As protests rage across the United States and elsewhere in the world to protest police brutality, racism and the killing of George Floyd, a photo showing a black boy in tears hugging a white police officer has resurfaced on social media. The photo is from 2014 – and there’s a dark history behind it.

The image, which shows 12-year-old Devonte Hart hugging a police officer during a rally in Portland, Oregon, on 25 November, 2014, went viral at the time. The rally was to protest yet another police killing of a black American: Michael Brown Jr., who was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on 9 August, 2014.

Devonte Hart was at the rally with his white adoptive mother Jennifer Hart, holding a sign offering ‘Free hugs’. There are different versions of the interaction with the police officer, but many now regard the incident as having been staged by Jennifer Hart.

Four years later, in March 2018, Jennifer Hart drove her wife, Sarah Hart (also white), and their six adopted black children off a cliff in California. Devonte Hart’s body was never found, but he is presumed dead along with the rest of the family.

After their deaths, a history of familial abuse came to light. Authorities had repeatedly been warned by concerned neighbours, successive schools and family friends that the two Hart women were abusing their children by beating them and withholding food.

The Harts had moved states several times prior to the crash, each time asstate child protection agencies began to take an increased interest in the family. Just days before Jennifer Hart killed them all, a neighbour had called a child welfare agency to report physical abuse of the children. One of Devonte's sisters had reportedly asked the neighbour for help, saying that her mothers were racist

Now, as many protesters take to the streets across America, a new debate about hugging police officers is animating social media.

Some protesters vow that they will never hug police officers, saying police officers represent and enforce a system of discrimination and inequality.

Others are calling for compassion and respectful interaction between police officers and protesters.

Devonte Hart became known as a symbol of reconciliation between white and black people, bridging the divide between African Americans and police, but he was himself the target of racial abuse at home. 
Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist