When 12-year-old Devonte Hart went to Portland’s rally in support of Ferguson last week, he carried a sign that said ‘Free Hugs’. The tears in his eyes were a reflection of both the child’s full heart and of his fear.
One of his parents, Jen Hart, described the situation in a post to Facebook. While she and her wife took all three of their children to the rally, she said Devonte stood alone — one young black demonstrator — in front of a police barricade, wearing his sign. By doing so, he was attempting to face his fears, his questions about whether his life would be at risk from the reaction of the police.
A photographer spotted the 12-year-old in the crowd.
A freelance photographer, Johnny H. Nguyen, had immediately spotted Devonte and his look of trepidation. Nguyen said:
I came upon this boy who had tears in his eyes and I knew this was the place to be, so I followed him in the crowd.
Police Sgt. Bret Barnum also took note of Devonte and his tears. He motioned the young man over and began an awkward chat with him, asking questions about school and what he was interested in.
But Barnum reached beyond superficial chit-chat and also asked Devonte why he was crying. The boy told the officer he was concerned about the police brutality that was directed at young black kids. According to Jen Hart, Barnum replied:
Yes. (sigh) I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
As the conversation neared its end, the officer pointed at Devonte’s ‘Free Hugs’ sign and asked:
Do I get one of those?
The boy embraced the policeman while his tears flowed freely.
Johnny Nguyen was there to capture the moment. In the few hours that followed the photo’s publication in The Oregonian, it was shared or viewed over 150,000 times. Nguyen immediately thanked everyone who shared for “spreading the message of hope and humanity.”
This one image captures the possibility of healing.
Too often, of course, the images emerging from the tense situation in Ferguson are ones of conflict and division. Too often, it seems that those divisions are irreconcilable. This one image is a reminder of a different reality, one where opposite ‘sides’ can reach across the gap and initiate healing.
Jen Hart wrote in her post:
My son has a heart of gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society. He wonders if someday when he no longer wears a Free Hugs sign around his neck, when he’s a full grown black male, if his life is in danger for simply being.
Sgt. Barnum seems to understand the fear, as well as the gap that must be bridged. But Sgt. Barnum is in Portland, Oregon. I don’t think I’m alone in the perception that Portland is not the norm in America.
The officer and the protester are an inspiration. But for the sake of all the Devonte Harts and Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns who don’t live in Portland, I hope the feeling doesn’t disappear with a click of the mouse.
One slight 12-year-old stood up and faced his fears where the world could see. He reached out to what he didn’t understand. Don’t the rest of us owe it to ourselves and to our youth to do the same?
Sgt. Bret Barnum and 12-year-old Devonte Hart/Instagram photo by @chambervisuals.