Amid Brutal Responses To Protesters, Will Moments Of Solidarity Bring Real Change? The sometimes aggressive police responses to anti-police brutality protesters have been punctuated by occasional unity between the two sides. Will those gestures amount to anything substantive?
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Amid Brutal Responses To Protesters, Will Moments Of Solidarity Bring Real Change?

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Amid Brutal Responses To Protesters, Will Moments Of Solidarity Bring Real Change?

Amid Brutal Responses To Protesters, Will Moments Of Solidarity Bring Real Change?

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The past week's protests have sometimes been met with heavy-handed police tactics, including beatings, tear gas and rubber bullets, but we have also seen fleeting moments of unity and peace. Some police have knelt or marched in solidarity with protesters to demand an end to police brutality. Were these merely symbolic gestures for public consumption or the start of something greater? NPR's Eric Westervelt takes a look.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: University of Miami graduate student Oshea Johnson had attended several protests against police abuse before, but he'd never organized one - that is, until George Floyd's death at the knees of Minneapolis police. Johnson and a friend posted a protest meetup flier on Instagram thinking a few dozen people might show up. Some 300 did.

OSHEA JOHNSON: We were surprised. We were shocked.

WESTERVELT: Here's Johnson on the bullhorn, leading a recent march in Coral Gables, Fla.

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JOHNSON: If we want progress, we have to work together.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Yeah.

(CHEERING)

WESTERVELT: And when the march landed at Coral Gables City Hall, Johnson was taken aback when more than a dozen police leaders quietly knelt with protesters in solidarity.

JOHNSON: Somebody in the crowd shouted, they need to kneel, too. And then they knelt. And I - like, my eyes teared up. It was this moment of I'm with you. I feel your pain. And maybe - and even if not all the chiefs felt that way, I think it was a moment of humility, of humanity. I think that's what made it powerful.

WESTERVELT: Several Miami-Dade County police leaders have now opened up a dialogue with protesters. Johnson says they want quarterly anti-bias training and countywide civilian oversight with subpoena power. But elsewhere, veteran activists see the take a knee police gestures as emotionally manipulative and largely meaningless.

PATRISSE CULLORS: When the police take a knee, not only do I not take it seriously, it's disingenuous.

WESTERVELT: Patrisse Cullors is a Los Angeles-based activist who helped found the Black Lives Matter movement.

CULLORS: We need radical shifts. We need transformation. These things don't happen through police taking a knee at protests, and then right after they take a knee, getting up and tear-gassing us and rubber bulleting us and beating us with batons.

WESTERVELT: In a few instances, the police gestures have gone beyond taking a knee. A powerful moment of police-protester unity was when the sheriff of Genesee County, Mich., told protesters his officers aren't like those four Minneapolis cops. Chris Swanson took off his helmet. His officers put down their batons. And the sheriff addressed the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS SWANSON: I want to make this a parade, not a protest.

(CHEERING)

WESTERVELT: Swanson then asked the crowd, tell us what you need us to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Walk with us. Walk with us. Walk with us. Walk with us.

WESTERVELT: Sheriff Swanson then walked with protesters. He believes that moment, for Flint, Mich., anyway, will prove to be a breakthrough.

SWANSON: We can't just have one night and then be done and go back to where it used to be and just continue to give empty promises.

WESTERVELT: Sheriff Swanson has already met with reformers to start talking through what needs to change and how, and he's pledged to do that weekly. He hopes other departments do something similar.

SWANSON: We need to reform modern-day policing like it's never been done before. Do we need to have a national registry of police discipline? That's a great idea. Do we need to have an overall advisory committee with a community for each agency? That's a great idea. Because if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

WESTERVELT: But George Floyd's death hasn't changed anything substantial about policing yet, and whether it does will depend on whether actions move beyond the familiar cycle of aspirational reforms - better training, screening and oversight - that have too often failed to stop some cops from humiliating, abusing or killing minorities.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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