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Little Rock There have been ten days of protests now over the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The issues are clear: police brutality that manifests the systemic, unresolved racism in America. People are stirring. The streets are full. Rage and solidarity have replaced social distancing. The summer is now alive with the sound of demands that must finally be met.
Some things are becoming clear.
Taking a knee is the clinched fist and two-fingered peace sign of this movement and is quickly becoming a universal symbol of the protests. It’s powerful. It’s solemn. It’s confrontational. It’s effective, particularly in response to the violence that too frequently erupts from the police. Taking a knee communicates support for the movement and sends a message of solidarity in the struggle against racism and the demand to an end to police brutality.
The evidence is everywhere as the symbol migrates from the streets to the mass culture of cooptation and expropriation, but continues to prevail. Democratic Senators took a knee in front of the Capitol. Vice-President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden took a knee.
This is a rare instance of a protest that began in the sports world with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem in reaction to police brutality and racism crossing into the mass culture. His action, joined by others in an initial flurry of support, and then isolating him and leading to his being blackballed from the league in recent years, has endured and now, thanks to the current movement, crossed over permanently in a lightning quick few days. Poor Drew Brees, famed and admired quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, was caught behind the line not paying attention to this dramatic evolution, saying that taking a knee was evidence of disrespect for the flag and the military, echoing a Jerry Jones dinosaur line from pre-historic days, and quickly finding himself having to apologize to teammates, other sports figures, and the public for not paying attention. Taking a knee is all about police brutality and racism. The fight over the issues continues, but the fight over the symbols is over.
“I can’t breathe” has also returned as the slogan of the movement. We’ve heard it before in the New York killing, and now we hear it again in Minneapolis. We see it everywhere in protests around the world on signs, on masks, on t-shirts, and on the lips of millions. Despite the fact that these were the tragic last words of black men on the street, this slogan not only respects them but speaks to our universal demand for freedom. Breathing freely without fear and restraint has always signified freedom. Now this slogan speaks to the fact that racism and police brutality are knees on all of our necks. None of us will be able to breathe freely until there is finally a real and permanent solution to these persistent and systemic issues.
Trump can continue sputtering, but all of this is serious and won’t end until there are real solutions. With protests in cities and towns throughout the country – and the world – the demands for change are local, national, and global. This is what a movement looks like. The streets may fill and empty, but this movement won’t be stopped short of victory, no matter how long it takes.
Please enjoy No Flag by Elvis Costello
Thanks to WAMF.