Taking a Knee
By Elisa Colton, Amnesty Speaker Programme Volunteer.
Let me start by saying I'm not usually a sports fan. American sports in particular, with their intricate rules, excitable commentary and pop star performances seem a world away to me. However at the weekend I seemed to find myself glued to my phone watching NFL (National Football League) games, and it's all because many of the players are making a stand – or rather a kneel – for racial justice.
History and the present
October is Black History Month in the UK, where those who fought for racial equality are rightly celebrated, but the protests we're seeing on TV in the U.S are not from the history books. It started in 2016, when a San Francisco 49ers player, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, didn’t stand for the national anthem to be played, a tradition in American sporting events. In a press conference later he told reporters ‘ I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.... there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder'.
Fighting for Racial Justice
Kaepernick was highlighting the issue of police brutality in the U.S, and the depressingly high numbers of young black men who are killed by police officers. After a few games sitting out at the side lines Colin Kaepernick started to kneel silently, head bowed, while the anthem was played at the start of a game. He was dropped from the team, and the club, and is still unemployed. But his words and actions started a national debate about police brutality, racism, and the role of athletes in making political protests.
Kaepernick made his protest because despite his wealth, despite his sporting ability, his experience is that of a man of colour in a country where that still determines life expectancy, liberty and justice. And it’s not just in the U.S where this is true. In a just-published review the MP David Lammy found that black people are four times more likely to be in prison than white people. The incarceration rate rises to nine times more likely for those under the age of 18.
Politics and Sport
Following Colin Kaepernick’s protest last year a number of players began to follow suit. In autumn 2017 autumn the gesture came to prominence through a protest in London. On September 24th this year, at the Wembley stadium, more than 20 players and staff from the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars knelt or linked arms before their match.
Speaking at a Republican rally, Trump described those who knelt as "sons of bitches’ and said they should be sacked by the team owners. But the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell praised the players, saying Trump's comments 'demonstrate …. a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities'.
Perhaps one of the most powerful images seen was the singer Rico Lavelle who sang the national anthem at the start of the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons game. He ended his performance with his fist raised, kneeling on one knee on the stage. It echoed another iconic image of a politically charged sporting event. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze on the podium, raised their fists in the black power salute during the American national anthem. The crowd booed, and the athletes were sent home in disgrace. But it was a powerful image, and it changed 20th century history as a symbol of resistance and defiance. It made people feel uncomfortable, it forced a conversation, it gave inspiration to others, and it helped to bring about change.
The Right to Protest
Some people will always hate the idea of protesting at all and seek to preserve law and order over justice, fairness and equal rights. They disapprove of protesting full stop but they’ll never say that, they just argue that it’s just not the right time or place. And in particular they disapprove of black people protesting, or of white people talking about race. But they won’t say that because they don’t want to confront their own racism. Staying silent means supporting a current system that is unfair, unequal and discriminatory. It is always the right time to protest inequality. No black person has the choice to ignore racism. And even when polls suggest many Americans disapprove of NFL players protesting during the National anthem, it is still the right time to protest.
In the U.S there are those in power who can stop this injustice from happening. Protest is the means of seeking to disrupt power and take it back from those people, to force change from people who are unwilling to give it. Human rights are not just something to be granted for good behaviour, they are inalienable, they are part of us. Demanding rights instead of waiting to be given them is empowerment. It is claiming what rightfully belongs to every human being.
Heirs to Martin Luther King
The daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King responded to the take-a-knee protests. In a tweet she said, ‘people didn’t approve of the way my father protested injustice either: said he was causing trouble, calling him an ‘outside agitator’'.
She shared an image of her father ‘taking a knee’ at a protest in February 1965, his head bowed at a peaceful demonstration for civil rights. Bernice King went on to compare the photograph of her father and another of NFL players kneeling. ‘The real shame is that decades after the first photo racism still kills people’.
The National Anthem protests have always been about ending police brutality. They have always been about racial justice. Players are not about being unpatriotic, or disrespecting either the flag or the country’s armed forces veterans. Many veterans have indeed praised the protests, saying the very reason they fought was to protect Americans right to protest freely. For the U.S to be a country that stands for liberty and justice for all, it actually needs to make sure it really is a country that does that for all citizens.
NFL players protest because it is their right to do so, and because it is right to do so. As Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in Alabama, said ‘you must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.’
October is Black History Month in the UK.
TES has good resources to start a discussion about Black History Month and why we celebrate it. Looking at all age groups it offers resources on influential individuals and achievements in black history with detailed assembly packs.
Education City’s resources help students understand the roots and history of the civil rights movement.
Find out more about Martin Luther King here.
Show Racism the Red Card is the UK's leading anti-racism educational charity, and has support from high profile football players. They have worked with schools to create information and resources. Also good to discuss sport and racism.
The David Lammy MP review of BAME involvement in the UK criminal justice system was published in 2017.
Poems and music
In response to the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in London the spoken word poet Dean Atta wrote a poem called "I Am Nobody's Nigger," recorded it on his iPhone, posted it to SoundCloud. His website is here.
On music from the era of civil rights consider Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit – which described the lynching’s in the US, or Sam Cooke's 'A Change is Gonna Come'. For inspiration here's a list of protest songs.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.