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D.C. Police Officer On Why He Took A Knee With Protesters

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Some of the more surprising moments that have taken place amidst these national protests have been police officers joining in with protesters. To some, it looks like a sign of solidarity. To others, it's nothing more than a PR stunt intended to draw attention away from the ugly reality of police brutality.

Washington, D.C., police officer Carlton Wilhoit recently took a knee with protesters while on duty. The photo of him kneeling and reaching out to shake a woman's hand went viral. We wanted to understand what was behind that image, so we reached out to officer Wilhoit, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

CARLTON WILHOIT: Good day to everyone.

MCCAMMON: So what led up to the photo that many of us have seen of you kneeling and shaking the hand of a protester? What made you decide to kneel?

WILHOIT: That day, I went to work as usual, and I actually volunteered to go downtown. I was kind of nervous, and I was filled with anxiety because I didn't know we would actually go down being downtown, especially wearing a uniform, due to what happened to George Floyd. So my co-workers and I were downtown, and we were kind of just, like, sitting. And we had some protesters approach us to ask us questions. So it was this super-informative dialogue between not only myself and the protesters but also my co-workers.

And after that, it was another wave of protesters, and they wanted to know how we felt, and where did we stand amidst everything that was going on. So they was, like, would you kneel with us? If you can feel what we're feeling, kneel with us. And thought about it. And I'm, like, you know what? I was already feeling the anxiety about what was going on, but at the same time, I'm definitely for this cause, especially being a black man. And I've actually been through, like, police brutality.

So I already knew this was something I was going to do once they asked. And it wasn't for a PR stunt. It wasn't for - to, like, appease anyone. It was just something I knew I had to do.

MCCAMMON: It's interesting that you say you've as a black man experienced police brutality yourself.

WILHOIT: Yes, ma'am. When I was, like, 22 years old, my sister and I and our friend were leaving Howard University, and we were going to my grandparents' house, who live in Oxon Hill, Md. And right before I can turn into my grandfather's driveway, I was pulled over by the police. So the officer asked for my license and registration. I'm, like, here you go, sir. And I then asked him, like, hey, so why did you pull me over? I'm curious. And he was simply short, really rude.

And then I kept questioning him, and he was agitated about it. And then he was, like, don't get smart with me and things like that. And I'm, like, trust me, I didn't get smart with you yet. And that's when he told me to step out of the car. But he still did not explain why he pulled me over. So next thing you know, the door is open, I'm getting pulled out. I was pepper sprayed. I was punched. And it was just a complete mess. So when I was asked to join MPD by my uncle...

MCCAMMON: Metropolitan Police Department.

WILHOIT: Yes, ma'am. I kind of looked at him sideways because I'm, like, absolutely not, especially what I just went through. But then I actually thought about it. And I'm, like, this would be very transformative if I actually joined this department and made sure that the same thing that happened to me wouldn't happen to anyone else.

MCCAMMON: Many activists have said they don't want officers kneeling or marching with them. They say it provides a feel-good moment that encourages people to ignore the larger reality of what's going on. In other words, police officers kneeling harms the cause of addressing police brutality, they say. How do you respond to that?

WILHOIT: From my perspective, I feel like I understand where they're going with it. But it also - that's a part of the problem. We're looking for reform. We're looking for transformation. If we can't come to a median, and if we can't cooperate and come together, then what are we fighting for?

And don't get me wrong. I've seen some videos where some officers were kneeling, and it kind of made me cringe because of the statements they say before - like, hey, if I kneel, do you promise to peacefully protest and things like that. I'm like, OK. That takes away from the message, too.

But at the end of the day, don't take away from those protesters who demanded that connection with that officer because they probably never felt that connection. They never probably had a surface-level conversation with an officer prior to that. So when they kneel together, it's something to form solidarity. So when people say that, I'm, like, I understand where you're coming from, but don't take away from the cause because you personally can't understand what's going on.

MCCAMMON: That's Carlton Wilhoit. He's been a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., since 2015.

Thanks so much, officer Wilhoit.

WILHOIT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PDP'S "BLUE SECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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