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  • “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”:Surrendering to Liberal Illusions
  • Dora Apel (bio)

The image on the cover of Time magazine of a single protester—on her knees in the road with hands up and facing a flash bomb set off by police—has the quality of lone sacrifice, despite the hint of defiance in the locked elbows and flexed wrists (Figure 1).1

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Figure 1.

Cover of Time magazine, “The Tragedy of Ferguson,” September 1, 2014.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images.

It represents one of two dominant kinds of images in response to the police killing of Michael Brown: black protesters with their hands up in the posture of surrender and police in riot gear, sometimes aiming weapons at the protesters (Figure 2).

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Figure 2.

Outrage in Missouri Town after Police Shooting Of 18-Year-Old Man;

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In solidarity with the demonstrators, sympathizers from around the country posted photos of themselves with their hands up on social media such as Twitter’s #handsupdontshoot, while the chant of “hands up, don’t shoot” became a constant refrain on the streets of Ferguson.

The “hands up” gesture is equivalent to an animal in a fight showing its opponent its neck, its most vulnerable part, signaling defenselessness and submission. According to Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, Brown was shot with his hands up, facing the cop that shot him six times, with the final fatal bullet entering the top of his head, suggesting he was going down or on his knees. The gesture of surrender, then, failed to do its work, exacerbating the outrage at the killing of an unarmed black teenager by making it seem even more vicious and gratuitous.

But the summary execution of a black man by the police is a common occurrence in America. The cops routinely suffer no consequences or else get a slap on the wrist. Yet opinion about Brown’s death is widely divergent. Although blacks and anti-racist whites see the killing as an outrage, more money has been raised in support of the killer police officer, Darren Wilson, than for the family of Michael Brown. There are those who describe the black protesters as “troublemakers”—meaning those who fight back against the police by throwing rocks or bottles, engage in looting, or simply voice their outrage by protesting peacefully, by protesting at all, even with their hands raised in surrender. For the racist whites who support the police, protesters and looters are all the same. For those who support the protesters, looting is a diversion from the main story of racist murder. Even news crews, reporters and bystanders in Ferguson, regarded as sympathetic to the protesters, have been attacked or arrested by the police. Black protest, it would seem, is regarded by many not as a constitutional right in a democracy but as a form of “violence,” a public assertion of rights that cannot or should not be tolerated.

If the shooting of Michael Brown is considered by many to be justified, and protest, no matter how supplicating, is regarded as infuriating and intolerable, then we must see such cop killings of unarmed black men as a form of modern legalized lynching.

At the height of private and spectacle lynchings from the 1890s to the 1930s, if black people were not sufficiently deferential and submissive, then they were considered “uppity,” which could be grounds for lethal action. Not much has changed in decades since then for cops and racist whites. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll finds that 76 percent of black respondents say the shooting is part of a broader pattern in the way police treat black men, nearly double the number of whites who agree (40 percent).2 Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll finds that 80 percent of blacks favor the statement that Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed” while only 18 percent of whites favor this statement over another that says “the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.”3 While the performance of non-resistance expressed by the “hands up...

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