Social commentary

Sit, stand or take a knee: Symbolic acts and anti-racism

Rima Saini, MDX Sociology lecturer, discusses the political history and wide-reaching symbolism of ‘taking a knee’ and its current relationship with genuine anti-racist progress.

When Colin Kaepernick chose to take a knee instead of sit during the national anthem of a San Francisco 49ers game in August 2016, he made the bold but controversial decision to clearly and unequivocally communicate his opposition to police brutality and anti-Blackness in front of the country, and eventually the world.

Standing during the national anthem is widely held as a symbol of respect for country and flag (a rule of conduct institutionalising patriotic acts but not necessarily enshrined in law), but there is a glaring hypocrisy to this in the US given the long history of disenfranchisement and criminalisation of marginalised populations.

Little did Kaepernick know that the police themselves – the police who many went on to virulently defend after his act – would also be kneeling nearly four years later alongside others in widespread global protest movements following the murder of George Floyd and countless other Black citizens at the hands of US police.

The history of ‘take a knee’

Martin Luther King Jr and fellow civil rights activists famously kneeled during marches in the 1960s as a form of prayer alongside non-violent resistance. Most notably in 1965, when protestors were arrested during a voter registration drive for African Americans in Dallas County, Alabama.

Along with bowing and prostration, kneeling plays a key a role in all religious traditions as an act of reverence and submission during worship. Some have likened Kaepernick’s kneeling to an evangelical act, tapping into the Christian roots of conservative and liberal America alike. The dignity inherent in this act by virtue of its sheer simplicity and its historical, spiritual connotations itself was at sharp contrast with the vitriol he received from President Trump who, still now, deems kneeling unacceptable and inherently, although arguably, anti-American.

There are written and pictorial records of slaves kneeling preceding the 20th century. A kneeling, Black male slave with his hands in chains was the defining symbol of the British abolitionist movement (Savage 1997; Nelson 2004), making its way, not unproblematically, to personal ornaments, artefacts, medallions and other pieces of propaganda purchased by anti-slavery proponents in the establishment.

Anti-racist symbolism and ‘performative wokeness’

‘Taking a knee’ has a complex recent political history. Multiple US policeman knelt on George Floyd’s neck, UK anti-racist protestors kneeled on the neck of the statue of slave trader and Tory MP Edward Colston in Bristol earlier this month (June 2020), and policeman across Europe and the US have been filmed kneeling on Black Lives Matter protestors.

One political act can thus encapsulate a world of dynamic meaning. Nonetheless, the simplicity of such acts encompasses both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness, particularly with the increasing and largely superficial institutional capture of ‘viral’ social and political movements by profit-making companies and brands.

Colin Kaepernick kneeled during a patriotic act in the face of hypocrisy between hollow nationalism and the lived reality of marginalised Americans. However, many argue that the appropriation of kneeling policeman and armed guards is the ultimate hypocrisy. Whereas it has been framed as a symbol of hope and humility, others have argued that appropriation of the symbolic act is tantamount to ideological and political pacification, and does little to communicate a genuine commitment to overturning structural discrimination within the police, perhaps giving the impression that the sharing of the act itself was the initial aim.

Alongside media blackouts of luxury brand firms, stylised shots of celebrities with ‘Black Lives Matter’ placards, social media challenges where company owners are tasked with quantifying the distribution of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) staff in their firms, and cringeworthy recorded videos of celebrities declaring ‘I take responsibility’, where and how can we demarcate genuine solidarity and political identity formation from capitalist performativity?

Dilution through appropriation of a symbolic act rids of it of its status as call to arms. It therefore matters who is doing it, why and where and indeed, depending on one’s own positionality, other acts can prove far more fruitful, such as a relatively socioeconomically privileged individual donating money or time or other resources to key causes.

Political progress beyond ‘taking a knee’

‘Taking a knee’ should communicate an individual’s political commitment to centre, if they have not been doing so far, Blackness. The accusations levied at Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have been ones of empty virtue signalling. The shadow political elite have been accused of this not only in faux-solidaristic responses to the protests but in their reactionary responses to the elusive BAME coronavirus safeguarding plan, post-public outcry. Members of the current UK cabinet, like Dominic Raab, are at least far more clear cut about their misapprehension and ignorance about the meaning of the act.

With the wholesale silencing of Black voices and lived experiences in academia, politics, the media, and so on, a physical rather than a speech act can prove subversively powerful. However, now that ‘take a knee’ has entered the lexicon, it perhaps better communicates the ideological as well as the action-based implications of anti-racist solidarity.

When Black activists and scholars say ‘take a knee’, they mean, somewhat ironically, ‘take a stand’ in educating yourself in how you can challenge White supremacy and claim allyship. The educative conversations and political discourse around the act, therefore, are incredibly important.

The sharing of resources and causes has gone some way to communicating the sheer level of, often ‘behind the scenes’, anti-racist work that has been underway for years. It also provides a valuable insight into the lack of understanding and engagement from now ‘woke’, but hopefully, eventually better educated, individuals in positions of power.

Social commentary

Policing reform in the age of Black Lives Matter

Dr Angus Nurse, Associate Professor and Director of Policing Programmes at MDX, discusses whether the suggested police reforms and polices will make a real difference or if more needs to be done.

