There’s been a lot of cynicism expressed over the past week or two, pointing out the potential for hypocrisy when you ‘take a knee’. Images from the Black Lives Matter protests, which show law enforcement folks taking this posture, have naturally stirred up the lack of trust in the police that people of colour feel in many American cities, where white supremacy is demonstrably part of police culture. But of course this is also true in many indigenous communities across Canada, where a culture of racism is still prevalent in law enforcement.
Last Friday this cynicism spilled over into some of the social media responses we at Climate Action Parry Sound received after some of us ‘took a knee’ during our weekly demonstration. The demonstration was held on the United Church lawn; it included a ‘water song’ in honour of UN World Environment Day, performed by members of the local Anishinabek community on whose traditional territory we were assembled; and it followed the theme of ‘Climate Change as the End State of Exploitation and Oppression’.
It’s been a long tradition, especially in cultures that derive from European countries, that this posture means you are taking a vow, usually a vow of loyalty or support. In the Soto Zen tradition that I practise, taking your vows is a very practical measure that helps you to keep your focus on the eight-fold path of ‘right’ everyday behaviours and attitudes, and by doing this in front of others you are also asking for their support in holding you to the path.
By taking a knee at our little demonstration last Friday, this was our intention. During these protests against rising white supremacy my vow is to take every opportunity I can, as it arises, to level the playing field for disadvantaged groups, both in my personal behaviour and in addressing institutional norms; and also, I am vowing to call people out when they are spreading racist ideas. It can be very uncomfortable to criticize a friend or relative, but the value of ‘taking a knee’ is just this: it helps you to do the hard things. When I see a person, whether it is a police officer, a Prime Minister or an everyday citizen, taking a knee, I will ‘assume’ this is a serious vow they are making. I will assume this until that individual, as an individual and not as a faceless proxy for a group, proves me wrong. Otherwise there is nothing left for me to fight for.
During these emotional and highly politicized protests happening today, divisiveness is natural. However, while political argument is indeed part of human nature, it is not all of human nature. We must be careful that when we set out to build the transient institutions of our future world, we do not lose, in the clamorous moment to moment process, its timeless heart. For this is really what we are always fighting for, isn’t it?