My new book, Mistrust: Why Losing Faith In Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them, comes out from W.W. Norton this November. In it, I share the stories of dozens of activists who are finding new ways to make social change even when many of the institutions appear to be failing us. Just as I was turning my final draft over to my copy editor, I heard from C.J. Lawrence, an activist I deeply admire for his Twitter campaign, #iftheygunnedmedown.
In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, C.J. asked his Twitter followers, “Which photo does the media use if the police shot me down? #IfTheyGunnedMeDown” It was accompanied with two photos. In one photo he’s wearing a graduation gown, speaking at a podium to an audience that includes a laughing Bill Clinton, and another in which he’s wearing sunglasses and holding a bottle of Hennessy cognac. The message was simple: how the media chooses to represent Black men – in this case, a young man who had been killed by the police – matters, and affects the safety of Black people everywhere.
#iftheygunnedmedown went viral, and thousands of people posted their own pairings of photos, taken from their social media feeds, much as media outlets were publishing photos of Michael Brown taken from his Facebook feed. What impressed me the most was its efficacy. A photo of Michael Brown standing on his front stoop, scowling and flashing a peace sign (which many misread as a gang sign) was the dominant photo of the victim online when C.J. started his campaign; after the campaign was reported on in outlets like the New York Times, journalists began using different photos of Brown, primarily one in his graduation gown.
The images we use to portray victims of crimes may seem like a minor detail. It’s not. Racism in America is reinforced every day in how Black and Brown people are portrayed in words and images. In this interview, C.J. explains why it was so important to fight images with images, and why the success of #iftheygunnedmedown changed his approach as an activist and led him to found Black With No Chaser, an activist news outlet focused on racial justice.
We spoke on May 30, 2020, days after George Floyd had been asphyxiated by a Minneapolis police officer, and as people around the country were coming out of COVID-19 quarantine and out in the streets in an uprising against police misconduct and abuse of Black and Brown communities. As I was editing our conversation to post today, C.J. reminded me over Twitter that all too often photos of a Black victim are the moments when Black people appear in the newspapers. We need to work not only to end systemic racism and overpolicing that lead to deaths like George Floyd’s, but to transform our culture so we see our Black and Brown brothers and sisters every day, not just at moments of tragedy.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
I have been teaching your work, actually, for years now. I’ve probably given 40 or 50 lectures where I’ve used #iftheygunnedmedown as a central example. And I have to say, I’m just heartbroken that we’re back here again, talking about some of the same issues.
The reason I teach that example is that I felt like you took on a way that the media often frames the death of black men, which is that a black man must be a thug in waiting. That every black male is somehow a dangerous individual and that somehow violence is always understandable. And as a result, we end up with an epidemic of the death of black men.
And I thought that your gesture was the beginning of a way of changing social attitudes that I actually use as an example of how people are using media to build movements. So, first of all, thank you. It is a pleasure to get to talk to you. What was going through your head those days immediately after Mike Brown?
I guess for just a little backstory first. And I’ll say thank you to you for continuing to teach and spread the message of #iftheygunnedmedown. I think that it’s important. I also appreciate your acknowledgement, because that’s not something that has happened a lot of times. I know that #iftheygunnedmedown is being taught a lot around the country, but it’s rare that many of the teachers of the campaign have reached out to the creator to have a frame of reference with regard to that.
So I do appreciate you reaching out to me, Ethan. With regard to my sentiments, I would have to take it back a little further than Mike Brown to Trayvon Martin, the impetus for where this really started with me. And simply looking at the assassination of his character during the George Zimmerman trial. The fact that it was highlighted that he once smoked marijuana in eighth grade.
That somehow a situation where a strange man with a gun could follow a child with that gun at night, in the dark, and somehow a jury could be more fixated with the fear of the strange man with the gun than they could be of the child. So it was really a psychoanalysis beginning there of, how could a jury of Trayvon’s “peers” somehow find themselves more aligned and empathetic with the position of the man following with a gun than of the other fears of the boy who literally said to his friend that this person is creepy to me.
