“Powerful” is how CBS News described a photograph of police kneeling at a protest over the weekend. The photograph showed police from departments across Miami-Dade county kneeling at a protest held in Coral Gables, Florida. The officers, CBS reported, kneeled in “solidarity with protesters,” promising that they would continue “dialogue” with the organizers. The gesture was performative at best, done solely for the purpose of producing an image, one that would be reproduced and celebrated as truth, made indisputable by the documentary force of the photograph. And mainstream news organizations like CBS News did just that, treating the Gables photograph as indicative of a broader sentiment that supposedly manifested everywhere from New York City to a police blockade in front of Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel to Ferguson, Missouri, and St. Paul, Minnesota, where police kneeled on their own after protesters refused to join them. The images of police kneeling suggested that there are plenty of good cops invested in the sentimental project of national unity—perhaps even “healing,” as the rhetoric usually demands—even as images of protesters being brutalized by police forces proliferated.
These photographs are, of course, fictions, framed and cropped to reaffirm some of America’s fundamental myths about itself, both its romanticized belief in unity and deep investment in performative humility. Take the Gables photograph, described by local affiliate CBS4 as a “powerful moment of unity” that preceded another “moving moment of hundreds praying together, united with heavy hearts and a desire for change.” The image of police from different cities within Miami-Dade county kneeling was in stark contrast, CBS4 claimed, to the “violent” demonstrations later that same day. Nowhere does either CBS News or its local affiliate note that the demonstration filled with so many “moving” moments of unity was not black-led and had invited police to speak to the event. Local progressive activists described the Gables event as “anti-black.” Hours later, in downtown Miami, thousands gathered for a protest led by Miami Dream Defenders, where they were eventually met by Miami police in full riot gear.
By then the photographs and the videos of the police kneeling had spread across the internet, doing the treacly work of concealing the very reason for the ongoing nationwide protests: the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism that defines American policing. The promise of absolution could instead be granted in a quick tableau, a single gesture that indicted no one and absolved everyone. It’s why such images are often described as “moving”—a hollow description of absolutely meaningless feelings. The gesture of kneeling is stripped of its context, as well as the repercussions felt by those who performed it as an act of protest. As police kneel in supposed solidarity, they only seek to comfort those who are already comfortable, conjuring up images of divinity and reverence while concealing the full deadly force of a police officer’s knee. (This is likely why these photographs have proved popular with celebrities and politicians, including Hugh Jackman, The Strokes, and the mayor of Los Angeles.)
The inverse of these images is one of Derek Chauvin using his knee as a weapon, pressing his weight on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds—long after Floyd lost consciousness—until he died on the cracked asphalt of a Minneapolis street. It is Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao refusing to intervene, acting in solidarity with Chauvin. Where Floyd’s murder demands action, photographs of police kneeling demand nothing. The gap between the images reveals rupture between a certain image of America and its reality.
This obscene spectacle of images will likely continue—there will be more photographs of police kneeling, more images that appeal to the sentimental. They will undoubtedly be described as “moving,” cited as evidence of healing or even the political desires of the average American. But the gesture is meaningless and its demand for reproduction should be ignored. There is—even in a photograph—meaning to be found among those who protest the unendurable institution of policing. It will include every single detail: every chant, every hastily made cardboard sign, every tear produced by pepper spray and tear gas, every bruise made by a rubber bullet, every scrape from being thrown to the ground, every indentation on a restrained wrist, every drop of blood and every wound, seen or unseen. These details, as John Berger has argued, carry with them broader truths about violence and its pointed, racial history even while fictions of humility work to conceal them. “The world is not intolerable until the possibility of transforming it exists but is denied,” Berger wrote. Recognize that and act accordingly.