It’s hard to say who showed the most courage, but the effects of this free hug have been felt around the world.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 11, spoken by the character Atticus
Social media is more than willing to show us people protesting what’s wrong, justifying what’s right, complaining when others protest, and basically throwing hate at one another under the guise of either freedom of speech or simply a personal right to an opinion. Yet every once in a while something inspiring actually slips through all the vile and apologist discourse that runs rampant there.
For the longest time I believed that courage is standing up to be heard when society tells you to sit down and be quiet. I have participated in my share of protests and marches. I have screamed at the top of my lungs what I hate about this world. I have fought against those I felt were wrong and stood for those I felt were persecuted. And I did this with indignant rage, feeling justified in my actions.
Maybe it’s part of growing old, maybe it’s seeing how many people use ‘righteousness’ or ‘legality’ to justify their own persecutions, but my definition of courage has changed.
Courage isn’t necessarily standing against oppression. That’s actually expected from you when you are a decent human being. It isn’t standing against criticism. That’s usually a natural reaction to avoid being held accountable for your actions. Courage is being willing to not to become what society says you are supposed to be. Courage is being willing to hold on to dignity and hope when so many simply want to break you. It’s being willing to act by yourself for what’s right for everyone else. It’s being willing to view people as more than how they might even see themselves.
Society loves labels because it makes it simple to judge people and minimize who they are. You don’t really need to learn anything about someone when you can label them. It’s easy to dismiss what someone goes through when you can simply call them an angry black male, racist cop, privileged white, liberal, conservative, feminist, misogynist, gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Atheist, or whatever other little box it’s easiest to throw them into. That way you can feel perfectly justified in acting like a bigot by simply blaming the other person for fitting into the box you made for them.
So what does a Police Sargent do when he sees twelve-year-old Devonte Hart, born into every single negative racial stereotype white America can throw at a black man, holding a “Free Hugs” sign on the day after the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown? By his own admission, Bret Barnum, along with other officers, laughed at the boy. That was until he noticed how the young man was crying. And if he had reduced the boy to the simple label of “protester” or “angry black man,” it would have been the end of the story, ending as so many other stories have ended.
This time Officer Barnum stepped past any social preconception he might have had about protesters or black youths, and called Devonte over. After a long conversation about school, about how Devonte loved art, the cop and a young black man became simply a man and a boy talking about life. And that’s when the Bret asked Devonte if he could have one of those “Free Hugs.”
It’s easy to label others, especially when you don’t want to empathize with them. The courage it took for Officer Barnum to step out of his socially-imposed understanding of black youths, and the courage it took Devonte to want to inspire others with love, is proof that the first thing we need to do, and perhaps the most difficult thing we can do, is to empathize and relate to each other. We need to stop assuming labels define people, and we need to stop letting labels define us.
That’s true courage. And it goes far beyond a simple physical act; it’s a deep moral integrity and strength, a willingness to do what is right even though it may be hard, even though it may lose you friends, even though it may cause others to ridicule you, and even though it may cause you pain and suffering.
The courage to do what is right, for a person, regardless of the box society would put them in.
Photo: CHAMBERS VISUALS