In the wake of a grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Americans have grown accustomed to images of police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. One such image is now going viral, but not for the reason one might think.
The photo, taken by freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen, shows 12-year-old Devonte Hart and Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum embraced in a hug outside of a Ferguson rally on Tuesday.
Hart’s mother shared the back story of the photograph in a post on social media. On Facebook, she explained that she and Hart went to downtown Portland “with the intention of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world.”
Hart brandished a “Free Hugs” sign as he stood alone in front of a police barricade. His mother says he started to get emotional during the rally: “He 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 will be in danger for simply being.”
That’s when Sgt. Barnum noticed Hart crying and called the boy over to him.
In her Facebook post, Hart’s mother said the interaction was a little uncomfortable at first, with Barnum making generic chit-chat. But then he asked why he was crying.
Hart’s mother says his response was “about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected: “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Next, Sgt Barnum asked if he could have one of the “Free Hugs” advertised on his sign.
“Knowing how he struggled with police, his bravery and courage to catch my eye and approach me were impressive,” Barnum told the Associated Press. “And it’s a blessing for me that I didn’t miss an opportunity to impact this child.”
The image has now been shared widely across social media. The photographer took to Instagram to express his gratitude, writing, “You guys are playing a great role in spreading the message of hope and humanity as seen here in the photo of Sgt. Barnum and Devonte Hart.”
Hart’s mother called the tearful hug “one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother.”