Kneeling on one knee changed everything. Kneeling like that for about a minute-and-a-half, the average time it takes to perform the national anthem, ended Colin Kaepernick’s career. Kneeling like that for close to nine minutes ended George Floyd’s life. Both times that knee bent because of our society’s deep-seated racism. The results shame this nation’s white majority.
Kneeling for nine minutes changed me too, hopefully for the better.
Warning: Post Contains a Disturbing Image
Let me say up front that I am white. I speak through the lens granted to me by my seen and unseen privilege. I hesitated before posting this. Someone recently described my tendency to relay personal experiences as a selfish ploy to make things all about me. I hope that this piece serves to make other white people more aware. However, by its very nature, this article centers around my experiences. I am mindful of that recent critique and apologize in advance for any selfishness here. And I ask that we all focus on what matters.
Because nothing I say here serves as a revelation to any person of color in this country. Listen to those voices. They are experiencing this harsh reality every day. Seek out what they say about their experiences, their reasons for protesting, and how this nation can move forward to address the racism at the heart of all of this.
Several weeks ago, I attended one of the many protests demanding justice and fair treatment for people of color since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. This small, local protest took place at prime afternoon rush hour. It featured speeches from people of color about their experiences and about what we can do to change things. We marched a short distance, from one busy shopping complex parking lot to another, across a boulevard.
This particular suburban area has a reputation for racist behavior by its law enforcement officers. However, the protest reminded me that the blue wall extends beyond any one suburb. One of the speakers is a white attorney who represents people of color in discrimination cases. Earlier in the day, he had been in court in a nearby city, a liberal college town. When he tried to leave the parking lot on his way to the protest, police from that city blocked his car. Their ensuing questions made it clear they knew his destination and were deliberately harassing him. As he drove to the protest, other police pulled him over and, for a second time, stopped and harassed him. His experiences reminded us that the problem we protested reached much farther than the confines of one, small protest venue.
As we marched, we chanted. “Black lives matter.” “No justice, no peace.” “Say their names.” Someone carried a sign that said BLM with all the names of unarmed African-Americans killed by police inside the initials. Another sign read, “No More Hashtags.” When we arrived at the second location, one of the speakers described how, “This was the scene of a crime.” In that same parking lot only a few months earlier, several police had broken her car window, dragged her bodily out of her car, beat her, and dragged her through the snow and mud for a minor, imagined, traffic offense. She could not finish recounting her tale, because reliving the trauma of the moment left her shaking and crying.
Sadly, she is not special. Person after person recounted tale after tale. The Black child who was brought up on criminal charges because the school knowingly let another child with a neurological condition play dodgeball, and the sole African-American boy in the class ended up being the one who knocked the other boy down. Criminal charges, for something the school should have prevented, filed against an elementary school, straight-A student. Talk about the school-to-prison pipeline.
A mother explained how her young adult son complained of chest pains one day. At the emergency room, medical professional after medical professional refused to listen to the young man or his mother and well-meaningly proceeded on the assumption that he must have overdone drugs. The young athlete never partook in drugs. He was sent home with no effort to truly diagnose, no real treatment, no follow up. He died of a heart attack a few months later. I knew that heart disease was a top killer of African-American men. I now realize implicit and overt bias in medical treatment factor into that statistic. We do not know how many of those deaths were preventable.
None of these people were a Breonna Taylor or a George Floyd. None of these incidents should have happened. The intimacy of the event size, the mundane aspect of the venue, the stories of everyday African-Americans dealing with everyday racism all served to hammer home just how much this problem permeates every aspect of America.
As moving as all that was though, one part of the protest stood out above all others. As we marched across the boulevard, we paused in the intersection and knelt in the middle of the street for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Some knelt on one knee; some on two; some lay face down. For those who have done this at a protest, you already know how much of an emotional punch this packs. For those who have not, it forces you to abandon the idea of racism and instead examine the reality of it.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of sound and movement. This group which had been chanting, waving signs, and marching suddenly went completely silent and still, except for the sounds of our breathing. Which immediately reminded me that doing this caused a man to stop breathing and his life to end.
If you have ever done yoga or meditation, you know nearly nine minutes can fly by, if you get into the right mind set. Normally you get there by concentrating on your breathing and eventually letting your mind go free. However, my breath in this moment just reminded me again of George Floyd struggling to get air, slowly suffocating. I remembered Eric Garner could not breathe. An entire group of Americans metaphorically have to hold their breath if they jog, like Ahmaud Arbery, or run a quick errand, like Elijah McClain, and hope they come home again, all because of the color of their skin.
Eight minutes and 46 seconds does not sound that long. We wash our hands for at least twenty seconds. We brush our teeth for at least two minutes. How bad can nearly nine minutes be? For me, it was an eternity.
Gordon Lightfoot sang and performed a song called “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” based on the true story of an ore freighter that sunk during a Lake Superior storm decades ago. The simplistic ballad style may not fit the current fashion, but Lightfoot paints a three-dimensional picture that leaves the audience feeling like they can reach out and touch the people in the story he weaves. In the middle of the song, Lightfoot summed up the moment one recognizes things are doomed with a line that pierces me every time. “Does anyone know where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
On one knee in that intersection, I wondered if George Floyd felt abandoned as he lay dying with a knee to his throat calling for his momma. I wondered if the minutes turned to hours for Floyd as he pleaded for his life. They turned to hours for me. At just before the halfway point, I thought surely we had to be close to the end, only for one of the speakers to announce we had close to 4 and a half minutes still to go. It was not my cramped thigh, complaining knee, or overheated neck that made it so long. It was that knowledge that this built to something inexorable. Something inescapable for Floyd and something inescapable for the rest of us because we cannot undo what was done to him.
