This past Wednesday, Ikenna Ikeotuonye, the VP of Howard University Student Association, was leading a scheduled meeting for upperclassmen who had volunteered to move incoming freshmen into their dorms. Disturbed by the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old named Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Ikeotuonye felt moved to make a statement. He explained the circumstances of Brown’s death to the assembled group, including reports that Brown had been shot with his hands raised in the air, and then, after asking anyone who objected to leave the room, took a photo of the group with their arms in the same “don’t shoot” posture.
Ikeotuonye posted the photo to Instagram. The rest, as they say, is history—with a twist. While the image itself harkens back to other iconic protest visuals, like the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the 1968 Olympics 200-meter dash, there is something very different about how modern visual memes are created and spread.
Mainly, that anyone can create them, and anyone can spread them.
“Tommie Smith was taking a moment where he knows he has the world’s attention at that moment and so he transformed that moment dramatically,” says Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor at NYU who studies visual culture. “[The “hands up” photo meme] is the polar opposite in some ways. Because we didn’t see what happened to Mike Brown. They created this idea of what appears to have happened and made the whole world pay attention to it.”
Social media hastens the spread of images dramatically. By the time Ikeotuonye woke up the next day, his photo had flooded major media outlets and the “hands up” gesture was on its way to becoming a meme in a way similar to how wearing the hood of a hoodie—whether you are a college student or Kobe Bryant—has become a symbol associated with the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a member of a neighborhood watch group. When a Howard University student named Megan Sims tweeted out the picture, her initial post got 14,000 retweets, and recirculated countless other times. It’s difficult to say who started the "hands up" trend, but protestors on the ground in Ferguson, attendees of an Oakland vigil, and even an occasional press-hungry musician are all raising their hands in the air in photos that eventually circulated through social media.
The idea of visual memes—units of culture passed between people who make it their own as they go—being used for social movements is not new. A black power salute, a peace sign, and a Nazi salute are all visual shorthand for bigger ideas. Our brains have more space devoted to vision than to any other sense; images pack a punch, and they have been used by social movements from the French revolution to gay rights campaigns to send a message.
Nor is the message itself of Howard University’s photo necessarily new. One participant in the Howard University photo described it to BuzzFeed in similar terms as Carlos described the image he created in 1968: “This issue is about the fact that this country is not post-racial, this country is not just, this country is not free.”
You just no longer need an Olympic moment to create an iconic image. Ryan Milner, an assistant professor at the College of Charleston who has written about the role of memes in the Occupy movement, put it like this: “Because of our participatory media tools, because of increased conversation, that image is less static. That kind of iconic image of a protest, of an event, is in everyone’s hands. So multiple people can tweet photos of themselves with their hoods up, in the case of Trayvon Martin, and be a part of that iconic image.”
That’s not to say that our traditional idea of iconic images, the ones snapped at a particularly telling moments by photojournalists, are any less powerful. And indeed, parallels have also been drawn between images from Ferguson and those from the civil rights movement, but a new type of collective iconic image is emerging with a different effect.
Putting yourself inside of a common visual meme puts a personal spin on the message—as well as, literally, a person that your networks will recognize. And as much as that can look like slacktivism, it can also be powerful. As Mirzoeff points out, the NYC rally for Travyon was called "the Million Hoodies March." “I think it did also help connect the issue for suburban white families where so many children and teenagers wear hoodies every day,” he says. Milner argues memes also contributed to the discussion around Occupy Wall Street. “You could make an argument that income inequality is still something we talk about because of the resonance of what people shared around Occupy," he says. "That ideas like the 99 percent and the 1 percent are ideas that don’t enter public consciousness without some of the memes going around.”
This has pleased the person behind the Howard University picture immensely—unlike reprinting a static photo, the new protest meme is design to be remixed as a form of sharing. Ikeotuonye says he loves that other groups have taken "hands up" photos because it "shows solidarity between our communities." As his photo makes its rounds from tens of thousands of retweets on Twitter to CNN and the Washington Post, he has felt a different effect than the photos being taken by the media in Ferguson.
“[In media reports] you don’t see the true community supporting this campaign and movement,” he says. “I think that our picture, especially with the numbers we had in the picture and the number social media posts, shows that we’re not taking a backseat to the social issue. Even though we’re miles away from St. Louis, we’re still showing his family, his community, and all people that enough is enough and we’re not standing for this anymore.”