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It is a straightforward gesture, swaddled in outrage and lengthy-endured grief, that gained highly effective forex via the protest towards police brutality and racial injustice led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the fields of the National Football League.
Taking a knee.
Across the nation these final onerous, unsure days, demonstrators have turned to the gesture on metropolis streets. At a nighttime march in Minneapolis on Wednesday, a crowd of 400 knelt for almost 5 somber minutes. On the identical day, George Floyd’s son, Quincy Mason, walked via a crowd on the web site the place a white police officer had pinned his father to the bottom by a knee to the neck. There, earlier than a makeshift memorial, Mason dropped to a knee.
The gesture has even been made sporadically by legislation enforcement officers, members of the National Guard and by outstanding politicians as an act of solidarity or effort to pacify.
In New York, an N.Y.P.D. commander knelt with activists outdoors Washington Square Park. In Portland, Ore., police in riot gear knelt earlier than cheering demonstrators, a few of whom responded by strolling towards the officers to shake their palms. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles walked amid an illustration and knelt. And the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., took a knee at a marketing campaign go to to a black church in Delaware.
Kaepernick has not performed within the N.F.L. since Jan. 1, 2017, his profession lower quick when no workforce would signal him following a season of participant protest he led with the assistance of a teammate, Eric Reid.
But his kneeling objection throughout the enjoying of the nationwide anthem has boomeranged via the uneven slipstream of the American consciousness, and is once more on the heart of a turbulent second with newfound power, and for the N.F.L., renewed debate.
“It’s a powerful, peaceful way to say you’re not OK with what’s been happening,” mentioned Hibes Galeano, 32, a Latina who attended a protest in Minneapolis this week. Others who knelt spoke of Kaepernick with reverence. “He did what a lot of other athletes wouldn’t have done,” mentioned Dorien Harris, a black, 19-year-outdated marcher who wore a face masks inscribed with the phrases “I Can’t Breathe” as he knelt.
“It took a lot of guts for him to do that, a lot of heart,” he added. “He knows what the community needs. It needs that strength. He was saying to stand up for what you believe in, no matter your position.”
While some demonstrators say they’ve had Kaepernick and his marketing campaign in thoughts when kneeling, the gesture can also be — supposed or not — an echo to the style of Floyd’s dying.
“Kneeling is both an act of defiance and resistance, but also of reverence, of mourning, but also honoring lives lost,” mentioned Chad Williams, the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. “It is also simple and clear. Its simplicity gave it symbolic power, and as we see now, its power persists.”
So does the controversy surrounding it.
Starting in 2016, regardless of Kaepernick’s clarification that his kneeling throughout the nationwide anthem was a name to finish racial injustice and police brutality towards individuals of coloration, a backlash fomented, spurred largely by President Trump, who tried to recast Kaepernick and the predominantly African-American group of gamers who adopted his lead as unpatriotic. That viewpoint persists.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, when requested on Wednesday about kneeling throughout the anthem, advised an interviewer, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” (Brees did kneel on the sideline with teammates earlier than a sport in 2017 as an act of solidarity opposing Trump’s criticism of gamers, however he rose when the anthem was performed.)
He then issued two apologies for his feedback after an uncommon wave of criticism from gamers, a few of them his personal teammates, at a time when athletes throughout the sports activities world have responded to the civil unrest by taking part in marches and expressing help for combating racial injustice.
Many applauded Brees’s contrition however on Friday, Trump tweeted that Brees should not have shifted his stance, saying in all caps that there should be “NO KNEELING!” during a display of patriotism. Hours later, the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, apologized to his players for not listening to the concerns of African-American players earlier. He said he supported athletes in protesting peacefully, though he notably did not name Kaepernick directly.
Not long after that, Brees addressed an Instagram post to Trump that forcefully repudiated his original remark about disrespect, saying: “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”
Taking a knee might be a simple gesture, but the fraught, contentious opinions about it are a mirror into the complexity of race in America.
Consider its N.F.L. origin story.
Kaepernick and Reid came up with the idea after consulting a former Green Beret, Nate Boyer, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan before playing college football at Texas and then getting a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks. “Colin straight up asked me what I thought he should do,” said Boyer, speaking recently over the phone from Oregon.
Boyer said he did some research and came across a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. kneeling in prayer and protest in Selma, Ala., during the 1960s. Boyer also remembered taking a knee at Arlington National Cemetery, in reverence of fallen friends.
“If you’re not going to stand,” Boyer told Kaepernick and Reid, as they sat in a hotel lobby hours before the 49ers’ final preseason game, against the San Diego Chargers. “I’d say your only other option is to take a knee.”
Boyer said he would never do such a thing during the anthem. But he had fought for the right of free expression, and though he said he was apolitical, he empathized with the drive to end racism and police brutality.
At the game that evening, he stood next to Kaepernick as he knelt, and felt the sting of an angry, booing crowd rain onto the field. “Maybe that was my little taste of what it is like to be black. It helped me understand,” he said.
The players’ kneeling reached a peak in the 2017 season — when Trump demanded that team owners “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!” for kneeling — but has since largely petered out.
In early 2019, the N.F.L. handed over a payout believed to be roughly $6 million to settle a legal fight with Kaepernick and Reid, who argued they had been denied jobs because of their actions during the national anthem.
The league agreed to donate millions of dollars to community groups and causes chosen by players. It joined with Jay-Z, the hip-hop impresario, to consult on entertainment and contribute to the league’s activism campaign, Inspire Change. It also updated a policy, so far not enforced, requiring players to stand for the national anthem or remain in the locker room while it is played.
Within a week of Floyd’s death, kneeling became a common gesture. And its complexity carries on.
The way it has been adopted by members of law enforcement and politicians, for example, is best viewed with an eye that is both skeptical and hopeful, said Mark Anthony Neal, chairman of the African and African-American Studies Department at Duke.
“It’s an important gesture, showing maybe they get it now,” he said. “But if those same officers and politicians are not willing to hold their own accountable going forward, or look at their own actions and examine them closely, this is at best empty rhetoric.”
Kaepernick has remained publicly silent aside from recent postings about the protest on social media.
Among his latest posts on Twitter? A retweet that jabs at Brees and shows a 2017 photo of the Saints quarterback taking a knee alongside protesting teammates.
Reporting was contributed by Kim Barker, Dionne Searcey, John Eligon, Ken Belson and Matt Furber. Jack Begg contributed research.