As outrage over the killing of George Floyd continues during June 2020 and looks to stay in the news for some time, calls for policing reform have gathered momentum. 

The reform debate is mainly focused on addressing police brutality in the US which protesters say is indicated by the use of dehumanising restraint techniques such as chokeholds, excessive use of force and practices such as ‘no knock warrants’ that had fatal consequences in the case of Breonna Taylor who was shot dead in March 2020 after police raided the wrong address.

People hold protest signs in front of a line of armed police in riot gear

Campaigners argue that ‘extreme’ policing techniques are disproportionately used against the black community and reflect negative ideas of policing against a community rather than the notion of policing as being to protect and serve.

The rallying cry of ‘defund the police’ speaks to the frustration of a failure to recognise and address what is seen as abuse or misuse of police powers. It also identifies how many black citizens feel that issues of race and justice are ignored. After all, while many public institutions are now professing to support Black Lives Matter, the movement was founded in 2013 after Trayvon Martin. was fatally shot in 2012. Florida resident George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder or manslaughter, and news reports at the time highlighted how the case raised issues of racial profiling of black citizens as criminals.

During the period from 2013 to today, and even following George Floyd’s death, the killing of black citizens by law enforcement has continued.  Campaigners in the US and elsewhere claim that this indicates that past attempts at reform have failed and that there is now an urgent need for more extensive policing reform. 

But any attempt at reform is doomed to fail unless it is also accompanied by an understanding of systemic racism in society and how public institutions frequently act to maintain the status quo. 

Proposals repeating history

Reform proposals are already under discussion, if not underway in the US.  The Democratic police reform bill dubbed the ‘Justice in Policing Act’ unveiled in June 2020 by Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Members of the Black Caucus in the US aims to ban chokeholds like the type used by police to subdue George Floyd.  It also aims to end the process of ‘no-knock’ warrants, which has been criticised by some commentators and councils, and create a better process for identifying and dealing with police misconduct or excessive use of force. 

On 16 June 2020, President Trump signed an Executive Order on Safe Policing that on the face of it limits the use of chokeholds, and will lead to a database on police misconduct which could also lead to new legislation to improve police practices. All of these measures sound reasonable in the light of the ongoing outcry about the death of black citizens at the hands of the police.

But really, we have been here before.

After the beating of Rodney King by police officers was caught on camera in 1991, riots took place in Los Angeles after the police officers involved were acquitted. Calls for police reform were also heard following the LA riots and were heard again following the deaths of Eric Garner in 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown, and following the Ferguson protests in August 2014.

Earlier deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of police also resulted in Black Lives Matter activists highlighting the widespread nature of problematic policing. Not least the apparently persistent failure of disciplinary measures to take action when unarmed black citizens are killed by police. Yet many of the reforms put in place since Rodney King, including some of the progressive attempts by the Obama administration, to improve police oversight appear to have been rolled back in recent years.

What the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd protests has identified is that while there may be widespread agreement that change is needed, especially after video evidence emerges of black citizens being killed, meaningful reform has been slow to emerge.

What’s the hold-up?

The underlying issue is possibly one of attitudes to black citizens which potentially reflect systematic racism within society.  This is something that is frequently denied by Government and politicians who may not be exposed to what is a fact of life for many black citizens.

This is not solely an American problem. Figures on the apparent disproportionate use of police stop and search powers against black citizens in the UK, the disproportionate representation of black youth in criminal justice processes identified by the Lammy Review, and data on the deaths of aboriginal citizens in police and prison custody in Australia paint a widespread picture of poor treatment of black citizens by western justice systems. 

The 2017 UK Angioloni Report into deaths and serious incidents in police custody identified that ‘there is evidence of disproportionate deaths of BAME people in restraint related deaths’. The report recognised that any death involving a BAME victim who died following the use of force can provoke community disquiet leading to a lack of public confidence and trust in the justice system. The report made several recommendations including some concerning police use of restraint techniques and improving the monitoring, safety and scrutiny of police custody environments. It also recommended improvements to the investigation of deaths in police custody in England and Wales.

Previously calls for police reform in the UK have followed high profile incidents such as the 1981 Brixton Riots and the Scarman report or the finding of institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999.

The reality is that some policing reforms have already taken place but these have not been considered effective. Campaigners in both the UK and the US point to underlying problems in attitudes to black citizens and in scrutiny and accountability mechanisms when force is used. If reforms are to be meaningful and effective they need to target not just the symptoms of problematic justice practices but also their cause.  

A reform of attitudes

Police reform is a complex area.  It is not as simple as saying that policing is inherently racist or that white police officers kill black citizens and the evidence may not always support that simplistic view.  But the evidence does indicate a persistent and ongoing problem in how black communities are policed that has now been a subject of debate for decades and has not been resolved. 

As a result, reforms need to consider not just specific policing practices that have tragic consequences and attract attention.  They must also address issues of unconscious bias and attitudes towards black citizens that risk viewing them as inherently criminal. They must consider use of force and its appropriateness in different situations. They must also ensure the creation, enforcement and monitoring of accountability measures designed to view racism and disproportionate treatment of black citizens as serious misconduct.