The Performative Humility of the Kneeling Cop

by kara on June 4, 2020

So, Americans are just being absolutely brutalized everywhere as though by an invading enemy force. The police have escalated the situation at every opportunity. They aren’t just putting the smackdown on “thugs.” They’re hitting reporters with pepper balls on live TV and firing tear gas at reporters and photographers at point blank range.There have been a few, sincere examples of police who have chosen to de-escalate, in advance, situations that have been inflamed elsewhere, and have disarmed themselves, communicated with their communities, and shared their pain by showing support.

But, the obscene spectacle of police officers kneeling spreading across the Internet are absurd fictions, framed to reaffirm some of America’s fundamental myths about itself, both its romanticized belief in unity and deep investment in performative humility. We don’t get to see the part where they go back inside, don their stormtrooper outfits, tool up with rubber bullets and gas, and come out to terrorize us, when they ought to be out in the communities as normal human being, and being friendly and what-not.

After spending days both praising themselves and being praised by others for not escalating the protests, the hunger for violence became too much for the NOPD and they finally gassed protesters and shot at them with projectiles. 

The sick fuck who shoved an elderly man onto the pavement, possibly causing his death, “took a knee” with protesters in Buffalo the day before.

An LAPD Commander made national news Tuesday by kneeling with demonstrators in front of the LA mayor’s mansion. At the end of his interview with a local news affiliate, the officer made what appeared to be the white power symbol to the camera. A cursory google search shows Cory Palka to be a MAGA pos with ties to white supremacy.

The “kneeling cop” images are completely tangential to what protesters are looking for. People aren’t protesting because they lack sufficient demonstrations of humility by the police. They’re protesting because police are killing their fellow citizens, and have been structurally incentivized at every stage of legal construction to do so. Laws that could be used to stop police abuse or disincentivize police from doing so have been stripped of force, and laws that protect them from any consequence have been accumulating since the Civil War. The day a police officer kneeling to black people alters and reduces the scope of the qualified immunity doctrine or implements a national standard of policing and accountability and reporting is the day I won’t be enraged by the kneeling. 

Colin Kaepernick kneeling was iconic specifically because Kap is a black man in a white space who took the stupid performative aspect of the National Anthem being blasted at a fucking football game (a thing only because it became de rigueur during the Bush years), and decimated it. Why, exactly, was saluting a comically huge flag, being held in a way that violates the flag code, while the National Anthem plays at a football game was “non-political”, but not violating the flag code by kneeling was? By decimating the ritual, he laid bare the hollow facade of raw power dynamics it concealed.

The kneeling cops and politicians are meaningless, stripped of all context. It’s the image equivalent of the Pope washing someone’s feet: sure, outwardly its a demonstration of humility. But c’mon, no one is kidding themselves about who the Pope is, or who will have more power once the cameras stop flashing. It’s why such images are described as “moving”—a hollow description of absolutely meaningless feelings. It’s just more cynical theater from those with a vested interest in the status quo. “Look at the good cops kneeling. The problem really is just a few bad apples. No need to look behind the curtain. Everything’s fine.”  These farcical displays are a way of concealing the very reason for the ongoing nationwide protests: the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism that defines American policing. As if the promise of absolution could be granted in a quick snapshot, a single gesture that indicted no one and absolved everyone.


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