Howard University students describe the making of their hands up - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Howard University students describe the making of their hands up solidarity viral photo

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(Photo courtesy: Megan Sims / ?@The_Blackness48 / Twitter) (Photo courtesy: Megan Sims / ?@The_Blackness48 / Twitter)
WASHINGTON -

Events in Ferguson, Mo., have not only triggered protests in the streets of that town, but all over the country because of the reach of social media. Reaction and discussion on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has become a big part of this news story and it is having a real effect on everything from journalism to social activism and race relations.

A powerful photo taken by Howard University students this week certainly shows the impact of social media. Within hours of students posting it online, it went viral, was retweeted thousands of times, got a ton of media coverage and really became part of the national conversation about how social media is affecting not just this story - but the national landscape.

Photography is just a hobby for Ikenna Ikeotuonye, a Howard University senior majoring in chemical engineering. But a picture he snapped this week went viral and has much of the country talking.

“It was a mix between electricity and reverence,” he told us. “You could just tell that people were talking before and everybody having their own side conversations. But as soon as we told them what we're trying to do and explained to them what the hands up -- the most innocent pose any civilian can be when dealing with the police -- to the students, the whole crowd got silent. You could feel the spirit of Stokely Carmichael and everybody like that just wave over crowd.”

The picture shows about 250 students Howard University students with their hands up -- in the pose some witnesses say Michael Brown was in when Ferguson police shot and killed him.

Sophomore Khalil Saadiq came up with the idea and approached a group of students Wednesday to make it a reality.

“We actually gave the student body that was present the opportunity to opt out of the photograph,” Saadiq said. “Everyone stood up and we thought see that we would see stragglers leaving, but instead, everyone kind of surged to middle of auditorium and struck the pose so they could be included. No one opted out.”

Saadiq says he was hoping to make a statement by showing solidarity with Michael Brown, but reaction exceeded even his highest hopes.

“The thing about social media that makes it so powerful is the fact is it's just raw,” he said. “You can feel that the idea came right from the students straight to the rest of the world.”

Times are clearly changing, according to Dr. Greg Carr, chair of Howard University's Department of Afro-American studies.

“The use of iconic photography in this particular instance was very powerful because the folks in the photo were the students of Howard University,” he said. “Howard has a platform that is unique in American education and when you combine the Howard platform with these young people, any of whom could be Mike Brown, but who are not, but are the students of Howard University, that sends electric surge throughout the world.”

At the Newseum, they still put out newspapers every day from around the country. But they are also recognizing that social media is changing journalism the same way television altered it during the 1960s civil rights movement. Back then, iconic images could take a day or more to reach the public.

Gene Policinski explained the process back then to us: “If you were in smaller town, let's say in the south, and you had to get the film to a major air center, fly that to New York or Chicago or L.A. in you were out in the west, where the film had to be developed and processed and then sent off to be edited in New York, you had this long delay and involving couriers and airplanes and people in multiple cities.”

But now, USA Today says Ferguson has been mentioned in six million tweets this week. Several hashtags have emerged like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown -- a way for young minorities to show how photos used in the media can affect public perceptions.

Policinski says the Howard University photo shows how individuals can affect a national discourse in minutes.

“It does offer us this sort of milestone moment where we're seeing this turn in how people use social media, moving from just a snapshot of what's is going on to the ability to organize communities, to talk about larger issues, and I think this is the first time it's happened in such a dramatic fashion so quickly and around such an important issue,” he said.

If imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, then the Howard University students should be proud because the image they put online has now been recreated by students at many other universities around the country.

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