Oprah Says Black People Everywhere ‘Recognized That Knee’ on George Floyd’s Neck

Oprah Winfrey Town Hall (Credit: OWN)

The first part of Oprah Winfrey’s two-night town hall event OWN Spotlight: Where Do We Go From Here? premiered Tuesday on OWN and across Discovery Networks other 18 channels.

Debuting the same day as George Floyd’s funeral, Oprah and her guests took on racism, police brutality, and criminal justice reform in a raw discussion, which included candid moments with actor David Oyelowo and filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

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“Watching the life seep from George Floyd’s body caused a kind of universal shock and pain,” Winfrey said. “For black people everywhere, we recognized that knee on the neck.”

“Isn’t it very much like in the days of Jim Crow when black men would be lynched and dragged through the town as an example for other people to see, watching black men be shot on camera and nothing happens is a triggering thing? There’s this memory that we have of everything that’s gone in the past, so when this keeps occurring, it is re-traumatizing,” she added.

Perhaps one of the most profound moments was when Oyelowo, who portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, discussed coming to terms with how to talk to his son about Floyd’s murder.

“I had made the mistake of thinking that things would be different for my son. I say mistake because I had watched things progress in some ways, but then the knee on the neck is so symbolic of so much,” Oyelowo said. “It’s something that I hadn’t realized that I had internalized in a way that makes it difficult for me to function. I hadn’t realized how deep the wounds were.”

The actor admitted that he was stumped over how to make sense of the reality that Floyd wasn’t even resisting arrest.

“Those conversations are already emasculating, to basically say, ‘Forget about justice in an interaction with police. Come home alive,’” he added.

The conversation then turned to the systemic racism that not only permeates some police departments, but its existence in every part of American culture.

“It’s not a broken system. It was built this way. It was built to function exactly as it is,” DuVernay said. “I feel it’s disingenuous as a society to act as if we’re suddenly horrified when everyone has participated in this and benefited from it, not for years or decades, but centuries. Generations.”

“So much of those conversations have centered on educating Caucasian people through the trauma, walking them through what it is, making sure they feel and sustain that outrage,” she added. “My own work [is] to break out of a constant education of folks, and to really ask white folks who feel deeply about this issue to take on that labor for themselves.”

The acclaimed director cautioned against allowing perceptions of protests vs. rioting and looting in media coverage to detract from the core mission to hand.

“If your concern with the murder of black people by police can be deterred or shifted because someone is taking a pair of jeans from a Target, then you’ve got to look at how much you cared about the murder of black people by police to begin with,” DuVernay added.

“Watch yourself as you’re playing this game of respectability politics because you’re getting to a place that is really veering way off the path of what the point at hand is, which starts from a place of the murder of black people by police and really opens up to an interrogation of a whole system,” she said.

Other featured guests at the town hall included politician Stacey Abrams, journalist Charles M. Blow; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; professor and author Jennifer Eberhardt (author of “Biased”); journalist and Pulitzer prize-winning founder of the “1619 Project” Nikole Hannah-Jones; historian and author Ibram Kendi (“How to be an Anti-Racist”), Color of Change president Rashad Robinson; and Co-Chair of The Poor People’s Campaign and President of Repairers of the Breach Bishop William J. Barber II. 

You can watch the entire first episode Oprah Winfrey’s town hall here.