The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some officers march and kneel with protesters, creating dissonant images on fraught weekend of uprisings

Members of various police departments were filmed kneeling in unity alongside protesters as demonstrations following George Floyd's death continue. (Video: The Washington Post)

Images of tense encounters between protesters and police officers piled up over the weekend, as authorities intensified their efforts to quell nationwide uprisings, using rubber bullets, pepper pellets and tear gas in violent standoffs that seared cities nationwide.

But some officers took different actions, creating contrasting images that told another story about the turbulent national moment following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in police custody in Minneapolis.

From New York to Des Moines to Spokane, Wash., members of law enforcement — sometimes clad in riot gear — knelt alongside protesters and marched in solidarity with them. The act has become synonymous with peaceful protests in recent years after football player Colin Kaepernick knelt as part of his protests against police brutality on unarmed black citizens.

A video circulating widely on Facebook captured two people in uniform joining a kneeling crowd in Queens. “Thank you!” cheered members of the crowd. The officers remained as a circle of people began to chant names of black Americans killed in infamous recent cases.

“Trayvon Martin!” they called. “Philando Castile!”

Cheers erupted, too, in the Iowa capital as Des Moines officers took a knee behind a police barricade. Two said a prayer for the safety of those assembled.

Officers were filmed outside the courthouse in Spokane, in eastern Washington state, kneeling at the request of protesters instead of pushing them back. Police from Lafayette Square in Washington to Miami to Santa Cruz, Calif., have taken knees in solidarity.

The gesture did not always diffuse the tension. Nor did it answer the underlying demands of protesters for an end to police brutality and the disproportionate targeting of black citizens.

Aleeia Abraham, who shot video of officers kneeling in Queens, told CNN the action was insufficient.

“That’s great, it’s a good sign, but what we’re really looking for is action,” she said. “I’ll be even more impressed when we’re not stepped on and gunned down. That’s the moment I’m looking for.”

Chris Freeman, a 31-year-old in Philadelphia, said protesters outside of City Hall were demanding police officers utter the words, “black lives matter,” focusing on black officers in particular.

“People were in officers’ faces, asking, ‘Do you believe black lives matter?’” he said. “Sometimes there was silence. Sometimes they said, ‘all lives matter.’”

Acceding to the demands of protesters brought a rebuke in some places. In downtown Washington, a black officer who knelt was yanked from the crowd by his supervisor, and he returned standing to the line forming to hold back the demonstrations.

In Michigan, Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson marched with demonstrators. So did the police chief in Norfolk. In Atlanta, the police chief won praise for wading into a crowd of protesters, reaching out her hands and asking about their concerns.

“People are upset, they’re angry, they’re scared, and I get it,” the police chief, Erika Shields, told reporters. “They want to be heard.”

The scenes offered a stark contrast to images of officers ignoring the pleas of protesters in other instances, and at times resorting to the use of overwhelming force, sometimes seemingly unprovoked by the crowds before them. In numerous cities, including New York and Los Angeles, police vehicles were filmed plowing into throngs of people.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, called Sunday for an investigation but said he did not blame the officers.

“If those protesters had just gotten out of the way and not created an attempt to surround that vehicle, we would not be talking about this,” the mayor told NY1.

Tom Jackman contributed to this report.