Get your knee off our necks.
Marcus Delespinasse, weary-eyed, stands on Broadway in the late afternoon. “The culture of America,” he tells me after I approached him on the street, “is that it’s OK to treat blacks this way. That cop knew George Floyd would not make it. He still kept his knee there.”
Yes, Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. A powerful white man asphyxiating a powerless black man, a scene with a long American history, part of the nation’s iconography. Chauvin was a training officer for the other cops at the scene. His blithe expression said, “Watch me kill.”
“Get your knee off our necks,” is the Rev. Al Sharpton’s phrase for the uprising of 2020. The “knee” has been there for a while. It was in the Constitution’s three-fifths clause that set the census value of a slave at 60 percent of a free human being. The “knee” is slavery and Jim Crow and lynching and segregation in schools and transportation and neighborhoods and on and on and on through all the inflections of systemic state oppression of African-Americans that allowed Chauvin to believe he had the right as a white man to do what he did.
“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, the liberal city where Floyd was killed, said. He had to say that more than a half-century after the civil rights movement. Think about it.
Get your knee off our necks.
Aged 52 and unemployed, Delespinasse is black. I feel despair as I write that sentence. So-and-so is white. So-and-so is black. All those parentheses running through copy, the refrain of failure. To explain what exactly? America’s societal fracture; America’s original sin; America’s shame that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have never been equally afforded its citizens. I might have written: Aged 52 and unemployed, Delespinasse is a human being. The likes of Chauvin still cannot see that.
“You look at that video and think that could be me, or my cousin, or my uncle,” Delespinasse tells me. “Police have impunity. No wonder young people are enraged. That cop with his knee resting there sums up the savageness of white apathy.”
Delespinasse looks out with those weary eyes on a ghostly New York. First the hum-and-honking of the city gave way to pandemic-induced silence interspersed with ambulance sirens. Now, after the looting, the sound of New York is the screeching of electric saws cutting plywood to board up broken windows and the rumbling bursts of electric screwdrivers fixing the panels in place. This is the audio of a great city’s disaster. This is the audio of a virus that sharpened the inequities of American dysfunction.
Get your knee off our necks.
There is no right to pillage and burn in the United States. But human beings will react to entrenched state violence, in extreme cases a license to kill, which is what black Americans have confronted for centuries. All that is needed for rebellion against relentless oppression is a spark. What happens to a dream deferred, asked Langston Hughes? “Does it explode?”
The savageness of white apathy: a striking phrase, and sometimes it is worse than apathy. Consider Amy Cooper, that highly educated white woman caught on video in Central Park. She found herself saying she would tell the police there is “an African-American man threatening my life.” Because a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), an avid birder, had properly asked her to leash her dog. It’s important to call such racist aggression by its name.
Those impulses are what President Trump, a racist who launched his successful campaign in 2015 by calling Mexicans entering the country “rapists,” plays on. Violence and division are his elements. He has no other. Hence his recent threat to deploy the military to quash “domestic terror,” his repeated talk of “domination,” his encouragement to violence couched in endless references to Second Amendment rights, and his tweeting support for Senator Tom Cotton, a prominent Republican, who called in a tweet for the deployment of “10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry — whatever it takes to restore order.”
Whatever it takes to do what? To stop the lawbreakers and looters, Trump and Cotton would say with breathtaking disingenuousness. The military is not needed for that.
No, the point would be this: to assert with a great show of force, after the slow-motion murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, that the oppressive system that produced this act is not about to change and armed white male power in America is inviolable. That is Trump’s fundamental credo. His Bible-brandishing, American Gothic portrait this week outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington is one of the most disturbing portraits of psychopathic self-importance seen since 1933.
Get your knee off our necks — and American democracy.
Trump was widely dismissed in 2015. He was dismissed in 2016, for that matter, until he won. A fringe loony, he would burn out. Turned out tens of millions of Americans thought like him.
Cotton followed up on his tweet with his now infamous send-in-the-troops Op-Ed in The New York Times. The piece was wrong, repugnant, mistimed and flawed. It was also extremely relevant and very dangerous to ignore. I prefer to read it and vote with rage than experience again, in November, the consequences of complacent liberal ignorance.
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