In Defense of ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’

Back in August, Ferguson protesters stared down the barrels of the Ferguson Police Department’s guns knowing full well everything the nation recently discovered about the brutality of those officers. Before “black lives matter,” they had another simple message, “hands up, don’t shoot.”

Of course, that chant was inspired by a narrative that Michael Brown was standing with his hands up as FPD officer Darren Wilson fired at least six shots into the teenager. All these months later, however, the Department of Justice has concluded based on its investigation into Brown’s killing that he was not in a position of surrender when killed.

This discovery has become the focus of media attention in the weeks since the Ferguson report was released. It’s been highlighted as a “gotcha” moment for those who’d rather not reform of our nation’s police departments. It’s as if for them the entire debate over whether or not our nation’s police officers routinely use excessive force against people of color hinged on whether or not Brown’s killing was justified, or merely if his hands were up when it happened.

The interrogation of “hands up, don’t shoot” is, of course, a red herring. Placed in the context of everything we’ve learned about policing nationally in the months since Brown was killed (And throughout American history,) it reeks of pettiness and a desperation to minimize the movement for police reform to one chant used by protesters. Even more, It’s rooted in a gross misunderstanding of the moments from which those words emerged.

The protests in Ferguson grew organically on Canfield Drive. A small group of Brown’s neighbors experienced the brutality of seeing him killed and of watching his lifeless body — exposed to the summer sun and leaking blood — lay uncovered for four hours. Their reaction to that brutality visited upon them was met with aggression by a police department they’d just witness kill their neighbor. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” they yelled. It was then that one teen’s complicated killing birthed a movement. It was the continued violence of the Ferguson PD, not an agenda-driven mob, that produced that phrase.

“Hands up, don’t shoot” became a chant, not solely in defense of Brown, but because authorities in that small town gave residents a reason to say it in defense of themselves. They had a reason to say it as police herded them at gunpoint into their houses after their neighbor had been killed. “Hands up, don’t shoot.” They again had a reason when their peaceful protests, demands for answers in Brown’s case, were met with military weaponry and tactics. “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

For black Americans living in neighborhoods occupied by often-hostile police forces, “hands up, don’t shoot” is a relevant now as it ever was. Without a system of accountability to discourage police officers from the indiscriminate taking of black life, what else can we do? What else can we say, that black lives matter? As if that chant hasn’t also been interrogated. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is a disclaimer. Translation: we are unarmed and don’t wish to die.