Tyler Atkins, 17, was still fuming about the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri over the weekend, when he saw the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown as he scrolled through his Twitter feed. The hashtag was a response to the photo being circulated of Brown, a blurry image that showed Brown throwing what could have been a gang sign, versus a clearer photo from Brown's high school graduation. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the choice of photo to depict Brown has been worth thousands of Twitter posts.
On Monday evening Atkins, an incoming senior at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, grabbed a couple photos of his own - one of himself dressed all in black and posing during a rap video he made with some friends for a math project (on polynomials), the other of him dressed in a tuxedo and holding his saxophone after a school jazz concert - and posted the images with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. From there, things got interesting as his post went all over the Internet.
Atkins was definitely trying to make a statement, but he thought that statement would only go out to his 340 Twitter followers and his friends on Facebook. "I felt my friends and others needed to see how black men are portrayed by the media," he said. Atkins and his photos are now all over Twitter, and he was the start of a story on the hashtag that ran on the front page of New York Times Wednesday. "It's quite a shock. It kind of hasn't hit me yet," Atkins says. He hasn't dared to look on the internet to see how far his Tweet and the stories on it have gone, he said.
With a single tweet, Atkins went from being an incoming senior at HPSVA (he plans on going to college to become a conductor) to being a visible part of a social media movement. Some are even crediting Atkins for creating the hashtag, which isn't the case, he says. The hashtag was created by lawyer CJ Lawrence, according to the BBC. "I was one of the early ones, but I didn't start it."
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Atkins' mom has already bought a copy of the New York Times and his friends have been posting photos of his face gracing the front page on Twitter and Facebook ever since the story came out. It's pretty crazy, but Atkins is glad he has helped fuel the conversation on the issue. The depiction of African American males in the media is something that needs to be addressed, he says. "I'm tired of being portrayed a certain way. I feel like it's because of these stereotypes being depicted over and over again that black men will be killed over and over again," he says. "I don't want someone to look at me and say he's another Mike Brown, he's another Trayvon Martin, he's another black kid who needs to be got rid of."