Online display over Missouri shooting

By Tanzina Vega / New York Times News Service

Police won’t release officer’s name

FERGUSON, Mo. — The Rev. Al Sharpton pressed police Tuesday to release the name of the officer who fatally shot an unarmed teenager in suburban St. Louis, and he pleaded for calm after two nights of violent protests over the young man’s death.

Police said death threats prompted them to withhold the name of the officer, who was placed on administrative leave after fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, where the incident has stoked racial tension, rallies and a night of looting.

Investigators have released few details, saying only that a scuffle unfolded after the officer asked Brown and another teen to get out of the street. At some point, the officer’s weapon fired inside a patrol car, police said.

“The local authorities have put themselves in a position — hiding names and not being transparent — where people will not trust anything but an objective investigation,” Sharpton said during a news conference in St. Louis where he was joined by Brown’s parents.

He also echoed pleas by the NAACP and Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., for peaceful protests. Brown told the crowd: “I need all of us to come together and do this right. ... No violence.”

— The Associated Press

When Tyler Atkins heard about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, he posted on Twitter a picture of himself in a tuxedo, with a saxophone around his neck, next to a photograph of himself dressed in a black T-shirt with a blue bandanna tied around his head and his finger pointed at the camera.

Like hundreds of young African-Americans, he placed his pictures under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, protesting Brown’s killing by a police officer and the way young black men are depicted in the news media. He said Brown’s identity was distorted and filtered through negative stereotypes and that the same would have been done to him with the bandanna image if he found himself the victim of a similar tragedy.

The first picture was taken after a jazz concert at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, where Atkins, a senior, studies music. The other was taken during a recording for a rap video he made with friends for a school math project.

“Had the media gained a hold of this picture, I feel I it would be used to portray that I was in a gang, which is not true at all,” Atkins, 17, wrote in an email.

The speed with which the shooting of Brown has resonated on social media has helped propel and transform a local shooting into a national cause, as African-American commenters draw attention to continued episodes of violence directed at blacks and the media portrayals of young black men. “This affects me deeply because the stories of Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and many more could have been me,” Atkins wrote, referring to the shooting deaths of blacks, some at the hands of police officers.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama issued a statement calling the shooting “heartbreaking” and urging Americans to remember Brown “through reflection and understanding.”

Obama said, “I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions,” adding, “We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Brittney Gault, 28, a student at DePaul University, said the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign gained popularity because of the strength of black Twitter users collectively known as “Black Twitter.”

“They are really a media response team,” Gault said. “Everybody is tapped into Black Twitter.”

And the social media chatter and anguish have become part of a complicated sea of viral words and images — a picture Tuesday of police in combat gear pointing military-style rifles at a young black man in jeans and a blue T-shirt was one of them — that have created a new and charged environment for social activism.

According to data from the Pew Research Internet Project, 40 percent of African-Americans ages 18-29 use Twitter, compared with 28 percent of whites of the same age.

Since the IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign began, the phrase has been used on Twitter more than 168,000 times. Commenters on Twitter are also hoping to organize a series of vigils called the National Moment of Silence, which is meant to commemorate victims like Brown. They hope to hold the events Thursday evening around the country, including in St. Louis.

Local authorities in Ferguson are less enthusiastic about social media’s role, blaming it for inciting looting and violence after the events.

“They have the ability to understand where they’re all going to be, and they can basically plan where they want to go next,” said Jon Belmar, the St. Louis County police chief. “So it’s a really efficient way to communicate.”

Local officials have declined to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing concerns about the officer’s safety because of threats on social media.

The image of Brown that spurred the campaign on Twitter showed him with the fingers of his right hand extended in what some considered a peace sign, but which others called a gang sign. A spokeswoman for NBC News, one of the outlets that published the photograph online, said it was taken from Brown’s personal Facebook page, where it was his profile picture.

In a subsequent article about Brown’s killing, the network used a different photograph of him, which showed him wearing headphones and gazing at the camera.

The Twitter engagement is part of broader efforts to use social media as a tool for education and engagement, particularly among the young. Probably nothing has been more of a spur to passionate campaigns on Twitter and other social media than some of the racially charged killings of young blacks in recent years, including the killing of Martin, 17, Jordan Davis, 17, and McBride, 19.

Last week, when The Associated Press published a Twitter message announcing that Theodore Wafer was found guilty of second-degree murder for killing McBride, Twitter users reacted swiftly, criticizing the headline, which described Wafer as a “suburban Detroit homeowner” and McBride as a “woman who showed up drunk on porch.”

In response, Twitter users posted African-American history images, including one featuring a slave ship with the headline “Families board wrong ship, end up in wrong place.”