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How a Ferguson protest rally photo went instantly viral

Devonte Hart and Sgt. Bret Barnum didn't let a police barrier stand between them.


Miles Klee

Internet Culture

Posted on Nov 29, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 2:39 am CDT

Till now, the Ferguson saga has been defined by images of strife and brutality, tear gas and batons and blood. Today, for the first time since police officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed teen Michael Brown in early August, a different sort of photo has stunned the American consciousness, exemplifying the compassion this nation will need to survive.

Freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen took the picture below at a Portland, Ore., rally on Nov. 25, the day after it was announced that a grand jury would not indict Wilson in Brown’s death, the Oregonian reported. Devonte Hart, 12, was standing near a police barricade with a sign that read “Free Hugs”—an ongoing charity project of his—and caught the attention of Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum, who took him up on the offer.  

Devonte’s moms, Sarah and Jennifer Hart, detailed the emotional encounter in a Facebook post.

Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. … There were generic questions about his favorite subject and what he liked to do in the summer, but the one that mattered hit straight to the heart. He asked Devonte why he was crying. His response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), “Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs.

It became the “hug shared around the world,” rocketing to Facebook virality, and while it may not alter the dynamic of forthcoming clashes between police and protesters, it’s a powerful incitement to change. Let’s hope it’s the first of many embraces to come.

H/T The Oregonian | Photo by Neil Cooler/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Nov 29, 2014, 4:31 pm CST