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The 'Black Power' Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games

The 'Black Power' Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games. Photo: Public Domain

England footballers displaying solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign deserve the unequivocal support of the anti-racist movement, writes Sean Ledwith

On Sunday the England football team will take the knee before their first match of the Euros against Croatia at Wembley. In their last game before the tournament, a friendly against Romania at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough last weekend, the same gesture provoked booing from a small section of the Covid-restricted crowd of 8,000 fans. The vast majority of the fans present, it should be noted, greeted the gesture with a round of enthusiastic applause. Over the following few days, some of the most baleful figures on the political right in the UK have weighed in and backed the racist minority at the match and further called for the scrapping of the gesture by the team.

Fantasy fascism

Particularly unwelcome was the resurfacing of Nigel Farage who is never slow to seize an opportunity to grab the spotlight and spread racist filth. The greatly unmissed former leader of Ukip veered off into the realms of fantasy by claimed the England manager and his team are part of a far left plot:

"Gareth Southgate is out of touch with England fans. They have a right to boo when players take the knee for Marxist BLM. Let's keep politics out of football this summer."

Tory MP Andrew Bridgen likewise hysterically believes the entire capitalist system is somehow under threat from eleven men on a pitch: "England footballers are encouraged to take the knee. This is the image of the divisive and Marxist BLM group".

Another Tory MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, took this absurdity to another level by arguing that taking the knee is equivalent to the infamous Nazi salute given by the England team that played in front of Hitler in 1938. Any rational person would ask how on earth can the ultimate racist gesture be compared to one of social solidarity?!

Within hours Tories were falling over each other in an effort to climb aboard the dog-whistle bandwagon. Lee Anderson MP is so distressed by the sight of sportsmen displaying concern for their fellow human beings that he is planning to boycott the entire tournament: "For the first time in my life I will not be watching my beloved England team whilst they are supporting a political movement whose core principles aim to undermine our very way of life". Presumably his way of life is founded on bigotry and racism. The Times newspaper dutifully also stepped up to its role as mouthpiece of the ruling class last weekend with the argument that "taking the knee has exhausted its purpose and is now more divisive than it is helpful".

Enabler in Number Ten

Inevitably, the most high-profile Tory racist of them all felt obliged to have his two pennyworth. A Downing Street spokesperson ensured that Boris Johnson’s unsurprising disdain for taking the knee was made known:

"On taking the knee, specifically, the prime minister is more focused on action rather than gestures. We have taken action with things like the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities and that’s what he’s focused on delivering."

This is a reference to the Sewell Report from last March which bizarrely concluded that there is no institutional racism in the UK. We should not be too surprised that the politician who has called black people "piccaninnies" and accused niqab-wearing Muslim women of looking like "bank robbers" is not a supporter of overt displays of anti-racism. Even more alarmingly, Tommy Robinson, Britain’s most prominent fascist, has threatened to organise booing of the gesture throughout the tournament.

Doubling down

It should be obvious that in light of the way the racist forces in the UK are doubling down in their efforts to suppress taking the knee, the duty of the majority who want to see a more equal society is to publicly support it. No one seriously claims the gesture in itself is sufficient to eradicate the scourge of racism but its disappearance would be a major blow to the aspirations of the millions who took to the streets last year in disgust at the killing of George Floyd.  

The ruling class were terrified at the spectacle of so many embracing the cause of anti-racism as their more perceptive members understand that such a mobilisation inevitably raises questions about the whole rotten edifice of capitalism. Anyone who had suggested this time last year that the England football team would be raising their fists in an anti-racist salute before matches would have been regarded as delusional. There have few better modern examples of how rapidly the collective consciousness of society can make quantum leaps of understanding.

Bring it on

Thankfully, there have also been notable voices coming out in support of the players this week. Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker spoke for the ant-racist majority in the UK with his message: "If you boo England players for taking the knee, you’re part of the reason why players are taking the knee". Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell rightly has no time for those who try to excuse the booing bigots: "It was racism and should be called out. If supporting BLM is part of the culture war, then bring it on because you have to stand up against this new wave of racism".

The players themselves have impressively not been deterred by the right-wing backlash. Kalvin Philipps, one of numerous black players in the squad has commented:

"I don't think it's a great situation, especially for us players. The lads spoke about it afterwards and we came to the conclusion that no matter what happens around it we're still going to participate in kneeling, and I think that's a great idea."

If England actually win the tournament with their players unflinchingly taking the knee throughout, the consequences could be similar to the way the victory of the multiracial French team in the 1998 World Cup contributed significantly to the driving back of Le Pen’s fascist party.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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