And the only thing that I could reconcile is that people who are not in proximity to you, who are only exposed to you through media consumption and things of that nature would have to begin to form those opinions based on that perception that began to be developed. It was then furthered during the situation. And so full disclosure, I marched for the Trayvon rallies. I was in Sanford, Florida. We were down there on the City Hall steps demanding that simply for George Zimmerman to be arrested.
So this is something that has been brewing inside of me for quite some time. The Michael Brown incident happens and I literally see a tweet of Michael Brown’s dead body on the ground. A photo of it floating around is jarring, but that the tweet that is attached to this photo states, “Looking at him, laying on the ground with his pants sagging. I don’t feel sorry for him at all.” That coupled with the image that I began to see going around with the Nike jersey and a peace sign for me began to really just have me to make sense of again, how people’s minds were working around this issue.
At that point in time, I was trying to figure out a way. Because of what I was noticing in my own work as an attorney was a pattern of assassination of the body, a subsequent assassination of the character to justify the deaths or actions of armed men against unarmed boys, girls, and men and women.
So two things I just want to draw out of that, C.J.: The first is this idea that when George Zimmerman is finally charged in Trayvon Martin’s death, that somehow it’s easier for people to identify with his fear of an unarmed black man with a bag of Skittles and iced tea than it is for us to identify with Trayvon, who is wondering what this creepy dude with the gun is doing. That’s some serious societal construction of racism. And then you’re drawing that out further and saying, look, as an attorney in court, I’m watching physical actions taken against black men. When someone’s held accountable for it, it comes down to this sort of justification. That somehow if we can demonstrate that this person is a thug, is somehow living up to this dangerous stereotype, whether they were smoking marijuana, whether they were wearing their jeans bagging one way or another. And so it’s that sense of assassination of character leading to black men actually being a target of assassination.
What made you think about challenging this through imagery? Because I felt like imagery was the aspect of #iftheygunnedmedown where you were so effective in building a campaign. What made you think about images as the place for intervention around this?
Well, again, I think that the image of Mike Brown on the ground, the statement of, “Look at him with his pants sagging,” Literally that they were more focused on his pants than the fact that this boy’s brains were on the ground in a photograph.
The questions began to resonate in my mind that, how are people being convinced that the prey is the predator? How is it that people are seeing the gazelle as the lion and the lion as the gazelle? How is it that they’re able to be convinced of that? And then I decided that it has to be directly attached to appearance
Because for me, as you can see how I’m dressed right now, [C.J. was wearing a black hoodie] I’m dressed how Trayvon was dressed. And this is how I dress. You know what I mean? This is me on a normal basis. When I’m not in a courtroom, I’m usually in a hoodie or athletic wear or something like that.
So I began to think about, what type of social commentary can be jarring to the extent that we can begin to challenge the narrative, that whether I look one way or the other, you cannot capture or embody who I am as a human being on a snapshot, one way or the other. For me, the picture that I wound up choosing as the “bad picture” was actually one that it was the worst picture of me I could find it.
It was Halloween and I was making fun of Kanye West during the MTV Awards when he snatched the microphone from Taylor Swift. The Hennessy bottle actually had tea in it. So I wasn’t even drinking alcohol. It was that juxtaposed against this black boy smiling with the former President of the United States in the background, speaking at his graduation.
The point was to disrupt people mentally. And I used the two most dramatic photos that I could find of me in order to challenge people to think about one way or the other when I can no longer tell my story to myself. But the media begins to take this red meat of racial violence against extra judicial killings and racial violence against young black men and women that results in this. How is the audience that is just beginning to hear my story going to be introduced to me?
