what does the knee to the protesters mean?

Protesters outside a police station in Detroit, Michigan, May 30, 2020.
Protesters outside a police station in Detroit, Michigan, May 30, 2020. SETH HERALD / AFP

Get down on one knee to pay tribute to George Floyd and speak out against racism. As protests continue in many cities in the United States after the death, on May 25, of this 46-year-old African-American during his arrest by the police of Minneapolis (Minnesota), this gesture is widely echoed by participants in rallies.

And not only. The Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden, also knelt down for a photo, Monday, in Wilmington (Delaware). And some members of the police force also put a knee on the ground, in several American cities, as a sign of solidarity with the demonstrators.

Law enforcement personnel kneel on the ground in Philadelphia on June 1.
Law enforcement personnel kneel on the ground in Philadelphia on June 1. Matt Rourke / AP

This symbolic gesture has gone around the world. For example, it was picked up at a rally in Montreal, Canada, by dozens of people. Demonstrators gathered in Paris against police violence on Tuesday, four years after the death of Adama Traore following his brutal arrest by gendarmes, also put their knees on the ground. French footballer Marcus Thuram, who plays at Borussia Mönchengladbach, Germany, celebrated his goal on Sunday with this gesture.

Marcus Thuram celebrates his goal on Sunday by kneeling on the ground.
Marcus Thuram celebrates his goal on Sunday by kneeling on the ground. POOL / REUTERS
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  • Where does this gesture come from?

“The history of the knee-to-knee gesture is part of the history of civil rights in the United States and the taking of witnesses of whites from the reality of blacks” in the 1960s, explains the historian specializing in geopolitical and American questions Thomas Snégaroff. Kneeling down today is a reminder of the public prayers of peaceful civil rights protesters.

Martin Luther King, during a march for civil rights in Selma, February 1, 1965.
Martin Luther King, during a march for civil rights in Selma, February 1, 1965. BH / AP

Martin Luther King made this gesture in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama, during one of the marches for the right to vote of the African-Americans, just before being arrested by the police. “He then prays with some of his comrades, knee on the ground”, describes the historian. “This gesture of prayer was quickly interpreted as the symbol of non-violence. It was a matter for Pastor Martin Luther King to call to witness the Whites of his submission as a Black “Points out Thomas Snégaroff.

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics on the men's 200m podium.
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics on the men’s 200m podium. – / AFP

On the contrary, in 1968, at the Olympic Games in Mexico, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, brandished a fist gloved in black, their eyes riveted on the ground, on the podium of the men’s 200 meters. Respectively gold and bronze medalists, they execute the salute of the Black Panthers, a Marxist group fighting for the rights of African-Americans, defying their country under the cameras of the whole world. “A more aggressive gesture, to demand”, says the historian. In recent days, many protesters have simultaneously kneeled on the ground and raised their fists.

  • A gesture popularized in 2016 against police violence

From left to right: Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers, in October 2016 in Santa Clara (California).
From left to right: Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers, in October 2016 in Santa Clara (California). Thearon W. Henderson / AFP

In the mid-2010s, some athletes expressed their concern at the increase in police violence against the African-American populations. On August 26, 2016, American football player Colin Kaepernick decides to put his knee on the ground, while the American anthem resounds in the stadium of San Diego (California). Tradition has it, however, that the players are, at this instant, standing with their hands on their hearts.

“I don’t want to get up to greet a flag that oppresses blacks and people of color”, then explained the sportsman.

“For me, it goes beyond football and it would be selfish for me to look away. There are corpses on the streets and people who take paid leave and get out of it after killing. “

The image will go around the world. His approach echoes Black Lives Matter, the movement against violence and racism against African-Americans. A few weeks earlier, the justice system had announced that the charges against the Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, 25, were dropped in April 2015. One decision among others: the murders of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, and Tamir Rice, 12, in Cleveland, Ohio, in November of the same year, also went unpunished. Each time, justice has ratified the thesis of self-defense.

After kneeling on the ground, Colin Kaepernick had been supported by Barack Obama, then president of the United States. “There is a long history of sports figures who have done the same. (…) I think he is attached to real, legitimate questions that deserve to be addressed. “

  • Opposition to Donald Trump

Following Colin Kaepernick, this gesture was quickly repeated in 2016 by other athletes in the United States. Enough to outrage a part of the Americans attached to the symbol of the national anthem, who see in this knee on the ground an antipatriotic symbol. So campaigning for the presidential election, Donald Trump calls this gesture “Execrable” and advises Colin Kaepernick to “Look for a better suited country”.

Read also American football: the NFL, a reflection of an American society structured by racism

The following year, during a meeting in Alabama, Donald Trump, since becoming president, insists: “We would love to see one of these NFL club owners [Ligue nationale de football américain] to say, when someone disrespects our flag: get that son of a bitch out of the field right away. Outside ! He’s fired. Fired ! “, he launches, September 22, 2017.

A week later, some 150 NFL players across the country kneel on the ground during the anthem to speak out against Donald Trump. On Twitter, the American president asks supporters to boycott the matches of teams whose players have knelt on the ground. This gesture against racial injustice is then coupled with a symbol of opposition to Donald Trump. It is taken up in particular by the musicians Stevie Wonder or Pharrell Williams. The #takeaknee (kneel down) movement was born.

Stevie Wonder and her son Kwame Morris, September 23, 2017, in New York.
Stevie Wonder and her son Kwame Morris, September 23, 2017, in New York. Michael Noble Jr. / AP
  • 2020, a new scale

After the death of George Floyd, the gesture took on a new dimension, being widely used by protesters, in the United States and elsewhere, but also by public figures.

Another symbol has also been added. In the widely shared video of George Floyd’s brutal arrest, white policeman Derek Chauvin is seen holding his knee for long minutes on the neck of George Floyd, who complained that he could not breathe. Official autopsy concludes death “By homicide” because of “Pressure exerted on his neck”. “In 2020, Thomas Snégaroff analysis, we get killed with one knee and we also want to show the world with one knee on the ground the reality of the oppression we suffer. “

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