The scene was one of many hectic ones this week in Washington, D.C.: A police officer is being urged to kneel by protesters, and he obliges, before he’s quickly brought to his feet by fellow officers. Then he kneels again, this time before being pulled back by his colleagues and losing his balance. He resumes standing in front of the line of protesters.
Other footage of the same scene shows another officer briefly kneeling next to him (warning: some explicit language in that link).
As unrest rages across the country, scenes like this are becoming part of the culture war over policing and the protests. To some supporters of the protests, they are a show of good faith by police officers over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. To others, they’re empty gestures or even sinister allusions to how Floyd was killed. And to some critics of how the police are handling the unrest, they demonstrate capitulation in the face of the mob.
President Trump waded into this on Wednesday morning for the first time, retweeting a message that included attacking New York City police for being “tasked to bully Orthodox Jews and bend a knee to terrorists.”
To some degree, it’s a wonder this hasn’t become a bigger national flash point sooner. The video above is from Sunday night, but viral videos across the country in recent days have shown police kneeling — often in larger numbers — at the urging of protesters. Some even show the police walking alongside the protesters.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday night repeatedly decried such scenes as an example of police allowing protesters to dictate their behavior. When Fox’s reporters cited the demonstrations, Carlson slipped in asides about the message it sent.
“Well, now we know who’s in charge anyway,” Carlson said at one point. “Interesting. Chris, thanks so much.”
After another reporter described such a scene in Atlanta, Carlson suggested it only fed the unrest.
“So as you heard, another city, police taking orders from and obeying the so-called protesters,” Carlson said. “No wonder they’re looting the shopping malls in Buckhead, because that’s what happens when you take orders.”
That’s one way to look at it. Kneeling has very clear connotations when it comes to situations such as this. A few years ago, then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence against black people. Vice President Pence in 2017 left an Indianapolis Colts game he had traveled to after players knelt, a scene that critics suggested was contrived.
The reason the scene invited such accusations was because of how predictable it was. NFL players had been kneeling for a long time, and Trump had made his feelings about it well known. Just two weeks before, Trump said at a rally in Alabama: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
Trump said in a later tweet that he had preemptively urged Pence to walk out if it happened again, as it predictably did.
“I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled,” Trump said. “I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen."
Trump hasn’t forcefully weighed in on law enforcement kneeling during the Floyd protests. The White House at Monday’s news briefing did play a video featuring emotional moments between police and protesters, but none of them featured kneeling. As Trump’s retweet suggests, though, it may only be a matter of time before he seizes on this.
However you feel about the gesture, it’s a potent and very symbolic one in the face of racial unrest — and one with very clear and recent connotations. It’s also tailor-made for the conservative media ecosystem and for a president who loves to stoke this kind of culture war. And Trump often responds to the scenes he sees on shows like Carlson’s.
Police officers in Washington even knelt in front of Trump’s D.C. hotel Tuesday.
Trump has in recent days telegraphed a more aggressive law enforcement response to the protesters, rioters and looters, but he has spent comparatively very little time expressing sympathy for their cause.
Whether Trump takes up this mantle or not, though, this is something that’s likely to be a point of debate in the days and weeks ahead — because of how visual it is, how symbolic it is and the passions it engenders.