I think that notion of that moment of introduction is so powerful. I mean, that’s what happens in these horrific moments. Law enforcement, or in the case of Trayvon Martin, a vigilante, is making decisions through some combination of what they see, with this really thick lens of bias and social construction. We’ve been taught for generations that black men are dangerous and that somehow, as you said, the gazelle is the lion. I don’t know a lot of people who feel particularly comfortable when they’re stopped by the police, and certainly it’s a much more serious issue for people of color. But there is always an immediate power dynamic and it’s hard to understand how someone who is armed, who is in that position of power suddenly feels like they are threatened. I’m thinking Tamir Rice, I’m thinking of a 12-year-old boy, and what is it that’s gone so wrong in individual minds and in societal minds that turns that immediate first impression into something so different.
One of the things that you did so incredibly with #ifthey gunnedmedown is you built a participatory meme. Anybody could jump in and do it. There were some ill-advised white teenagers who did it, but there were many, many more very thoughtful people of color who picked it up and ran with it, including this extraordinary photo of a U.S. Marine in full dress gear and paired with an image of him flipping off the camera. Did you know that participation was going to be a piece of it? Was this your statement? Did you think about the remix?
When I say, “Yes, let’s do that,” my intention was that people would participate. I had no idea that people would participate to the extent that they ultimately wound up participating, because you just never know with these things. But the fact that it took off the way that it did was truly powerful. Some of the images and juxtapositions that we got the chance to see were truly amazing to see.
Do you have a favorite?
I have a few that I really like. I do like the one with the Marine flipping off the camera. I like the one of another military brother that was in the military reading to children. I believe it was reading to children in one and in the other I forget what they were doing. But that was an image that I found pretty incredible. There are so many, and it’s been a while now that I don’t recall them all. But those two definitely immediately come to mind as some of the first ones that really took it to another level. It was interesting to start seeing even celebrity types either participate in it or retweet it and things like that. So that was interesting as well.
How do you think it spread?
Black Twitter. Our Black Twitter is strong. And as you probably see from following me, I am part of that. You know what I mean? I distinctively remember Reagan Gomez being one of the people who retweeted it and her having a pretty significant following. And Jeffrey Wright from Westworld was one that retweeted it; he may even have participated.
When those two retweeted it, it began to catch a fire. And I think that that’s one of the true powers of Twitter, is really about sparking conversations and about average everyday people being able to connect with these larger networks and something truly becoming an avalanche of social commentary against a multitude of things.
I think that it was just right on time, because all of us were feeling rowdiness from seeing Michael Brown’s body on the ground. Ferguson had not even really become Ferguson yet, at the time that we tweeted this out. They were saying Michael Brown’s name, but it was not “hashtag Ferguson”.
It was literally just us still trying to make sense of what had occurred. This was within the first one or two days after Michael Brown had been shot. But I followed quite a few people from the St. Louis area and they were talking about him. So the natural thing was to go and try to see what it was that was going on. And when I saw it, it was a lot. And so that was my way of responding.
Have you built other meme campaigns before? I mean, this was a very personal expression that turned into a meme through amplification. You’re now complementing your legal work with activist and media work through your firm “Black With No Chaser.” Have you sort of moved into the meme engineering space? How are you thinking about that as far as the media you’re making as a form of activism?
So just full disclosure, I’ve been involved in activism for a long time, even before Twitter. Jena Six, the Scott sisters here in Jackson, Mississippi; Edward Johnson, who was a young boy was lynched in 2000 in Columbia, Mississippi. So for me, my upbringing is deeply rooted in activism. I would speak about civil rights issues and speak out on these issues and write about these issues all the time before #iftheygunnedmedown.
But I had never attempted to do anything like this campaign before #iftheygunnedmedown. As a result of the meme and the subsequent chain of events that occurred, an indictment by the media subsequently challenged the media to hold itself accountable in these narratives. That was amazing.
When I saw that result, I certainly saw a need for narratives to be controlled by the people that are most impacted by those narratives. I saw a responsibility to not let the power of something like #iftheygunnedmedown die. And I saw that other people were embracing the power of #. And so I kind of became okay with it, even if it was my baby, being something that as long as other people were being responsible with and challenging others with, not feeling the need to hold on to it in that way.