After a while I began thinking of all the things that I could already have accomplished in the time we had been kneeling so far and realizing just how long a time a few minutes can be in a life. I could have done a few chores, written an email, or heated up leftovers for dinner. I kept circling back to how horrible it must be to know, as those minutes stretch out, that this will be your death and that there is nothing you can do to prevent it. Does it feel like all the time in the world and not enough? One no longer has any control over one’s fate as one’s life slips away too quickly and yet agonizingly slowly.
As we got about three-quarters of the way through the time, I knew that police officer Derek Chauvin had committed murder in the first-degree over $20 of funny money, and his fellow officers aided and abetted him. Before I knelt there, I was willing to accept the possibility that the second-degree murder charge was adequate and even appropriate. Not anymore. Even seven minutes of kneeling like that is an extraordinary amount of time to hold a position of illegal, lethal restraint on someone. My cramped thigh muscles emphasized that any person holding that position for that long did so very deliberately. Had it been a single minute, maybe Chauvin could justify his actions as heat of passion. At eight minutes and 46 seconds, Chauvin’s actions transcended into premediated, cold-blooded murder.
By the time we were done, I do not remember if I was weeping outwardly, but I know I was weeping internally. My legs hurt. It had felt like an eternity, and I realized I have suffered but a fraction of a second compared to the suffering people of color go through daily due to overt and systemic racism. I may kneel every time the national anthem plays from now on.
I thought of George Floyd’s slow, desperate death, praying for mercy that four police denied him, over an offense that, had I done it, would have been met only with a warning from the store clerk. I thought of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Eric Garner. I thought of Sandra Bland and wondered if she too felt the agony of those long minutes turned to hours when she was hung in a Texas jail. (While her death still remains labeled a suicide, questions about the investigation’s conclusions and the jail’s procedures linger. At the very least, if she was not murdered, the Texas law enforcement system exhibited brutality and negligence toward her, completely out of proportion with any offense, and that directly led to her death.)
I also thought back to all the brown families devastated by police acts of brutality. George Floyd called for his mother. I thought of the gaping hole of grief all his family members and friends now face. Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” reminds us of the haunting cost of lost lives, “They might have split up or they might have capsized / They may have broke deep and took water / And all that remains is the faces and the names / Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.” I found myself thinking of all the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons, and daughters who mourn, not because of some force of nature, but because the very people supposedly sworn to protect the community killed their loved ones.
I know it seems strange to keep harkening back to a song from 1976, by a white Canadian, about white sailors when I am talking about the deliberate denial of rights and taking of lives of African-Americans. I grew up in the Great Lakes region, so the song and the sad story beneath have long been in my cultural grab-bag. It comes to mind because it tells the story of ordinary people, doing ordinary things, whose deaths were beyond their control, at the mercy of a force with which they could not reason, and reminds us of the consequences for those killed and those left behind.
Police officer Derek Chauvin premeditatedly murdered George Floyd, aided and abetted by three other police officers over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. George Floyd’s death was terrifying. It took time. Floyd had no ability to stop it, since he did nothing to merit it in the first place. When I knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in an intersection, I realized just how truly heinous that act was. It moved from the abstract to the real. I recognized just how unjust that act was. I acknowledged how deeply racism must sit in our law enforcement and our society for such an act to so casually occur, on film, without a thought spared for the wrong committed. I started cycling through name after name from just the past six years of African-Americans similarly murdered by police and wondered about how many more names we do not know.
I thought back to what I knew of the South’s long history with lynching Black men. As it has often in recent months, my mind dwelled on the lyrics of “Strange Fruit”, famously sung by Billie Holiday in 1939:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
We white Americans like to think that we have relegated to the past the time when the NAACP flew a banner saying “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” from its headquarters. White men mutilated and murdered Emmett Till in 1955, but racism and the horrific acts it inspires have never left us. As I knelt on the concrete, I knew police officers lynched George Floyd. I knew a former police officer and court investigator, along with his son, lynched Ahmaud Arbery when he was jogging. Police lynched Elijah McClain on his way home from the store. These men did not have to be in the South. They did not need to hang from a tree. We are letting police get away with lynching.
Kneeling for eight minutes and 46 second in one of these protests for African-American rights hammers home exactly how far this nation has not come. It gives a white person’s notions about racial injustice and the existence of implicit bias a solid real-world experience to hang those thoughts upon and view them as concrete, actual suffering. Kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds with other white people realizing the same thing, and people of color for whom this is just another day of the week, forces a reckoning with our racist present. I knelt down committed to helping African-Americans in their struggle for equality and justice. Nearly nine minutes later, I rose up with a much deeper understanding of both the struggle and the very real stakes, resolved to see not just this moment, but also this movement through to the finish line.
I started out thinking I was at least an ally. I rose up recognizing I, and all white people, have so much farther to go.
One quiet gesture powerfully changed my whole perspective. I knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I stood up a different person.