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Column: A meditation about knees

  • Randall Balmer.

  • Eli Harold (58), Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) of the San Franciso 49ers kneel during the national anthem before a game against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 2, 2016, at Levi's Stadium, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group/TNS) Bay Area News Group/TNS — Nhat V. Meyer

For the Valley News
Published: 6/6/2020 10:30:14 PM
Modified: 6/6/2020 10:30:12 PM

It’s time we have a conversation about knees. According to WebMD, the knee connects the thigh bone, known as the femur, to the shin bone, the tibia. The patella (kneecap) sits at the front of that junction within the quadriceps muscle. The bones of the knee are connected by tendons and buffered by cartilage.

The human knee functions as a hinge that allows us to engage in such physical activities as walking, running, climbing stairs and, well, kneeling.

In case you hadn’t noticed, knees have been in the news lately. In Minneapolis, the act of kneeling, typically a gesture of deference or submission, was turned into an instrument of aggression that ended in death. On May 25, Memorial Day, a storekeeper called police to report that George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, had paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Within minutes, Floyd was surrounded by four Minneapolis police officers, one of whom, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd, in handcuffs, lay face down on the street.

As Floyd gasped for air and repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck. He persisted, according to The New York Times, for three minutes after Floyd lost consciousness and another minute after the paramedics arrived.

All told, Chauvin’s knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Google informs me that it takes about one minute and 55 seconds to sing the national anthem (although I confess it always seems much longer than that). So for the duration of time that Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck into the asphalt with his knee, the officers could have belted out The Star-Spangled Banner four, almost five times.

Which brings me to another knee, that of Colin Kaepernick, the former Super Bowl quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

In response to police brutality and misconduct directed against unarmed black men, Kaepernick decided to register a silent protest. During a preseason game in August 2016, Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem. Asked about it afterward, he said: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The following week, after a conversation with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL player, Kaepernick altered his protest from sitting to kneeling. As Boyer explained, “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.” Kaepernick announced that he would donate $1 million to charities. “I’m not anti-American,” he said. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”

Kaepernick was responding to the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice and Philando Castile and Eric “I can’t breathe” Garner and far too many others to list. President Donald Trump inserted himself into the conversation at a September 2017 rally in Alabama. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners,” Trump asked the cheering crowd, “when someone disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”

And how did the National Football League respond to Kaepernick’s eloquent protest of taking a knee? NFL owners blackballed the quarterback who took his team to the Super Bowl in 2013.

Kaepernick last played on New Year’s Day 2017. Since then, since Kaepernick last kneeled on an NFL field, more unarmed African Americans have been killed by the police. Once again, there are too many to name, but the list includes Stephon Clark, shot for carrying a cellphone (his own); Botham Jean, killed by an off-duty officer who mistakenly walked into his apartment; Breonna Taylor, shot by officers executing a search warrant; Ahmaud Arbery, a jogger shot and killed after being chased down by a former police officer and his son.

In a country where, according to a study by the University of Michigan, police use of force is the sixth leading cause of death for young men of color and approximately 100 of 100,000 black men and boys will be killed by police, all Americans should be on their knees — and it was heartening last week to see many of the protesters and some of the police adopt that posture. Any gesture of humility is welcome these days.

How have we come to this? It needs hardly be said that this nation’s “original sin” of racism runs deep. Nor does it help when the president declares that both sides of a white supremacist rally are populated by “very fine people.” Or when he enjoined a group of uniformed police officers in 2017 “please don’t be too nice” when they confront suspected offenders.

In the midst of last week’s mayhem, Trump decided that some grand gesture was required. Immediately after upbraiding mayors and governors for not being more forceful in quashing the demonstrations, Trump, following a phalanx of Secret Service officers, made his way from the White House across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Law enforcement officers used tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets to clear away peaceful protesters.

The purpose of the visit? A photo opportunity. Trump didn’t enter the church to pray. In a surreal scene, what the Episcopal bishop of Washington called an “abuse of sacred symbols,” Trump stood outside the church, holding up a (closed) Bible — one that he admitted, in response to a reporter’s question, was not his own. “I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it,” former Vice President Joe Biden remarked. “If he opened it, he could have learned something.”

That Bible says something about humility and compassion, caring for the poor and those Jesus called “the least of these.” It also issues stern warnings against those who refuse to act with justice or who defile what is sacred.

What if, instead of waving the Bible like a mace or a product on the Home Shopping Network, the president had seized the moment to speak calmly and contritely about the persistence of racism in American society? What if he had addressed the underlying, systemic causes of poverty and inequality that have created a permanent underclass in the United States? What if he had used the occasion, standing in front of a church, to repent of his own role in stoking racial and ethnic tensions?

What if the president had dropped to his knees in prayer for healing and reconciliation? In the time it takes to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, that silent gesture would have been the most eloquent statement he could have made in this time of suffering.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College.

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