The PJ Tatler

The Story Behind the Most Touching Photo of the Ferguson Protests

 

Freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen snapped this shot of what some are calling the hug heard ’round the world — Ferguson is even making the news in Afghanistan, after all — at a Portland protest in the wake of a grand jury not indicting Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

In the Nov. 25 pic, Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum, a 21-year veteran of the force, hugs 12-year-old Devonte Hart. The Oregonian has the details on the photo that spread like wildfire across social media:

According to Sgt. Barnum, the interaction took place at the beginning of the rally. With emotions running high as speakers were addressing the crowd, he noticed a young man with tears in his eyes holding a “Free Hugs” sign among a group of people.

Sgt. Barnum motioned him over and the two started talking about the demonstration, school, art and life. As the conversation ended, Sgt. Barnum pointed to his sign and asked, “Do I get one of those?” The moment following his question was captured in the photo above, which shows Devonte’s eyes welling up with tears once again as he embraces the officer.

Devonte’s mother Jen Hart posted her version of events on her Facebook page:

It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother. He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. … There were generic questions about his favorite subject and what he liked to do in the summer, but the one that mattered hit straight to the heart. He asked Devonte why he was crying. His response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), “Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs.

The Associated Press talked to the police sergeant:

Barnum told The AP 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.”

Devonte’s had a hard life that was turned around by his adoption. A New Zealand site featured the boy’s story earlier in the month:

Devonte Hart entered the world 12 years ago with drugs pumping through his tiny newborn body.

By the time he was 4 years old he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect.

He knew only a handful of words, including fuck and shit, and he struggled to identify with the names of food, body parts and every day objects. Devonte was a violent toddler and his health was weighed down by a heavy list of disabilities.

It was a life with little hope and a future that seemed over before it began.

That is until Jen Hart and her wife Sarah entered Devonte’s life and adopted him and his two siblings seven years ago.

Jen says the day she met Devonte was frightening and traumatic.

“That night, after we finally got him to sleep, I cried harder than I had ever cried in my life. I felt like there was no way we could raise this child, and the five others we had adopted.”

Yet, she says, there was something inexplicable pulling at her heart.

“I felt more connected to this fragile little boy more than I had ever felt to anyone in my life.”

With their unconditional love, nurturing natures, patience and acceptance, Devonte defied all odds and has grown into a young charismatic man with a heart of gold.