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The Plea and Promise of “Hands Up”

College students in a Ferguson solidarity protest in Knoxville, Tennessee in August / Photo by Lauren Kirchner
College students in a Ferguson solidarity protest in Knoxville, Tennessee in August / Photo by Lauren Kirchner

On Sunday, five St. Louis Rams football players took the field with their hands up, a message of solidarity with Ferguson protesters as blunt and powerful as the game they play. Afterwards, the St. Louis police officers’ union denounced the gesture, and conservative commentators piled on with criticism. Rush Limbaugh, who faced backlash from black Rams players once himself, agreed with his producer that it was a “disgusting display” and compared it to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s “black power” salute at the 1968 Olympics.

And so we arrive at one of Ferguson’s most subtle but potentially most enduring ironies—the transformation of a universal sign of defenselessness into one of resistance.

Whether or not Michael Brown actually had his hands up at the moment that Darren Wilson shot him is one of the many data points that can never be truly settled, though that was what the majority of grand jury witnesses testified. In the language of protest and pop culture, the truth is beside the point. Literalists want protesters such as the Rams players to put their hands down not because raising them perpetuates the Mike Brown narrative, but because “hands up” lays the true dominate narrative bare: Black men are terrifying animals—“demons,” in Wilson’s words—no matter what they do with their hands. 

One image in particular from Sunday illustrates the surreality of this moment. Five enormous black men, bulked out for battle and bearing the promise of ritualized violence, stand lit by spotlights and wrapped in smoke—an echo Ferguson’s tear-gassed streets—but their hands are up. Would that posture make Wilson any less afraid of them, if he met them on the street? Even in the context of a football stadium’s theatrics, the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association was alarmed; the union wasn’t just offended by the act, its members called it “inflammatory.”

The SLPOA probably doesn’t catch the irony of likening “hands up” to a threat; it skipped over the specific chain of events that connect Mike Brown to the Rams players’ decision and arrived at umbrage over…what, exactly? The statement chastises the players not only for “perpetuating a narrative” but for showing insufficient respect and gratitude to the St. Louis police, who, the statement implies, are the only reason those players could take the field in the first place:

All week long, the Rams and the NFL were on the phone with the St. Louis Police Department asking for assurances that the players and the fans would be kept safe from the violent protesters who had rioted, looted, and burned buildings in Ferguson…then, as the players and their fans sit safely in their dome under the watchful protection of hundreds of St. Louis’s finest, they take to the turf to call a now-exonerated officer a murderer.

(That’s a nice little pocket of civil society you got there, the union spokesman added, I’d hate to see something happen to it.)

The expected trade-off—and threat—is all but explicit: we keep the violence at bay, you keep your mouth shut about how we do it. Such a contract is typically unspoken but not uncommon in Western society. It’s the one the Obama administration has assumed is in place with regard to drone strikes, for instance. Of course, in Ferguson (and in black communities all over the country), the contract was, and continues to be, a little different: We will not keep the violence at bay, the police admit, and we will ignore whatever it is you have to say. Darren Wilson did not kill Michael Brown because Brown violated the implicit social contract between law enforcement officers and black communities; Wilson killed Brown as a part of that contract.

The “hands up” gesture has lately taken hold—in St. Louis, in London, in Hong Kong, on the floor of the House, in the windows of jailhouses—because it dramatizes not just the circumstances of Brown’s death, but the default relationship between black Americans and law enforcement: helplessness. Those who raise their hands in protest don’t presume that the gesture changes that relationship; they just want to expose it. “Hands up,” after Ferguson, no longer means, “I’m unarmed, don’t shoot me.” It now means, “I’m unarmed, and I know you may shoot me anyway.”

There is, as Jon Stewart recently pointed out, a long list of otherwise-innocent actions that white people find suspicious when they are performed by a black man. Driving. Walking with your hands in your pockets. Playing with a BB gun. Pointing. But the mental contortion required to believe that the “hands up” gesture is something ominous deserves special attention.  

The posture of defenselessness reminds everyone of who ultimately has the upper hand in every interaction between black men and the legal system. It is not a reminder of black power; it is a reminder of black powerlessness. The strength of the gesture is in its flat-out refusal to accept any other way of looking at the relationship. It undermines a comforting story about self-defense. It is a symbol of surrender that now asks observers to surrender, too; it asks us to give up on a lie. The pose itself is a powerful truth. 

Today, on the football field and elsewhere, ”hands up” is a promise of non-violence and a plea for justice. Those who have a problem with the gesture are rejecting both.