Symbols are powerful. They can hold meaning that is intensely felt by members of a group and can be a way to identify who is and who isn’t accepted as a member of the group. That symbolism might come in the form of dress/appearance. As I commented recently, face masks in the US have become such a symbol, signaling for many political affiliation. Recently we have seen symbolic action surrounding race relations in the US. In this case, the act of kneeling has come to be imbued with powerful meaning. This has been triggered by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes despite Floyd’s pleading that he couldn’t breathe. The symbolism of white suppression is highlighted by the nonchalant posture of the officer, with his hands in his pockets.
This individual incident adds to a large number of similar deaths of black men at the hands of the police, leading to wide-spread protests against racism and police brutality throughout the US, as well as in other countries.
Often the protesters will collectively “take a knee”, kneeling in solidarity with Floyd and with black and brown citizens generally. This in turn recalls the actions of American footballer Colin Kapernick in 2016 who famously kneeled during the playing of the US national anthem before games started, as a protest against the treatment of African-
Americans by the police. The front page of the sports section of the Houston (Texas) Chronicle newspaper recently reflected that fact: rather than reports on game results, the page borrows from John Lennon’s Imagine, here applied to the death of George Floyd.
In response to the protests, and to the violence that has ensued in some cities, President Trump this week had the square in front of the White House cleared of protesters with tear gas, despite the fact that they were lawfully and peacefully protesting. That happened so that the President could walk across to St. John’s Church so he could have his picture taking holding a Bible. He did not pray nor kneel. Apparently, the action was intended as a signal that the President was upholding Christian values, but how that related to the protests or to police misconduct is not clear. However, as the holy script of Christianity, founded on the life of Jesus Christ, the Bible most evidently represents the values Jesus exemplified: love of one’s neighbor, solidarity with the downtrodden, leading a life of virtue and humility. It’s not evident that President Trump had those values in mind, but was more likely using the Bible to signal his belonging to politically conservative US Americans and perhaps to show his ability to use his power to disperse unwelcome protests.
A very different reaction to the protests generated by Floyd’s death occurred here in Richmond, Virginia, where there have been mass protests this past week. The governor announced that the statues of figures from the Southern Confederacy, located along Monument Avenue, would be taken down. The statues were erected as a sign of pride in the Southern “lost cause” of the Confederacy, a state that separated from the Union in order to preserve slavery. This has made the statues symbols of the Jim Crow era of overt racism and therefore a frequent source of concern that they glorify racial injustice. Now they are coming down.
We will see if these symbolic actions will have lasting consequences in terms of race relations in the US, but certainly in the short term there are significant changes happening.