Instead, I was feeling the need to continue the fight towards controlling our narratives, to fighting for Black people, Brown people, underserved people and marginalized people. And Black With No Chaser (https://blackwithnochaser.com/) is really the child of #iftheygunnedmedown and the social commentary that began to come out of that space.
So it’s been really transformative for you. Are you still practicing law?
I do practice. I still am an attorney, and I do practice law. But what I found is that my desire with Black With No Chaser is to do social advocacy in addition to media. I found that I could do more and impact more by being someone who took on issues in a broad sense and began to become more focused with it like a top down approach, rather than being an individual case work. Individual case where it can be frustrating. It was something that I was good at, both litigation and trial court, but it was something that was highly stressful to me. Black With No Chaser is something that I find enjoying even in the hard days.
Were you doing criminal law?
I was doing criminal and civil rights. As you know, those are both two really difficult places to be in, both as an attorney in the South in Mississippi, but also as a Black man, experiencing and seeing your people herded in the court daily like cattle and literally seeing that disproportionate number of people in community in the criminal justice system.
We make up 13% of the population, but 80% of the courtroom, and that’s a very frustrating thing. I wasn’t representing everybody in court that day. And I was beginning to say, how can I do more for the 80% of the people that are in here? Because they would see me fighting for my client in the courtroom. Sometimes I would win, sometimes I wouldn’t, but I would always fight as hard as I possibly could for the people. And by the time I leave, the 75% of the people that weren’t represented by me in that courtroom will be trying to see if I could help them. And just emotionally I couldn’t, physically I couldn’t, for so many reasons I couldn’t. I was trying to figure out, what more could I do?
How does Black With No Chaser help you do that?
Black With No Chaser is an unapologetic black platform that is designed at amplifying like voices, literally creating safe spaces for us to begin to tell our stories, control our narratives. We’re not a traditional media in the sense that we stick strictly to journalistic principles like objectivity. We’re willing to go places that some media outlets aren’t willing to go, but we’re also willing to become involved in ways that traditional media outlets aren’t always involved. I believe that investigative journalism can be activism, but we literally get out in the streets with the people who are protesting.
We broke the story of what was occurring in Parchman Prison (https://blackwithnochaser.com/4-dead-20-injured-according-to-sources-amid-parchman-prison-unrest-a-timeline-of-current-events-behind-mdoc-walls/). It went national. We saw the type of power that we could have with this type of coverage. And so we ran with that. But in addition to that, we were out there on the front lines and helping to advance the policy side of things as it relates to prison reform and decarceration.
The goal of Black With No Chaser is to be an all-encompassing media outlet, social advocacy space, and consulting space to help others to learn how to utilize social media and other mediums to advance advocacy. But we help a lot of black businesses use these techniques as well.
Is the focus primarily Mississippi? Is it primarily Jackson? Is it nationwide?
Black With No Chaser has a global reach. We reach about 15 million people a month across platforms. So between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, our website, and YouTube, we can reach normally around 15 million people a month. We have about 500,000 followers across those platforms.
As for the geographic scope: To be honest, what I thought about Mississippi is sometimes Mississippi doesn’t always know the power of what it has in state sometimes until it’s recognized out of state. Almost the same way with #ifyougunnedmedown, if you will. I mean, it was the national media reached out to me before the local media with #ifyougunnedmedown.
It makes a lot of sense. So we’re having this conversation on a very tough day. We’re a couple of days beyond the killing of George Floyd, by police officer Derek Chauvin, who has just been indicted for a third degree murder, a second degree manslaughter.
We’ve seen activism on the streets. We’ve seen President Trump threatening to shoot people for looting. We’ve seen Minnesota call out its National Guard. And of course, we’ve got this all on the backdrop of a global pandemic where police reactions to armed white protestors demanding to go get a haircut is a very different reaction to what we’re seeing to Black, Brown people and their allies, going out in the streets to demand their rights. What do we do?
