACS = Facial Action Coding System - a field of research in psychology). He is manipulating and perpetuating a prejudice.

Aug. 12 2014 01:03 AM
Don from Queens

I think you would be well served by interviewing a photo history professor. This type of conversation probably happens every semester every year in every photo program.

Aug. 11 2014 09:56 PM
J in NYC from NYC

Even if it were a gang signal, it's not illegal to be in a gang, is it? Moreover, legally, it is irrelevant what a person looks like in determining the nature of a homicide. Frankly, we'd be better off pointing out that people make too much of pictures. The choice of picture will not bring that boy back. And only an impartial investigation of the facts of his death will bring justice.

Aug. 11 2014 07:21 PM
Nekko from Nunya, NY

Can't Flim-Flam the Zimmerman. Can't Dodge the Rodge. Can't Corner The Dorner.

Aug. 11 2014 02:00 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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