What do you see?
All day on Tuesday, a report about two young men suspected of committing three armed robberies in Hammond in less than an hour drew more online readers than any other Sun-Times news story.
You can bet it wasn’t the words that pulled readers in. The news was breaking and details were sketchy.
It was the photo that mattered. It screamed with meaning.
In that photograph, taken by a surveillance camera, here’s what we see.
We see two young men, probably only teenagers, who should be getting ready for school in the fall or working jobs. They are running down a sidewalk in broad daylight with guns, and we wonder where they got the guns. We know it’s easy enough.
We wonder who the young men are pointing their guns at, and we admit we’re grateful it is not us. We wonder if they are running through a neighborhood where people are afraid to step outdoors because of people like them.
We see how one young man grips his gun with two hands, like he’s done this before. Or did he learn it from watching TV? Guns are everywhere on TV. Was he younger when he first held a gun? Did it feel heavier then?
We notice how the other young man keeps his right hand in his pocket. Even as he aims his gun, he projects an unsettling casualness. We wonder how somebody so young can be so apparently disengaged.
We see the hoodies and the clean white gym shoes and the neat haircuts. Take away the guns, and the two young men look like every good kid we have ever known. We can’t pretend they are made of entirely different clay. Too easy.
We see they are African-Americans, and this matters greatly. It is a heavy burden, now as always, to grow up a black man in America. If the gangs and drugs don’t get you, the racist stereotyping might. How can anybody claim otherwise less than two weeks after hundreds of white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia? And after the president of the United States failed to condemn the racists properly?
At what age does a young black child look in the mirror and begin to believe the lies might be true?
We study this photograph and we want to say this:
Young men with guns are the problem, not young black men with guns. Young people of any color who grow up in poor and dangerous neighborhoods, who are left by adults to run the streets, who go to bad schools, who can’t find work, who begin to wonder if they stand a chance, who come to believe they have no future — that’s the problem.
We know nothing specific about the two young men in the photo, not even their names. But whatever their full stories might be — whatever bad breaks they may have caught — they must be taken off the street. People who rob other people at gunpoint can’t walk free.
But we look at this photograph, and we wonder how it ever got to this. Why do we bicker over essential school funding? Why does our nation spend so much on the military and so little on jobs programs? Why do so many politicians favor a tax cut for the rich but oppose a living wage for working people?
The photograph is a Rorschach test. What do you see?
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