PORTLAND, Ore. – An African-American boy holding a “Free Hugs” sign stood crying in front of a police barricade at a Ferguson rally in Portland. A white police officer motioned for him to come closer. The officer then asked the boy for a hug – and they embraced, the boy’s anguished face streaming with tears.
A photographer captured the encounter earlier this week, and the photo has become popular on social media. It’s an unusual image as people around the country protest a grand jury’s decision to not indict a white police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
In Portland, both the boy and the officer – 12-year-old Devonte Hart and Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum – took unusual steps when they met Tuesday.
The boy’s mother, Jennifer Hart, who is white, wrote on social media that her son had been struggling with issues of police brutality and racism.
Devonte is one of six children adopted by Hart and her wife, Sarah Hart, of West Linn, a suburb of Portland.
A day after the decision on officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the Harts went downtown “with the intention of spreading love and kindness” by holding signs such as “You Matter” and “Free Hugs,” Jennifer Hart said. The family then joined the nearby Ferguson rally.
Barnum, who works for the traffic division, had been dispatched to a downtown intersection to help with traffic and crowd control. In the middle of the block, hundreds of protesters listened to speeches about the relationship between police and black residents.
Earlier that week, when an officer posted on Facebook a badge of the Portland Police Bureau with an “I am Darren Wilson” banner, Barnum had “liked” the post. The officers were later ordered to remove the images and the matter is under an internal investigation.
Barnum said he “liked” the image out of solidarity for the police profession, not because he supports Wilson.
A couple of days later, Devonte Hart stood on the outskirts of the Portland rally, about 10 feet away from Barnum. He was trembling, his mom said. Tears were rolling down his cheeks.
“Devonte was struggling. He wouldn’t speak. He was inconsolable,” his mother wrote. “My son has a heart of gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police. ... He wonders if someday when he no longer wears a ‘Free Hugs’ sign around his neck, when he’s a full-grown black male, if his life will be in danger for simply being.”
Barnum told The Associated Press that he noticed the boy and wondered what was wrong. So he motioned for him to come up to his motorcycle.
The officer asked for his name and shook his hand. He also asked Devonte where he went to school (He is homeschooled), what he did this summer (He traveled around the U.S. with his family), and what he likes to do (art). The tears stopped.
Barnum has two teenage sons and has worked for Portland’s police force for 21 years. While continuing to talk to Devonte, he looked at the “Free Hugs” sign on the ground and asked if he might get a hug as well.
Devonte put his arms around the officer.
“Knowing how he struggled with police, his bravery and courage to catch my eye and approach me were impressive,” Barnum said. “And it’s a blessing for me that I didn’t miss an opportunity to impact this child.”
Hart said the moment was about “listening to each other, facing fears with an open heart.”