Debate Editorial featured

EDITORIAL: Black Lives Matter pre-match protests – To take a knee, or not to take a knee?

Across this tournament, aside from the insane drama and oh-so-nears, there has been a constant undercurrent of a wider societal issue that has touched the whole world in one way or another: the Black Lives Matter protest of taking a knee.

Gareth Southgate sat down with his squad before the tournament and asked them whether they wished to support the symbolic gesture as a sign against racist inequality, and as a group they agreed they wanted to. Rather predictably, there were a sizable portion of fans who took it upon themselves to boo the brief protest in pre-tournament friendlies – as they had done before club matches at various grounds in England – before being drowned out by supportive sections of the crowd.

The line trotted out is that the Black Lives Matter movement has become hijacked by political activists hell-bent on cramming a message down everyone’s throats, and some won’t stand for it. Rallies have turned violent, with war memorials defaced and aggressive action taken towards critics, and there is some considerable weight behind the outrage at so brazenly vandalising symbols that represent national pride.

In the US, the founder of BLM has received millions of dollars of contributions to the cause, some of which has apparently been spent on a multi-property empire, which brings up a whole other kettle of fish. Contributions towards a cause must be spent on the appeal for which they were raised. If a highly motivated activist can raise global support at the levels of BLM, however, it stands to reason she can also be engaged enough to run business interests which could have funded her lifestyle.

It feels too superficial a stick to bash someone with, a la Daily Mail slating Raheem Sterling a few years back for deigning to buy his mother a house; how dare he use the obscene wage he was offered to look after his family? Latching onto one strand of a story to dictate the path of the whole discussion is disingenuous at best, however – and dangerously close to blinkered racism at worst.

In a typically eloquent passage to the press, Southgate explained that his team were tired of having their judgement questioned by dissenting fans who wouldn’t respect their message.

“We are all trying to support the move for equality, the move for supporting our team-mates… some of the experiences they have been through in their lives. Some people decide to boo. I think those people should put themselves in the shoes of those young players and how that must feel.

“If that was their children, if they are old enough to have children, how would they feel about their kids being in that sort of situation.

“Most important thing for our players is to know we are totally united on it, we are totally committed to supporting each other, supporting the team. We feel more than ever determined to take the knee through this tournament.

“We accept that there might be an adverse reaction and we are just going to ignore that and move forward. The players are sick of talking about the consequences of should they, shouldn’t they. They have had enough really.”

England manager Gareth Southgate ahead of the friendly against Romania in June

Clips of shaven-headed Football Alliance-esque middle-aged men recording themselves wearing England shirts while booing the anthem seem almost slapstick in their delivery, if it weren’t for the matter under discussion. “Freedom of speech” they cry, as if that is a blanket get-out-of-jail-free card to abuse the protest of others. The Venn diagram of people who boo the taking a knee protest, and people who engage in racism “banter”, is most likely just a circle; ask yourself, who is it who’s actually politicizing a protest?

Let’s look at the protest itself for a moment though. Fighting racism is unquestionably a noble moral cause, after centuries of inequality, but is taking a knee itself really the right action to be taking? Does it make a difference?

Scotland’s squad discussed their approach before the Euros and came to the conclusion that in fact they would not be doing so as a collective. Steve Clarke was every bit as well-spoken as Southgate had been in explaining their decision to “Take a Stand” against racism.

“Some individuals and groups have sought to politicise or misrepresent Scotland’s position on taking a stand against racism and discriminatory behaviour in our Uefa Euro 2020 matches. It’s incumbent on me to reiterate that we’ve done so [replaced kneeling with standing] from our first Fifa World Cup qualifiers and that it’s been done in conjunction with clubs across Scottish football including Rangers and Celtic.

“I explained in March the rationale behind the squad decision: not only is it consistent with the collective approach from Scottish football but the purpose of taking the knee, to raise awareness and help eradicate racism in football and society, has been diluted and undermined by the continuation of abuse towards players.”

Scotland manager Steve Clarke on 11 June explaining his side’s decision to not take a knee

Taking a knee has been de rigeur before Premier League matches since the start of last season in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin. The Black Lives Matter slogan was displayed on all team shirts. But what has been the effect? Has it brought about change?

Today’s social media-driven society sees symbols and hashtags as the new picket lines and placards. You have to be seen to be protesting almost as much as you ought to protest itself. It has genuinely become harder and harder to tell how deep the sincerity or cause is anymore.

Bear in mind that the Premier League launched its Kick Racism Out of Football campaign way back in 1993, just a year after the new competition changed English football forever. What impact has it had? A more popular movement comes along, and one can see why it was co-opted into the anti-racism drive. Bananas are no longer thrown on pitches, granted, but the underlying mood is still uncomfortable for many black players. 

Wilfried Zaha made headlines back in March when he became the first player to refuse to take the traditional protest knee. He had some extremely valid points; when something is driven into you as an essential obligation, by definition it loses the power it carried when one’s personal motivation was the driving cause for it. 

“There is no right or wrong decision, but for me personally I feel kneeling has just become a part of the pre-match routine and at the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse.

“The whole kneeling down… why must I kneel down for you to show that we matter? Why must I even wear Black Lives Matter on the back of my top to show you that we matter? This is all degrading stuff.

“When people constantly want to get me to do Black Lives Matter talks and racial talks and I’m like, I’m not doing it just so you can put ‘Zaha spoke for us.’ Like a tick box, basically.

Wilfried Zaha explains his decision to not take a knee in March speaking to the On The Judy podcast

He’s not alone. Nicolae Stanciu and Ionuţ Nedelcearu refused to do so before the England vs Romania friendly in Middlesbrough a week before Euro 2020 began, supposedly in protest against the 10-match ban of Sparta Prague teammate Ondrej Kudela who allegedly abused Rangers’ Glen Kamara. That was a very specific purpose, even while his teammates broke their habit of not kneeling to show solidarity with their hosts.

It’s all become a battle of tittle tattle. The protest is being used to brandish different messages from what it was designed to do in the first place. However unpalatable a decision to kneel or not may be, however, it ought to be a matter of choice – not obligation. It becomes uncomfortable when the reception edges towards a hostile unspoken demand to fall in line though, as Barney Ronay wrote in the Guardian.

“The public booing of a simple anti-racism gesture is a shameful, hurtful act. Doing so to young men, your own players, who are regularly racially abused is doubly shameful. Pretending this has something to do with “keeping politics out”, or that creeping “Marxism” is a threat to your way of life in Britain (Conservative majority: 83) is cowardly and disingenuous.”

Barney Ronay lambasts those who boo the take a knee protest

There are arguments supporting taking a knee and not doing so, both of which are absolutely valid and should always be protected by the right to protest. If it is too hard to see that point then reasonable discussion becomes impossible. Booing others for choosing one path is disrespectful, especially when they explain their reasoning without hurting or abusing others.

It should always be remembered what the whole motivation behind the movement’s message is – fighting racist inequality. Taking the knee is a start, in that it is visible and gets people thinking.

What happens after the knee has been taken is what really counts.

When I was 12, my letter to United We Stand fanzine was published, and I will never forget the euphoric thrill of seeing my words in print. Two decades later I work as the Russian Premier League website's official English-language version from my home in Tyumen, Siberia. I have had my work published by When Saturday Comes, Four Four Two, These Football Times, The Guardian, The Football Pink, Futbolgrad and Russian Football News.

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