Ethan, that’s a great question. What I would say is that what we’re seeing with regard to the responses, that Trump’s statements evoked Governor George Wallace’s type statements to me or Bull Connor statements when I hear them, or even here in Mississippi with Ross Barnett during the desegregation of Ole Miss. The thing that’s frustrating to witness is that we see that much of what has been happening historically is continuing to happen as far as the powers that be are concerned.
But we also understand that in many ways, the response of an Amy Cooper to a Christian Cooper in Central Park is one that goes directly towards what we are speaking of, you and I, as it relates to #iftheygunnedmedown, the way that police are responding to Black people in the streets who are breaking windows, but not taking lives.
Some are outraged at the notion that someone could break or take something from Target, but not outraged as it relates to someone taking the life of George Floyd. It was Dr. King that said a riot is the language of the unheard. I call it an uprising or a revolt.
What we’re seeing right now are the raw emotions of the combination of being caged inside for three months, some even longer, from quarantine and the psychological impact that that can have on us as human beings, coupled with, in that time, witnessing the death of Ahmed Aubrey, Briana Taylor’s life being taken during a 1:00 AM no-knock raid and her boyfriend subsequently being arrested for attempting to defend her life when he didn’t know who these intruders in their home were. To Christian Cooper, to George Floyd, seeing all of these things back to back to back, in addition to being basically in our own types of solitary confinement, with no disrespect to those who are actually incarcerated currently and are suffering in those conditions. I think that what we’re saying is a natural powder keg that was always going to explode. Or as Malcom X said, “This is the chickens coming home to roost.”
And of course, with COVID-19, this is a disease that we’ve seen disproportionately affect Black and Brown people. When we see people not taking precautions, not wearing a mask, they may not be the ones who are most affected by the disease. In many cases, the people who may be affected are people who are doing low wage work, who are essential workers, and particularly incarcerated people, where we’ve seen in some prisons up to three quarters of people infected with this disease. It feels in some way like this lifting of the lockdown has some of the disrespect for human life writ large that I think we’re also seeing as far as disrespect for individual lives.
Right. In a lot of ways, we’re being told we don’t value your life, and that we value green more than we value Black and Brown. The moment that it was discovered that this mostly impacts Black and Brown people, native people, indigenous people, this is when the narrative began to change and it was like, “Oh, well, it’s time to open back up.”
You imagine being Black or Brown, Muslim in this country right now and Donald Trump is your president. 41 million people are unemployed. You are being killed. You are being stopped and profiled. You are struggling economically. You don’t have access to healthcare in the event that you do get sick.
You’ve seen people throw caution to the wind in a lot of ways, because when you literally are fighting for your life, then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how you die, whether it’s COVID-19 or police. I am literally fighting to not drown at this point. And so I’m thrashing.
When you asked the question, where do we go from here? I believe that there has to be accountability. I saw that Target came out and made a statement. It wasn’t a lecture to the people who were a part of the uprising. I think it’s important for corporations that are couched in communities like Minneapolis to take a position on issues like this, because ultimately they’re going to suffer if the community suffers.
Yesterday the autopsy comes out and suggests Floyd’s death was accidental. Anybody who had the stomach to be able to witness the seven minutes or eight minutes that Derek Chauvin had his knee on the neck of George Floyd as people pleaded with him, as Floyd pleased himself to be released, to be told that this was an accidental death when we saw the life leave his body, is to basically be pissed on and told it is raining.
I think people are tired of that. I think that America has to become real with itself about what it is, just like any of us do. Anytime we are attempting to improve ourselves, we have to do some soul searching. And that soul searching begins with us being honest with ourselves about who we are and who we are trying to be.
We continue to convince ourselves that we are who we say we are. Tupac said America eats its babies, and that’s a true statement. America eats its babies, and right now it doesn’t treat us as its babies. But America created this environment, this climate. It imposed these conditions through redlining, gerrymandering and so many other policies that are still being perpetuated today.
