MARTIN SAMUEL: Taking the knee has never felt more vital

MARTIN SAMUEL: Taking the knee has never felt more vital… let them boo, let them sneer, that’s all they’ve got. After the reaction at Millwall, nobody can claim this is simply a gesture anymore

  • Fans at Millwall and Colchester were criticised for booing players taking a knee 
  • But those demanding punishment are missing the central tenet of what protest is
  • The reaction from the incident shows that the gesture is more alive than ever
  • Claims that fans were protesting against a political movement are disingenuous
  • This gesture was seen as superficial but now it’s charged with desire for change 

On August 14, 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first began sitting down during the national anthem — taking a knee came shortly after — his decision started a debate about more than racism in America.

There was also the issue of free speech. ‘I understand it,’ said Alex Boone, a former team-mate with the San Francisco 49ers. ‘At the same time, you should have some respect for people who served, especially people who lost their life to protect our freedom.’

It was a similar argument advanced during anti-war demonstrations when protesters burned the flag. That it was an insult to those who had died in service, fighting beneath the banner of the stars and stripes for freedom. Here is the comedian Bill Hicks to put that one away.

NFL star Colin Kaepernick (centre) took a knee in 2016 to start debate about more than racism

‘No one — and I repeat, no one — has ever died for a flag. See, a flag is just a piece of cloth. They may have died for freedom, which is also the freedom… to burn the f****** flag.’

And now we have travelled full circle, respecting the right to kneel, but not to react negatively to that kneeling. Those who wish Millwall to be punished, their fans banned, are missing the central tenet of protest.

It is freedom of speech. Those who booed players taking the knee at Millwall may be ignorant, misguided, wilfully distrusting, misunderstanding or, in some cases, straight-up racists. Yet without the right to dissent — no matter how much one might disagree with the dissenters — the right to protest is also dead.

Instead, thanks to the reaction at Millwall, taking the knee is more alive today than ever. It was certainly not the intention of those booing, but nobody can claim it is just a gesture now — not even Les Ferdinand. Millwall’s next home game is against Queens Park Rangers and it is interesting to note the intentions of the visiting team have changed.

Those booing Millwall players taking a knee may be ignorant but they have a right to dissent

QPR had abandoned the pre-match knee, not least because of the opinions of Ferdinand, the club’s director of football. He saw it as an empty gesture, a symbol that became a convenient stand-in for real change. He had a point.

When commentators accompany the pictures of kneeling players with an explanation that ‘football is showing there is no room for racism’ it sounds trite, given that BAME representation in senior executive positions and boardrooms across English football is virtually zero.

While taking the knee can never be a substitute for real progression — talk of Wes Morgan moving into an executive role at Leicester is more encouraging — it is undeniable the protest has fresh impetus this morning. At The Den, players from both teams will stand and defiantly link arms. That stance represents something more substantial than just a slogan now. The players stand against them. The players stand against that.

If it was a strong message before, it is so much stronger now. That is why the reaction to it was so forcibly expressed. Black Lives Matter was getting through and its opponents hated this. They hated the visibility, they hated the proliferation.

The negative response, also seen at Colchester, shows that the gesture is a powerful symbol

In politics, the phenomenon is well known. The stronger your statement, the stronger the response to it. If taking the knee had just been another tame anti-racist T-shirt, then racists wouldn’t care. And it is hard not to identify an underlying racism in what happened at Millwall, no matter how carefully packaged.

The argument that the fans at The Den — and those at Colchester, where there was also a negative response — were protesting against the Black Lives Matter movement rather than setting themselves squarely against racial equality is disingenuous.

Millwall as a club, and the players, must have suspected this was coming because on Friday the first-team squad took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement addressing the gesture and any possible reaction.

‘It is our duty as players to reinforce the positive messaging and action of clubs, community trusts, charities and governing bodies, and we do so with great pride and knowledge that so much good work is being done up and down the country.

QPR chief Les Ferdinand called it an empty gesture but it now stands for more than a slogan

‘The gesture of ‘taking the knee’ before matches provides an opportunity for us to do exactly that and continues to allow all those playing to publicly showcase their support — on behalf of the whole squad — for the fight against discrimination.

‘We wish to make clear that taking the knee, for us, is in no way representative of any agreement with political messaging or ideology. It is purely about tackling discrimination, as has been the case throughout.’

The idea, then, that Millwall’s players were supporting a Marxist pressure group or were aligned with the toppling of statues or the defacing of war memorials is not just mistaken but almost deliberately so.

Yet the club’s official supporters group indulged this fantasy.

‘We fervently believe that the motives of those behind the booing were not racist. However, at a time of heightened awareness and with the country watching, the choice of those individuals was always going to damage their club and be perceived by the media as racist.

The argument claiming fans were protesting against a political movement is disingenuous 

‘The greatest thing it highlighted is the need for clarity and understanding on both sides. Anyone who believes it was a racist act should read the views of those who booed and see they were doing it in reaction to the war memorials and statues of Churchill defaced by the BLM organisation and the extreme political views they hold, which ‘taking the knee’ is associated with.

‘These same fans have never booed the Kick It Out campaigns on our pitch or the huge work of the Millwall Community Trust and its many anti-racism campaigns.’

So far, so depressing. Quite what needs to be understood about people who knowingly choose to misunderstand is a mystery. Equally, who boos a Kick It Out initiative or the work of a Community Trust? These are unobtrusive noises in the background, far removed from a highly visible gesture like delaying kick-off to take the knee.

