‘IT BROUGHT TEARS TO MY EYES’
A year later, Portland police officer recalls impact of photo taken in aftermath of Ferguson shooting
All the police officer wanted was a hug.
But as racial tensions gripped America, the white officer’s embrace of a 12-year-old black boy became a powerful symbol.
On Nov. 25, 2014, Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum was on duty during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Portland, Ore. A Missouri grand jury had just decided against indicting the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, a black robbery suspect, in Ferguson on Aug. 9. Violent clashes followed in the St. Louis suburb.
At the Portland protest, Barnum spotted a young boy holding a sign. He wore a vibrant fedora with an electric-blue band and a long orange jacket, but that wasn’t what caught the officer’s eye.
Devonte Hart was crying. Tears streamed down his face and dotted the chalkboard sign in his hands.
Barnum approached him, kneeled down to his level and asked if everything was OK. “He said he was sad because people and the police weren’t getting along,” recalled the veteran officer.
Barnum sighed deeply and told Devonte he, too, was sad.
“I told him it’s tough for us as police officers, too,” he said. “I told him most police officers are good people doing a tough job, but for the right reasons.”
Then Barnum looked down at Devonte’s sign and its simple message written by a child’s hand using colourful chalk: “Free Hugs.”
“I pointed down to his sign and said, ‘Can I get one of those?’” said the officer. “His eyes got really big and then he latched on to me.”
After the hug, Devonte and his mother rejoined the protest and Barnum went back on patrol.
The hug had been captured by Johnny Nguyen, a freelance photographer, and before long it was being printed, posted and shared all over the world.
Numerous attempts to contact the Hart family went unanswered.
Barnum said he had no idea photographers were nearby. The first time he saw the picture, he was overwhelmed.
“It was pretty jaw-dropping,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes because it was such a moment.”
To this day he gets messages and mail from people who say the photo has moved them or provided them with comfort and hope amid continuing tensions.
“That picture opened a window for people to see cops as people,” he said.
Despite his actions making him an unintentional ambassador for police, Barnum, a father of two young boys, maintains he was just doing what any parent would do, and what officers regularly do to comfort kids.
“That’s what being a police officer was about that day,” he said. “Letting this kid know that you’re protected, we’re friends and you can come to me any time you’re in need and I’m here to help you.”