Time to Get Up, Stand Up and Stop Taking the Knee

by William Lez Henry

12 July 2021
Originally published in our Old Blog.

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
Abraham Lincoln

So now we see the light; what you gonna do?
We gonna stand up for our rights.
Oh, you better Get up, stand up, in the morning get it up.
Stand up for your rights…
Get up, stand up.
Don’t give up the fight!
Bob Marley and The Wailers

The above perfectly capture my thoughts on what needs to be done, nationally at least, in the aftermath of the England football team’s loss in a penalty shootout in the 2020 European Championship, against Italy last Sunday. We need to get away from the symbolic, as witnessed in the ‘taking the knee’ as a personal choice for a few seconds before matches, not just because of the booing by large sections of the crowd (skilfully muted by the broadcasters) but because it means absolutely nothing. Any purpose it served, if in my humble opinion it ever did, has gone and the reactions to the loss speak to this reality, ‘as you cannot fool all the people all the time’. And that is what is really happening here. Our intelligence as members of the human family is being collectively insulted, on a daily basis, where we are supposed to accept symbolic gestures as exemplars of meaningful change. If ‘taking the knee’ was to have any real impact on a structural level whatsoever, the first thing that would have been pointed out to the masses, via the mainstream media and social media outlets, the government, the opposition, the Football Association (FA); any of those in positions of power, was why blacks found it necessary to do so in the first place.  

Perhaps in the USA, where Colin Rand Kaepernick, an exemplar of ‘moral courage’, knelt during the USA National Anthem in 2016, before a National Football League (NFA) game, many would have known the history of that choice. That very conscious choice, as a protest against police brutality, white supremacist thought and action in an anti-racist context is rooted back to Dr Martin Luther King Jnr and the Civil Rights movement.  Dr Martin Luther King Jnr knelt while leading a prayer on February 1, 1965, outside the Dallas County Alabama Courthouse, along with several other civil rights marchers. The march was held over the right to vote, and the prayer and kneeling occurred after the group of about 250 was arrested for parading without a permit. The point is that the decision to kneel in 1965, transcended the symbolic as the right to vote is premised on the need for structural changes in society. Kaepernick’s stance, 56 years, later was fashioned from the same revolutionary fire that is necessary to forge an equitable society premised in fundamental civil and human rights. This is what needs to be at the forefront of these discussions on the role and purpose of movements like ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM), or in conversations around critical race theory and deliberations of the pervasive and pernicious nature of white privilege; that which was created to disenfranchise and disaffect racialised ‘others’ in Europe’s New, Western World, centuries ago.

I state the above unequivocally here because there is not one person of any so-called race, gender, sexuality, age, etc. etc., that I know who was remotely surprised by the backlash and unbridled racist abuse meted out to the black players who represented ‘their country’. Not one. Not a single soul. We knew that in the build up to the match, we would experience a spate of items and features across platforms ‘celebrating’ black footballers like the much targeted and blatantly disrespected ‘boy from Brent’, Raheem Sterling; reminding the nation that these are ‘our lads’, ‘our players’. We knew the black players would be singled out and vilified and the fact that three of the penalty takers were black, just added more fuel to the fire. We knew that the England manager and other celebrities would come out in support of the black players, expressing their shock and horror that ‘our brave lads’ can be the victims of the ‘mindless idiots, the ‘vile bigots,’ blah blah. But crucially, we also said that social media outlets, the mainstream press and the current Government, who blatantly disregard their seminal role in tolerating and perpetuating this vile, racist abuse, would literally do ‘sweet FA’ about it. So, time to stop the pretence and face the reality of how systemically and institutionally racist this country is, whilst acknowledging that the required changes to foster the development of an equitable society are structural, not symbolic, as suggested in the following extract: 

Took my last name, called me Henry,
because they knew it would be easier to send me,  
to fight some battle, fi queen an country,
good ol’ England, I use the term loosely.  
When I’m in ah kit, I’m a good ol’ brit,  
when I take it off, I’m treated like shit,  
in my face you spit at every opportunity,  
and tell me to get ‘black’ to my community…
Lezlee Lyrix (1989) 

In sum:
So now we see the light; what you gonna do?
We gonna stand up for our rights!

William Lez Henry is Professor of Criminology and Sociology at University of West London.

︎ Image under CC 2.0: Not all heroes wear capes, some wear football boots.