Hundreds of years of bureaucratic violence as well as physical violence. C.J., one thing I noticed was you mentioned that Target made a statement about the uprising. Nowhere in here have we talked about any hope of changing Trump’s mind. I’ve noticed that as an activist, you’re focusing on the media, you’re thinking about corporations and other institutions. It doesn’t sound like you’re as focused on government. And this is something that I’m finding with a lot of the activists that I’m talking to, is that my impression is that people are moving whatever lever they feel like that can move. And that if it’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas school pressuring Dick’s Sporting Goods not to carry assault rifles anymore because they can’t get the Florida legislature to listen to them. We move what levers we can move. Does that sound accurate to you? And as someone who is part of the civil rights movement of our time, what are the other differences that you see in sort of our movement now versus the one Martin and Malcolm led in the 1960s?
A fight for your life is a fight by any means necessary. Martin, Malcolm, Medgar, Rosa, Harriet, we can go on and on. I see all of them as revolutionary leaders. I’m not one that pits one’s philosophies or ideologies against the other.
Chokwe Lumumba is our mayor here in Jackson. He’s my former law partner. So I know that I have an ally there. Jackson is a very unique city: we’re the second blackest city in the country. It’s very different experience here than what a lot of people are experiencing outside this city. But we’ve got [Governor] Tate Reeves in power, who is one of the most staunch Trump acolytes. Those feelings that you experience with Trump are being compounded. And you have a state legislature and a state Senate that… well, just imagine a bunch of Mitch McConnells being your state legislature. When you understand that that’s the case, then you understand that you have to fight by whichever means you can and however you can.
To be totally honest with you, one of the purposes of building up platforms like Black With No Chaser and amplifying voices and becoming more powerful in our own right. Being more visible and more present and having a louder voice is for the purpose of being able to command the respect that’s necessary. I want politicians to know if they’re in a room with me or anyone, if they had a moment with me and I’m the CEO of Black With No Chaser, then I have the ability to snap my fingers like this, and what you see in Minnesota, what you see in Louisville, what you see in Columbus, what you see in Atlanta can happen.
And it’s not for the purpose of intimidation, but it’s important when we talk about our Malcolms, our Medgars, our Martins, our Hueys, to understand that the one thing that they all had was something behind them. When they were in the room with white men and women who would not otherwise respect anything that they had to say, they respected it because of who and how many were behind them and what they were willing to do when those men and women said it’s time to do that.
During the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, you had the Black Power movement. You had the Civil Rights movement. You had the Malcolm X and the nation of Islam movement. You had the Freedom Riders. You had so many different things taking place at once that you could find a way to begin fighting towards the same struggle, even if you were fighting different ways.
I think it was necessary to have a Martin speaking in the way that he was about economic justice, about inclusion, and necessary to have a Malcolm who was speaking on self-defense and self-determination. Because to me, they were both fighting for the same things, and that was for black people to have both the autonomy to exist in this world and in this country, and for us to have the ability to truly rise in this place.
You had the Black Panthers building an alternative system and essentially saying, if we’re not going to have social services in Oakland, if no one’s going to supervise the police, if no one’s going to provide healthcare…
Yeah, we’re going to provide our own services. And I think that’s where a lot of us are coming back to. I think that social media and technology has helped to transform the way in which we fight. The iPhone has changed the game with our abilities. Again, Twitter and Facebook. Not so much Facebook anymore.
Some of these spaces like YouTube have given us the opportunity to be able to have these conversations differently. A lot of times in the past we’ve utilized social media passively. I think we’re beginning to utilize it actively, and not just with hashtags, but with actual action. My dream one day is to literally have a community of black and Brown folk allies from everywhere convening and conversing about moving policy right there on Twitter. I believe that’s possible. Whether it’s policy that is implemented outside of the federal government, policy that is adopted by local or state Government, what’s key is that it’s policy that allows us to begin to build systems. System building is the next stage in the state of things for black people, not just organizations. We need new systems in place to advance as a people and to have transferable power from one generation to the next.