Officer in hug photo says he approched boy as human, not officer

It’s the picture we needed to see after the past week’s turmoil.

A 12-year-old black boy, tears streaming down his face, and a white police officer embrace in the middle of a Ferguson-related demonstration in Portland, Oregon.

The story behind the image is just as touching.

The boy, Devonte Hart, was holding a sign offering “Free Hugs” during a Tuesday protest over a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum approached Devonte and extended his hand. Barnum said he approached Devonte “not as a police officer but just a human being” when he saw him crying.

Devonte seemed hesitant to talk at first, but Barnum said he broke the ice by talking about life, travel and summer vacations before asking for a hug.

“The situation itself is something police officers do every day when they go out on the street and make citizen contacts,” Barnum said.

The Oregonian newspaper was the first media outlet to publish the photo by 20-year-old freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen. Within hours of its posting on Facebook, the photo had been shared more than 150,000 times, leading the Oregonian to call it “the hug shared around the world.”

“I really believe in my heart that this is what most people want — to find the common good in all people and find things we can agree on, not fight about,” one Facebook commenter said. “I love this picture and wish that little boy the best life has to offer.”

Barnum said he was surprised by the overwhelming response but “really happy” to be part of something that imparted a sense of peace in troubled times.

“It solidified what all of us do this work for — this job for — to create good will,” he said.

Nguyen said he attended the rally to take pictures for himself.

“When I came across Devonte, who was holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign and tears running down his face, I knew right there and then there was something special about him,” he said. “My gut told me to stay at the scene despite other photo opportunities in the crowd.”

Nguyen captured a few snaps of Devonte and then turned around to get some shots of other people. When he turned back, he saw Devonte speaking to Barnum.

“I thought, what a great scene. A powerful scene. A scene with a message that needed to be communicated. A scene of coming together,” he said.

“They hugged it out, and I got as close as I could and snapped away.”

The photo “spread like wildfire” in a day. Nguyen said he has received hundreds of emails and messages saying how the photograph made people feel more hopeful, that it restored faith in humanity or brought them to tears.

“I knew it had something special, something powerful. It had a message I think everyone wanted to see,” he said.

“I think it goes to show everybody was clamoring for hope in the midst of the violence and conflict going on today. I’m glad my photo has done that. Yes, I’m a photographer, but in the end, I’m a human being who wants better for other human beings, and I’m glad I can play my part by sharing the incredible photo. I wish to see everyone continue to be positive and spread love, always.”

CNN’s Facebook audience appeared to agree. As one commenter said, “This is a powerful message. I applaud you, young man. Sending you a cyber hug.”

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