Half a foot then, knee in neck now

Symbolic public kneeling that is taking place after George Floyd's murder will not serve much purpose. Writer Ananda Sen recalls how such acts happened during pre-Civil War but failed to change anything

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SERIOUSLY, not a good decision to kneel.

Not because unseen viruses are floating around. Or the other type, the two-legged ones, might be prowling about thinking which limb to unleash.

Just that it looks a little knee-jerk.

And, let’s be honest, this symbolic recycled stuff — solidarity, empathy, brotherhood, compassion, bond of humanity, We are with you, man’ — is starting to look a bit jaded.

If it’s to test if hardened human joints were still suitably flexible, fair enough. But to kneel down in public contrition?

As if kneeling down on visible daylight streets, video cameras on, would wipe off the mark of the offending knee.

As if in pillorying him, in parodying him, in making a caricature of him, lies absolution.

Poor Derek Chauvin, if only they realised that today’s knee in the neck had been predestined to cut off vital life breath. Predestined since Kunta Kinte’s white captors gave the African slave a dire choice — half a foot or his testicles.

That was sometime around the 1800s, in pre-Civil War America, and long before Jimmie Lee Jackson submitted his human body to police batons.

Kunta, caught trying to escape for the fourth time, had chosen to save his testicles from the slave catcher’s axe, thankfully, as it turned out. It left him with a lifelong limp but ensured that his powers of procreation remained unscathed.

That was, as it turned out, good, solid thinking. What he was basically doing was investing in the future, when somebody would tell his story. Present discomfort, future returns. Not sterile, token acts like kneeling in public.

Defenders of public kneeling would say you are missing the point. This is a symbolic gesture of empathy, of protest. You kneel to stand up again.

But contrition is a private thing. And this public kneeling, however noble or sincere, is unlikely to solve anything. The impulse to stereotype would still be there. And brutal guys in uniform would still be looking to shove their monstrous knees down somebody’s neck. Just because they happen to be not white enough. Or, to take it beyond what happened in Minnesota that day, not follow the same God or the same dietary habits. Such things have gone on far too long and no symbolic act of public kinship is going to stop that.

Dylan got it partly right when he sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, but the change stopped somewhere midway. If people have to hunker down, it should be those in authority, in chambers of decision-making, to carry through with the change, through hard, unpalatable compliance if needed. Human rights are non-negotiable.

Coming back to Kunta, his decision that day would win for Alex Haley, his purported great-great-great-great grandson, a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Roots. And for those interested in the genealogy of race and violence, a priceless template for African-American history.

The knee that white police officer Chauvin pressed into African-American George Floyd’s neck last month does go a long way back.

It was evening that day in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a little after 8 on May 25, when Chauvin pulled a handcuffed Floyd out of a police car and onto the road, pressed his knee to the fallen man’s neck and held him there.

“Please, I can’t breathe…,” Floyd had gasped. But the knee stayed where it was.

The charge against the 46-year-old was he had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit note. By the time the knee came off Floyd’s neck nearly nine minutes later — 8 minutes 46 seconds to be exact — his pulse had gone.

Like Kunta’s half a foot.

It is somewhere between these two unrelated but intrinsically connected events — one unbearably recent and the other tolerably bygone — that the real import of Chauvin’s unrelenting knee lies: that the subterranean stream of racial antagonism still flows. A seething ripple waiting to burst forth at the slightest intimation.

May 25, 2020, was a confirmation of that: in those nine minutes of breath-denying hold was unleashed the repressed collective unconscious of race-driven brutality.

To be honest, Floyd was no saint. He had been charged with robbery earlier. But that’s beside the point. No human being deserves to be subjected to indignity so savage.

It was the same savagery, fed on some distorted notions of superiority, that had hurled itself on Uncle Tom’s lacerated skin in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

What goes into making fiction is what we have lived — as protagonist or even as perceiver, but stirred enough to have kneaded the appalling dough of experience into outraged expression.

They say Stowe’s novel helped hasten the Civil War but that is apocryphal. What is not apocryphal is slave-owner Simon Legree’s vicious whiplash on a manacled Tom.

The knee has merely replaced the fictional — but representative — whip; the rest has barely changed: indurated social animosities so strong that you deny air to a gasping, handcuffed man.

They had done something similar earlier too, one July day in 2014, in the New York City borough of Staten Island — death by deprivation of air. Not by monstrous knee but by mortal chokehold of remorseless arm.

Eric Garner, African-American, 43, father of six, grandfather of three, described by friends as sociable, had apparently resisted arrest on the charge of selling loose cigarettes.

Eleven times he is said to have repeated “I can’t breathe” as he lay face down on the sidewalk.

Breath? What impertinence! Weren’t they trying to choke him?

As they had sought to choke off a protest march for equal rights for blacks on a February day 55 years ago.

It would be Jimmie Lee Jackson’s last march. Beaten, clubbed and shot, the 26-year-old civil rights crusader died a few days later.

But would they have knelt today had such antagonisms still lingered?

There’s a counterpoint to that — the public demeanour of mortified mien does serve a purpose: history of the wrong kind is a difficult burden to bear.

Unfortunately, memory does not permit us to forget. We are permitted to live with it, permitted not to bring it up, but never forget. Because there would be moments — as the one in Minneapolis that May evening — that would serve as reminder, whether we like it or not. No symbolic kneeling would stop that.

Not a good decision. Seriously.

 

Opinion expressed here are author’s personal one

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