The Current

If taking a knee was a genuine gesture, it would be followed by concrete action, says professor

Politicians and officers taking a knee at recent protests are obscuring police violence and failing to offer concrete ways to address it, a Canadian academic says.

Gesture conflates taking knee for justice and violent act that sparked protests: Rinaldo Walcott

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes a knee during an eight-minute, 46-second silence held during an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
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Politicians and officers taking a knee at recent protests are obscuring police violence and failing to offer concrete ways to address it, a Canadian academic says.

"When they take those knees in those public ways at those protests, what they're doing is they're playing to emotion — but they're playing to emotion, minus policy," said Rinaldo Walcott, a professor of Black diaspora cultural studies at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

"It's a great photo-op, but it actually does not begin to address the stakes of the claims that the people on the street are actually making," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Protests have been held across North America about police violence against Black and Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he wants the RCMP to start wearing body cameras. He took a knee with protesters in Ottawa Friday, as did Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders at a march in the city on the same day. Saunders announced his resignation Monday, but did not give a reason for his departure.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an appearance at an anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Friday. He was met with chants of "Stand up to Trump!" from the crowd and kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds to remember George Floyd. 1:47

On Saturday, Toronto Police Insp. Matt Moyer took a knee alongside a protester at the U.S. Consulate in the city's downtown. He later told CBC News he saw the protesters as "ambassadors of peace."

"We want to be part of that ambassador movement," said Moyer.

"I want them to know I'm walking with them and I support their cause and I support exactly what they're doing."

Walcott spoke with Galloway about the protests, and the symbolism of taking a knee. Here is part of their conversation.

What did you make of Toronto Police Insp. Matt Moyer calling protesters ambassadors of peace?

Well, it's an interesting phrase. What he didn't go on to say is why they would need to be ambassadors of peace. If he had went on to say that, he would have to acknowledge police violence and why people were out on the streets in the first instance.

He said he also wants police to be part of this movement. When you hear that, what goes through your mind?

When I hear that, what goes through my mind is that this is a blatant underhandedness. There are two kinds of knees that exist out there right now, symbolically. There's the knee that Colin Kaepernick took, which was pointing towards resistance, injustice and potential liberation. And then there's the knee of the police, a deadly move that took the life of George Floyd, and has harmed and hurt others in the past. And those two knees should never be conflated. And what the police are effectively doing right now is conflating those two knees. Obscuring and confusing the knee that they usually use to take the life out of a person's body, with the knee that Colin Kaepernick inaugurated by trying to point towards that injustice.

University of Toronto Professor Rinaldo Walcott tells The Current’s Matt Galloway about the “two kinds of knees that exist out there right now.” 1:30

If the chief is asked to do this though, and he does, or the prime minister does... Does it suggest a willingness to listen at all, to you? 

If the knee was being taken in any kind of genuine way, after they got up they would have announced certain kinds of reforms, they would have announced certain kinds of initiatives. Taking the knee outside responding in substantive ways to the claims that the protesters are making, and the demands that the protesters are making is not sufficient. It's not enough, it's a distraction, it obscures the issue.

Is there danger in that, in obscuring the issue, to your point? 

Of course there's a massive danger in obscuring the issue. 

To engage in this kind of affected performance, this kind of affected economy, minus intent and substantive intent to reform policing … this is a way to not address those kinds of issues.

It's not a question of refusing a hand that's extended. It's a question of asking what is that hand bringing to the table- Rinaldo Walcott

If police or politicians kind of extend the hand part of the way across the table, what's the responsibility of those on the other side of the table to figure out what to do with it? 

I think we have to be clear what kind of hand is being extended right now. For instance, when our prime minister took a knee, there's at least six investigations into the RCMP. 

When he takes that knee without offering us any insight about how he intends to address the concerns and investigation [of] the RCMP around police violence, especially against Indigenous people, he's actually not offered us anything.

So it's not a question of refusing a hand that's extended. It's a question of asking what is that hand bringing to the table. And so far, none of these police chiefs, or our prime minister, have brought anything to the table.

If taking a knee was a genuine gesture, it would be followed by concrete action, says Rinaldo Walcott, an author and a professor at the University of Toronto. (Abdi Osman)

What would you want to see after the knee?

I'm glad to see that finally people are talking about defunding the police and that has become a widespread part of the conversation. 

I think eventually we're going to have to tackle with the abolition of private property and property itself. That property sits at the nexus of all of these concerns — all of these violences, all of these brutalities — that we have a Criminal Code that makes property so supreme that people can lose their lives for passing a fake $20 bill ... tells you something about the ways in which we've organized a society, where human life is valued less than property. 

It's having those deep, philosophical, but also practical conversations about substantive change that's at stake here. And it's what Colin Kaepernick's knee initially was meant to signify. 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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