Devonte Hart, Sgt. Bret Barnum, and the hug felt ‘round the world

Devonte Hart and Sgt. Bret Barnum – a black boy and a white police sergeant – met at a Ferguson protest in Portland, Ore. The photo of them hugging has melted millions of hearts.

Johnny Nguyen/Special to The Oregonian
In this photo shot by freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen, Sgt. Bret Barnum hugs 12-year-old Devonte Hart during the Ferguson rally in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 25, 2014.

It by no means marked the end of the Ferguson, Mo., aftermath, but for millions a candid image just raised a lot of hope for the future: A viral photo of a Ferguson-related protest in Portland, Ore., where a white police sergeant hugs a crying 12-year-old black boy offering “Free Hugs.”

The fact that there’s an incredible personal story behind the picture is yet another reason why the photo blew up on Facebook overnight, with hundreds of thousands of “likes” and its central subjects – 12-year-old Devonte Hart and Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum – instantly emblematic of an effort to heal in the aftermath of the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.

Indeed, the emotional reaction to the photo – inevitably, a tear-stained smile, unless one’s heart is a rock – suggests not just the power of the moment, which was by all accounts significant, but a small catharsis in what many call an ongoing national disaster – statistical, and sometimes deadly, discrepancies in how some police view young black men.

“My eyes have become faucets due to a little bit of sadness and a lot of hope,” writes Erica Rosser, on Facebook.

As Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Mr. Brown, found out this week that he will face no criminal charges for shooting Brown, who some say had his hands up in surrender, the sometimes violent protests that have continued have led to soul-searching by Americans who watched the streets of Ferguson take on the specter of a war zone.

It was that tension that vibrated behind the picture, writes Jen Hart, Devonte’s mom, on Facebook. Perhaps affected in part by his own straddling of the unresolved cultural tension between white and black cultures in the US, Devonte stood at the Nov. 25 protest with tears staining his jacket.

“It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I've had as a mother,” writes Jen Hart, his mom. “He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. … After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. ... [Then] 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.”

Adopted by Jen and her wife Sarah as a four-year-old, along with his siblings, Devonte had a rough start to his life. “By the time he was 4 years old he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect,” writes Chloe Johnson, on Paper Trail. “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.”

Indeed, Devonte’s unique compassion has made hugging news before, specifically in a viral YouTube video of him clinging to musician Xavier Rudd. (Tear alert!)

Johnny Nguyen, the photographer who captured the moment in Portland with crystalline clarity, said on Twitter that those forwarding the photo “are playing a great role in spreading the message of hope and humanity as seen here in the photo of Sgt. Barnum and Devonte Hart.”

As of Saturday morning, reactions to the photograph kept piling in from around the world.

“Weapons of mass compassion … we need more of this,” wrote John Semar, also on Facebook.

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