And if the official supporters group can recognise the booing as a show of unity and not merely old-fashioned racism, why couldn’t they also see unity against racism, not pro-Marxism, in the players’ stance? Yet the fans did not spend the entire statement in mealy-mouthed mitigations and dissembling, thankfully. 

It continued: ‘Equally, anyone who booed in the ground yesterday should read the views of Mahlon Romeo and those of the Millwall players released on Friday. They explicitly did not support any political viewpoint or organisation. Therefore the booing shows disagreement with anti-discrimination.

It will be hard to bring in sanctions for booing, particularly if supporters deny racist intent  

‘Action called for is desperately needed and the action needed was not to boo the gesture. If you are unable to create a hostile atmosphere at The Den without resorting to racist, homophobic or other discriminatory language or actions, then you should make the decision not to attend.’

Colchester have since taken the notion of self-policing a welcome stage further, with owner Robbie Cowling offering those who stand outside the club’s values their money back.

‘Maybe those who booed on Saturday might now understand what this gesture means to our club and will at the very least remain silent during future games while the players continue to take the knee before each kick-off,’ he wrote.

‘Alternatively, they should just stay away from our club because anyone that still wants to boo now I have explained the purpose and importance of taking the knee is not welcome. I will be happy to refund anyone for the remaining value of their season permit if that is the reason they feel they can no longer attend our games.’

Colchester owner Robbie Cowling’s offer to refund season tickets to those who boo players taking a knee was far more effective this week than talk of sanctions

It’s quite the thrown gauntlet. ‘Yes, I completely fail to see the point of racial equality and I’ll have my money back.’ This is a far more effective means of confronting the issue than talk of FA sanctions or video-assisted bans. 

As the FA admitted at the weekend, it will be very hard to introduce exclusions for booing, particularly if supporters deny racist intent. For leaving aside talk of political protests and reaction, there is the added nuance that some fans object to the politicisation of modern football.

They want to watch a game without being required to confront the topics of racism or homophobia or, as they see it, being told what to think.

What if a supporter claimed his booing merely reflected this view? And suppose, if disrespecting the taking of the knee became an offence worthy of banishment, 20,000 chose to do it when fans are finally allowed to return?

What if a gesture that was supposed to represent an end to discrimination and the best of us, instead became associated with the oppression of supporters and their right to a personal opinion?

Could disrespecting the taking of the knee really result in banishment if 20,000 fans do it?

And now, a short disclaimer.

Nothing in this column should be construed as the author supporting the actions of some Millwall and Colchester fans in booing the taking of the knee on Saturday. Personally, I find that stance abhorrent. 

This is a peaceful gesture highlighting the need for racial equality and a sharing of common humanity and, as such, is worthy of admiration. If you want to react, applaud it. If you feel moved to boo, however, I respect the right of an individual to free expression within boundaries, even when disagreeable or flawed. But that’s about all I respect. Understood? Now let’s move on.

So what, we do nothing? Well, yes and no. 

It feels hard to believe that football has no room for racism when, inside the grounds, it may find room for racists. Yet this is not a banana thrown, a monkey gesture or a Nazi salute, all of which are easily identifiable as racist tropes and can be nothing else. It’s booing.

Despite the obvious timing, one of the reasons Millwall as a club has been in turmoil since it happened is because staff and players have been demanding to know what is being done, while executives wonder what can be done. Yet correction may be possible, even desirable, in other ways.

It must be disheartening to be a Millwall employee, with their hard work drowning in toxicity

What chance is there now, for instance, of a black player signing for Millwall in the January transfer window, or in the summer? What about a young black prospect from the area with a choice of suitors?

Who would want to join a club where a random sample of just 2,000 fans found a sizable number lacking belief or respect for the basic principle of equality? And what if this were to continue?

Would anyone blame a black player who felt so isolated and unhappy that he handed in a transfer request, or simply walked off the pitch and refused to play?

These are freedom-related issues, too. They’re free to kneel, you’re free to boo, they are free to make career choices arising from that reaction.

To lose the talent pool that is the product of the black population in London would be a catastrophic blow for the club. To meet a dead end with a significant number of players in the transfer market equally so.

Millwall are roughly as many points from the relegation places as they are from the play-off places right now, meaning this season could go either way.

It has been largely overlooked that in the game that followed the public rift between players and supporters, Millwall became the first team to lose to Derby since October 3. Probably just a coincidence, although contemptuous disrespect is rarely advanced as a successful motivational tool.

Maybe fellow supporters will have something to say about this, if the club is harmed.

The club’s squad has few black players – only three in 25 – including right back Mahlon Romeo

Equally, Millwall’s first-team squad has few black players, only three in 25 — including right back Romeo, who has spoken with impressive eloquence since the incident, and Kenneth Zohore, who is on loan from West Bromwich Albion, so may have a decision to make next month when this expires.

Yet delve further into the age group teams and consequences could grow. There are five black players in Millwall’s 17-strong Under 23 squad and seven in the 13 at Under 18 level.

What can the club say to those players about their long-term working environment?

It must be truly disheartening to be a Millwall employee right now, with so much hard work drowning in toxicity. Heaven knows what the players think about Tuesday’s match and no doubt several courses of action have been discussed.

Yet if one positive has emerged, it is that nobody now regards taking the knee as a superficial gesture. It is charged once more with the desire for change, for action, with the need to confront racism and those who deny its existence.

In that way, in this country, the statement has never felt more vital. Let them boo, let them sneer — that’s all they’ve got and the positive message is stronger. 

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