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The cult of apology and the history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial can contribute to understanding the aftermath of contemporary events like the recent murder of George Floyd. On Monday May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed Black man, was murdered by four police officers for using a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of the police officers kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, while the others put pressure on his back. Floyd died shortly after.Evan Hill et al., “8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody,” The New York Times, May 31, 2020, . Public outrage and protests across the US have followed to demand justice for Floyd and for so many others like him, as well as to change the structural racism, injustice, and inequality so deeply embedded in the nation.Melissa Macaya et al., “George Floyd Protests Spread Nationwide,” CNN, May 30, 2020,; Derrick Bryson Taylor, “George Floyd Protests: A Timeline,” The New York Times, June 1, 2020, ; Jackie Renzetti, “A Young Girl Who Watched George Floyd Suffocate Finds Her Place in the Protest Movement,” The Guardian, May 29, 2020, .  Apologies surfaced quickly.The Associated Press, “Minnesota Governor Apologizes for Arrest of CNN Crew,” The New York Times, May 29, 2020, ; CNN, Minneapolis Police Chief on George Floyd Killing: This Was a Violation of Humanity—CNN Video, News Report (Minneapolis, 2020), .

On Sunday May 31, days after having fired the four officers involved, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo visited the site of Floyd’s killing. He spoke to the community, and according to CNN reporter Sara Sidner, kneeled in front of the makeshift memorial that local activists had built in honour of George Floyd.CNN, Minneapolis Police Chief on George Floyd Killing.

Arradondo’s gesture echoes Willy Brandt’s kneeling in Warsaw. In both these cases, kneeling becomes an act of respect, recognition, and repentance that exceeds the verbal and textual domain. Kneeling, as well as apologetic memorials, conveys something that words cannot fully grasp.

The cultish aspect of apologies emerges in this constant repetition, or what Diana Taylor would call a “repertoire” of repentance.Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). Police chief Arradondo’s kneeling occurred in the conspicuous absence of an official apology by the US president. Unlike his visit to the site of Floyd’s killing, Arradondo’s verbal apology was not planned or premeditated. Instead, it was an impromptu response to reporter Sara Sidner’s insistence that he speak to Floyd’s family, who were at that moment on air during CNN’s coverage of the event.CNN, Minneapolis Police Chief on George Floyd Killing. Although the police chief uttered the words “I’m sorry…” in the absence of an official apology, it remains unclear whether he was speaking on behalf of the police or on behalf of himself as an individual.Erving Goffman, Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2010). Without justice for Floyd, reparation for his family, and concrete steps towards police reform, what is the meaning of Arradondo’s impromptu apology? Could it be more than the repetition of a trope of empty words? In contrast, his gesture in front of the memorial is tied to a long lineage of kneeling in respect and protest, as well as a widespread understanding of the role of place in memorialisation. However, kneeling in this context becomes a dialectic, being both a sign of repentance and an instrument of violence. Thus, by kneeling in front of Floyd’s memorial, Arradondo is not only paying his respects, but he is also—as a policeman—recognising the violent law enforcement tactic that killed Floyd.

What remains to be seen is if and how Arradondo’s apology will take material form. Will there be a permanent memorial for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Ahmaud Arbery, and for so many others? Will these memorials be apologetic? Will they clearly identify the crime and the perpetrators and address the racism, injustice, and inequality that allowed these killings to happen? Will they inspire guilt and action?

This is all perhaps too much to ask of a memorial. Nevertheless, apologetic memorials are sites of political struggle for justice, representation, and recognition. In other words, these questions can be worked through space and materiality.

Valentina Rozas-Kraus 

Valentina Rozas-Kraus is a licensed architect, a post-doctoral collegiate fellow in the history of art at the University of Michigan, and the author of Ni Tan Elefante, Ni Tan Blanco (2014) and Disputar la Ciudad (2018).

Monument is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Delany Boutkan, Marten Kuijpers, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Setareh Noorani
Alex Walker