Taking the Knee in the New Vanities of the Bonfires
by
NYPD chief Terence Monaham takes knee with protesters on Sunday (YouTube screenshot)

At the height of the rioting this past weekend in New York City, Terence Monaham, the chief of the NYPD, hugged demonstrators and took a knee with protesters in Greenwich Village. Calling for an end to the violence in the city, the police chief urged for the “continuation of peaceful protests” and asked those gathered to condemn violence. ABC7 reported that Monaham told the outlet that “we hugged to show there’s solidarity.”

Boasting that New York City is going to “show the country how this is done,” Monaham said that the protest leaders asked him to take a knee with demonstrators to “encourage peace.” But it was a short-lived peace as a few hours after the hugging and knee-taking, peaceful protests turned violent again with looting, vandalism, and arson. In fact, the city has become so violent and the riots so destructive that on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sharply criticized the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio: “The NYPD and the mayor did not do their job last night. It was rampant looting across the city last night that they did not stop. Look at the videos — it was a disgrace.”

They understand that the horrific treatment afforded to George Floyd was an aberration and they are disgusted by it. But to take a knee that suggests systemic racism within the NYPD is a bridge too far for many in the rank and file.

Still, the knee-taking continues. In fact, symbolic knee-taking ceremonies for police officers — akin to the tribal status degradation ceremonies that anthropologists write about — are now being demanded of the police by the protesters. Taking the knee was never about encouraging peace. Taking the knee has always been an angry symbol of protest against protesters’ perceptions of rampant police brutality and racism. Born out of demonstrations against racism and brutality by Black Power advocates and civil rights activists — and often accompanied by a raised fist — the symbol was revived by one-time NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became famous for taking the knee during the national anthem to protest racism. Kaepernick himself said that he took a knee “for the people who are on the streets, who are being abused. For cops who are abusing their authority.”

Taking the knee was always a protest against the police. This is why it is so disturbing for the many good police officers who know that their fellow officers are equally committed to protecting and serving the public. Taking the knee to protest their fellow officers is anathema to good police officers. They understand that the horrific treatment afforded to George Floyd was an aberration and they are disgusted by it. But to take a knee that suggests systemic racism within the NYPD is a bridge too far for many in the rank and file.

Unfortunately, the status degradation ceremonies for police officers continue to escalate throughout the five boroughs of New York City and in other parts of the country. On Sunday in Foley Square, hundreds of protesters chanted “NYPD, take a knee” until the uniformed NYPD police officers gave in to their demands. Those officers unwilling to participate in the new street theater are derided while those who take the knee are cheered.

Much of this recalls Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities — a satirical novel of racial politics in New York City in the 1980s. Often described as that decade’s defining novel, it offered a scathing portrayal of the racial power struggles permeating the city at the time. Wolfe’s brilliant satire skewered the rich, portrayed a corrupt legal system that was up for sale, and presented a cast of pandering politicians and community activists more interested in helping themselves than helping the poor. The police officers in the novel are portrayed primarily as good men just trying to do their job, but their police department was also held captive to craven politicians and prosecutors. One of the main characters in the book, Reverend Bacon, spends most of his time shaking down rich white power brokers and philanthropists — telling them that money going to his organization is an investment in “steam control” of black anger.

Wolfe acknowledged that he modeled Reverend Bacon after the Rev. Al Sharpton, who, more than 30 years later, is injecting himself again into steam control. Last week, Sharpton held a prayer vigil at the Minneapolis site where George Floyd died. Accompanied by Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed young black man who had died while in NYPD police custody in 2014, Sharpton told those gathered that “If they had prosecuted that [NYPD] officer, maybe Floyd would be alive today.… We’re going to make sure that this prosecution goes down.” Sharpton has pledged he’ll return to Minneapolis for Floyd’s memorial. Promising “justice” for Floyd’s death, Sharpton recently said, “There’s a difference between peace and quiet. Some people just want quiet. The price for peace is justice.” It is a high price.

In 1968, following the Rev. Martin Luther King riots, then-Mayor John Lindsay argued that American blacks were so severely damaged by slavery that their ability to succeed was seriously in doubt unless whites cared enough to do something about it. According to The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York by Vincent J. Cannato, Lindsay once told reporters that “we have three hundred years of neglect to pay for.” Creating the New York Urban Coalition, Lindsay channeled more than $4 million in 1968 and close to $6 million 1969 to job training for inner city residents, academies for at-risk children, and aid for minority businesses. All of the funds were raised privately. In his book, Cannato writes that “business elites, frightened by urban riots, gave money to the Urban Coalition to buy off the urban poor” — what Tom Wolfe called “steam control.”

Steam control is much more difficult to maintain now. Humiliating the NYPD is just the start. These same kinds of Urban Coalition programs are already being demanded as the price for justice for George Floyd. But it is much less likely that today’s business elites — many of whom have watched their own businesses looted and burned — will be as willing to contribute to steam control programs as they might have been in the past.

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