Hands Up Don't Shoot

The United States is witnessing an undercurrent of rage and frustration and it is spilling out onto the streets in a sustained manner for a few months now. .After the interregnum following the suppression and dissipation of the nation-wide public expression and protest in the form of Occupy movements against all that Wall Street represents - venality, corruption, control over governance - many wondered if hopes for a people-led societal change had faded. But certain events, which were probably just the most recent and more egregious examples in a very long series of such occurrences, seem to have brought to surface another desire for deep-seated change.

On Aug 9 2014, black teen Michael Brown was shot at close quarters by a white police officer. It is reported that at the time of shooting, Michael Brown had his hands up, apparently in a surrender mode. Yet, he was shot at about six times and he finally succumbed to the wounds. This event in Ferguson in the state of Mississippi sparked outrage and immediate protests - first locally, and then quickly spreading to the rest of the United States.

One of the features of the protests was the "Hands Up Don't Shoot" slogan and also action. This slogan-accompanied-by-action recalled the helplessness of Michael Brown - but at the same time also pointed a finger at the institutions that indulged in such an impunity. It encompassed a commentary on the continual intimidation and killing of black men, often on the slightest pretext and in violation of rules of engagements of the police themselves. In the cases of black people, the police simply shot first - there was no question of asking questions.

The police officer who shot Michael Brown said in his defense that it was "like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan (a wrestler)," while describing his supposed struggle with Michael Brown. It is to be noted that the police officer was about the same height as Michael Brown, at about 6 ft 4 (though he weighed lesser) so the comparison of a five-year old holding on to a much more massive Hulk Hogan is obviously exaggerated. Such characterizatons and misrepresentations of black men by police officers in their testimony is common and is often used to justify the use of lethal force against them.

And if Michael Brown was Hulk Hogan, then what can we say of 12 year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio, Tamir was reported by a caller to the police as brandishing a gun in a public park - tho' the caller did say that the gun was probably fake. Yet, the police gunned him down within 2 seconds of arriving on the scene.

Earlier, on July 17, Eric Garner, another black male, was tackled to the ground and done to death by a "chokehold maneuver" by the police in Staten Island New York for selling loose cigarettes, illegally. Garner, while he was held down by the police is heard in video crying out, "I can't breathe."

The cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were adjudicated before a "grand jury" - a legal body used in many US courts with a large number of jurors, whose proceedings are held in secret and the evidence is furnished by the prosecutors only. On Nov 24 the grand jury in St. Louis, Missouri, decided not to indict the police officer on any of the charges brought against him. Many in the country were deeply anguished and heartbroken. Then, on Dec 3, another grand jury in New York decided to not indict the police officer who was responsible for "chokeholding" Eric Garner either. While the non-indictment of Michael Brown's killer met with immediate protests, the Eric Garner judgement about 10 days later was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. New York saw immediate reaction n the form of citywide protests but other cities followed suit quickly - in city after city, there have been rallies and demonstrations of various sizes and intensity. Students have been protesting in colleges and Capitol Hill staffers are registering their protest also.

A variety of symbols have been used in the expressions of protests, among which is the powerful symbolism of "Hands Up Don't Shoot," recalling the gesture indicated by Michael Brown despite which he was shot. As a protest action, it serves to remind law officers and every other observer, again and again, the impunity involved in the killing of blacks. It is also a remarkable form of non-violent action pointing to the pure violence that is brought down upon black women and men. The symbol of raised hands, while chanting, "Hands Up Don't Shoot," holds up a mirror to the entire state for practicing and condoning ways of fatal violence. And it is a symbol that can cut across merely protests about specific killings - at a rally by fast food workers demanding higher minimum wage in Boston recently, when the protesters were confronted by police, some immediately put their hands up and shouted, "Hands Up Don't Shoot!"