WASHINGTON: They are images that surprised and moved Americans: police officers taking a knee alongside protesters in the most widespread civil unrest to rock the nation in decades – and in doing so embracing an anti-racism gesture denounced by 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 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.
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 the thumbs up sign.
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 demonstrators across the country have embraced the gesture made famous by former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during pre-game renditions of the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality against blacks and other minorities.
Kaepernick was ostracised by the NFL over his kneeling protest, which earned him and likeminded athletes condemnation and insults from conservatives including Trump.
Now, the police are emulating the protesters emulating the quarterback turned civil rights activist.
In an intense scene captured on camera Monday in New York, the city’s 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,” tweeted the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, in response.
Similar scenes have played out in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia – as well as in the capital Washington.
Leading politicians have adopted the gesture, from Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden to the mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti, who dropped to a knee along with a line of officers as they mingled with demonstrators near city hall on Tuesday.
‘We are here with you’
The nationwide protests over Floyd’s death on May 25 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 America 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 deescalation tactic.
Outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Monday evening, for instance, a line of police standing nose to nose with protesters took a knee as they were heckled by the screaming crowd.
In Los Angeles also, line officers 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 says. As he rises he shakes hands with a protester and urges the group to refrain from violence to protect the city.
In Washington, a police spokesman told AFP the decision to kneel outside the Trump hotel was “organic in the moment and was not a scripted technique.”
He also said 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.