What frames Michael Brown's image?

A graduation photo of Michael Brown, shot by a police officer on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., on a demonstrator's sign. In contrast, a video released by police appears to show Brown menacing a man during an apparent robbery.
A graduation photo of Michael Brown, shot by a police officer on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., on a demonstrator's sign. In contrast, a video released by police appears to show Brown menacing a man during an apparent robbery.
Posted: August 22, 2014

Flesh-and-blood, guns-and-gas demonstrations have continued in Ferguson, Mo., since Aug. 9, when Michael Brown, 18, was killed unarmed in a street. But a media battle is also on, a battle of images. At issue is Brown himself: Who he really was, and what his death means.

Beyond that is another battle: over the meaning of the black male body.

Sophisticated, primal, conducted through every available medium, with pervasive potency via social media, the battle is visceral, full of frustration, rage, and shame. It ropes in our pasts, our memories, and the unavoidable, unresolved racial divide in the United States.

Much is at stake. In the crippled logic attending such battles over framing, the argument seems to go: If Brown is innocent, his murder by police is an outrage. If he is a criminal, his murder is justified.

Brown in cap and gown, graduating high school. Brown with earphones, listening to music. A good man, a family member. But, also, Brown in the off-center ball cap that says "gangsta" or "criminal" to some. In a video sequence, a man said to be Brown steals cigars and shoves his way out of a store. Brown the criminal. The big black man. The thing to be feared.

"This battle to frame, to define, the black male body is of long standing," says Kim Pearson, associate professor of journalism and professional writing at the College of New Jersey in Ewing. "It is used to serve a variety of agendas, both for and against slavery, Jim Crow, or racial profiling."

The "nice" and "gangsta" images often ran together in news coverage. Social-media reaction was immediate. A hashtag went viral: #iftheygunnedmedown, short for "If they gunned me down, what picture would the media use?" When media report on the shooting of a black male, do they post images that, perhaps unintentionally but no less harmfully, convey fear, bias, racism? As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 200,000 tweets with the hashtag were posted. Many are by black men, who attach dual images, one presentable, one reprobate. "These side by side photos show exactly what media bias looks like," tweets Upworthy.

Barbie Zelizer is a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. She says that "in times of crisis, images come to the fore, powerfully, instantly. They embody the messy, distressing nature of crisis." That's why images are also "dangerous, uncertain, unpredictable." Where "writing is often supposed to be reasonable and seek common ground, images don't do that: They call on deeply rooted ideas and feelings, different for different people." Images, by their nature, pull and push different ways, divide.

On Friday, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced the name of the officer who fatally shot Brown. Also released, in one of the most confused moves in a confusing story, were the cigar-robbery images. They have nothing to do with Brown's death. The officer who shot him may not have known of the robbery; claims conflict. But the images added potently to the argument: Brown was a criminal.

 That makes no sense, of course. But then, images speak to our back-minds, that subconscious, associational, nonlogical thought-world we all inhabit.

Now a further image: The autopsy diagram, released Sunday, showing a line of six bullet holes, including two in the head. This, too, is the center of a storm. Some say wounds in the right arm show Brown tried to protect himself. Others say the head wounds indicate an enraged man charging the shooter. In an essay ironically titled "Michael Brown's Body," NewYorker.com executive editor Amy Davidson calls it yet another "portrait of Brown and, like so many of the images of him and of his city, the basis for an argument."

"White America and black America see these images in very different ways," says Charles Gallagher, professor of sociology at La Salle University. "The American image of Public Enemy No. 1 is a young black male."

That stubborn divide is the subject of a study released Monday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. This survey of 1,000 adults found that while 80 percent of black respondents said the shooting of Brown "raised racial issues," only 37 percent of white respondents did.

We live in different worlds and draw different meanings from the images we see. "If you don't have a shared historical perspective," Pearson says, "then you don't have a common lens through which to view each other." When a young black man dresses "gangsta," Gallagher says, "it may be only a matter of fashion," with the man unaware of how it strikes white people.

"You can have text all around the image, explaining it," Gallagher says, "but the image has enormous power to pierce and dominate the text. When white America sees young black males in the streets, the narrative - the reasons they're there - gets utterly swamped."

The image of Michael Brown is an explosive complex of emotions and associations, says Zelizer, "back to the legacy of slavery, the Constitution, the civil-rights movement, and the obvious, stubborn inequalities we all know."

And that is why the battle in Ferguson has been going on for years. And will not end soon.


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406

@jtimpane

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