Taking the Knee: Black Lives Matter, Subjugation and Sovereignty

Dominic Raab came under fire today for saying he doesn’t understand the gesture of “taking the knee” as a form of protest, saying it is “a symbol of subjugation and subordination” from Game of Thrones and, other than when he proposed to his wife, he’ll only be caught doing it before the queen.

The fury at Raab supposedly comes from his complete misunderstanding of the act’s context — its origin in Colin Kapernick’s bizarrely controversial habit of kneeling during the US national anthem before football games. For a government official to not possess what is general knowledge for anyone who has watched these protests unfold over the last few years is quite shocking. If anyone should be paying attention to the growing protest movements in other countries, surely it is the UK’s foreign secretary?

But is Raab wrong beyond that?

After all, “taking the knee” is a sign of subjugation, in much the same way “hands up, don’t shoot” is — it is a symbolic relinquishing of personal sovereignty; a gesture to remind cops of their power and responsibility, and a plea that they don’t abuse it. This is surely the same symbolic meaning behind kneeling before a monarch? When the queen lowers that sword onto your shoulders to knight you, it is as much a sign of mutual trust as it is of deference. In our present moment, however, it is a gesture that only serves to highlight how little mutual trust there is.

Neomi Bennett’s case, also in the news today, demonstrates precisely why this kind of protest is necessary. A widely respected nurse, who had even been honoured by the queen for her services to nursing, she was arrested for obstruction because she didn’t trust the police officers who had pulled her over; police officers who were as bemused by her fear as she was of their lack of probable cause. Why does her lack of trust in police give them reason to arrest her, whilst their lack of trust in a black woman sat in her car is no grounds for disciplinary action? Who is supposed to be serving who here?

This is precisely why the sight of Keir Starmer or the police taking the knee alongside protesters often looks hollow. These government officials and police use it as a vague reminder to protesting citizens that police officers and politicians, in their turn, are citizens too. But this is little more than an illusion, made possible by the thin veil of what constitutes parliamentary democracy in the twenty-first century. Because they still hold the sword. A police officer should only take the knee after resigning. Until then, it makes as much sense as kneeling before the queen so that she can kneel back. Taking the knee is an all too temporary gesture if, when you stand up again, you’re still wielding the sword of the state.

In this sense, the reference to Game of Thrones is oddly fitting. When characters talk about taking the knee to show deference to their rulers, it is a sign of necessary surrender. But there is a palpable difference in the show between taking the knee for an unofficial leader, who vows to fight for the subjugated, and taking the knee before a tyrant. (The cognitive dissonance of police officers comes from their mistaken belief that they are the former when their behaviour points more towards the latter.)

Surely this is why Kapernick combines his kneeling with a fist raised aloft, as a sign of unity and solidarity, much like Tommie Smith and John Carlos before him. There’s an almost Nietzschean-Bataillean foundation to this gesture, as a seemingly paradoxical gesture of subjugated power. In this sense, the power of the movement rests of its foundation in profound loss, in loss of life, and the power of taking the knee comes from doing so before police who are a probable threat to your life. Beyond its present usage, Kapernick taking the knee placed an inconvenient truth centre-stage within American life — whilst they sing about the land of the free, he represents the home of the brave, daring to remind the world that, in America, black lives are subjugated lives.

But this very suspension of being had given rise to a movement more sovereign than any that has come before it.

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