There’s a moment in a video by freelance journalist Sam Bishop (@sebishop99) showing Monday night’s Black Lives Matter protest in Worcester. It’s taken after dark, some time after the large and peaceful protest organized by Councillor Khrystian King and Maggie Barjolo had officially ended.
There are many voices in the video, showing both protestors and police, and the scene is chaotic. The protestors are walking in the street, distanced from each other. They’re shouting “Black lives matter!” The police are united in a line, slowly marching forward and demanding that the protestors “Move back!”
Suddenly, out of the chaos comes a moment of order. The protestors turn to face the police. A leader of the protest yells, “Everybody kneel! For George Floyd!” The protestors all get down on one knee. One woman says, “You would think they would be kneeling, too. It’s their brothers and sisters are out there, as well.” The crowd begins to chant, “Kneel with us!” One voice says, “Kneel with us and we’ll go home.”
There is a moment of waiting, and a few of the officers do get down on one knee. Protestors cheer. It feels like a moment of possibility, and a way forward.
Then the moment passes and the few kneeling officers stand up. The protestors stand up as well, and shouting begins again—both from the protestors and from the police. The video ends, but we know from later reporting that the evening escalated into tear gas and arrests.
It’s hard to know exactly what happened. The accounts of the protestors, and Mr. Bishop, are very different from accounts given by the police. But in that moment, when young people knelt in the street and invited the police to kneel with them, an opportunity was lost.
What kind of city could we live in if such opportunities were taken? We have amazing organizers and leaders of color. We have a dedicated and professional police force. We have a rich network of community organizations, religious congregations, and foundations trying to build a better future for Worcester. What kind of city would we have if these leaders worked together instead of against each other?
For instance, Worcester was clearly ready for unrest in the city on Monday night. After leaving the peaceful evening protest, I saw police readying themselves on the corner of Harvard and State streets, across the street from my church, far from any protestors. The city had planned ahead and was ready with a public safety response. What if we had also been ready with a community response?
There are organizations in Worcester that work with and respect young people of color and other young leaders in our community. There’s the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, a collaboration between the city and community leaders whose mission is “To reduce youth violence in the City of Worcester by eliminating structural racism and promoting trust, safety, healing and opportunities for Worcester's most under-resourced youth and families.” Organizations such as this should have been part of the planning for Monday night’s protest. We should have mounted a community response that cares about young leaders of color and is in active relationship with them.
This kind of response would require restraint from the police. It asks for a different kind of strength from them: the strength not to escalate, the strength to turn the other cheek, and the strength to see protestors exercising their rights as allies in creating a better future for our city. It asks for strength not given by riot gear, but strength that comes from the soul. It asks for the strength to kneel.
Earlier on Monday night, when the peaceful protest reached the courthouse, the organizers asked all the thousands of people present to take a knee. Among them was Police Chief Steven Sargent, who got down on one knee to show his respect for black lives in Worcester and across the country. This is the spirit we need in our city: a spirit of collaboration and humility which leads us to justice.