They are images that surprised and moved Americans: police officers taking a knee alongside protesters in the most widespread civil unrest to rock the US in decades — and in doing so embracing an anti-racism gesture denounced by US President Donald Trump.
As Trump pushes for a crackdown on often-violent protests over the death of George Floyd, police officers from New York to Los Angeles to Houston, Texas, are making gestures of solidarity with demonstrators incensed at the latest case of an unarmed black man dying while in police custody.
“I took off the helmet and laid the batons down. Where do you want to walk? We’ll walk all night,” Chris Swanson, the white sheriff in Flint, Michigan, shouted to a group of protesters on Saturday last week.
Then Swanson did just that, setting off walking with them, to cheers. He even posed for a selfie with a young black protester and gave a thumbs-up.
In Des Moines, Iowa, Police Chief Dana Wingert took a knee before a crowd of demonstrators along with other officers and explained it this way: “Us joining them in a symbolic way, that’s the least we can do.”
Anti-racism protesters across the country have embraced the gesture made famous by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 began kneeling during pre-game renditions of the national anthem to protest police brutality against blacks and other minorities.
Kaepernick was ostracized by the NFL over his kneeling protest, which earned him and like-minded athletes condemnation and insults from conservatives, including Trump.
Now, the police are emulating the protesters following the example of the quarterback-turned-civil-rights-activist.
In an intense scene captured on camera in New York on Monday, white Police Chief Terence Monahan knelt and clenched hands with protest leaders, arms raised high, as a way to show support and shared outrage at Floyd’s death.
“Moments like that are how I know we will find a way through,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Twitter.
Similar scenes have played out in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia — as well as in the capital, Washington.
Leading politicians have adopted the gesture, from former US vice president Joe Biden to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who on Tuesday dropped to a knee along with a line of officers as they mingled with demonstrators near city hall.
The nationwide protests over Floyd’s death on Monday last week have seen police charge against and fire tear gas or rubber bullets at protesters — a minority of whom have engaged in looting and vandalism in the most widespread racial unrest to hit the country in decades.
In some cases, the police outreach appears wholly genuine — a case of individuals pledging their solidarity with the anti-racism cause and seeking an absolution of sorts for police abuses past.
At other times, the kneeling has served to defuse soaring tensions — raising the question of whether it is more of a de-escalation tactic.
For example, outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Monday evening, a line of police standing nose-to-nose with protesters took a knee as they were heckled by the screaming crowd.
In Los Angeles, a line of police were being shouted at by protesters before finally taking a knee, one by one, some of them smiling as they got to the ground.
“You want to take a knee? We’ll take a knee with you because we are here with you,” the leader of the unit said.
As he rose, he shook hands with a protester and urged the group to refrain from violence.
In Washington, a police spokesman told reporters that the decision to kneel outside the hotel was “organic in the moment and was not a scripted technique.”
He said that police were “not facing disciplinary action” for embracing what is seen by many as a gesture of defiance to authority — even if video footage from a day earlier appeared to show one officer yanking a kneeling subordinate back to his feet.
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