Today
Sat 23 January 2021

With the Government minister failing to condemn Millwall football fans’ booing of players taking the knee, Adrian Goldberg argues that this was no isolated incident

Britain’s descent into a ‘rump Trumpocracy‘ continued apace at the weekend when the Government’s Environment Secretary George Eustice refused to condemn Millwall Football Club supporters who booed their own players for ‘taking the knee’ – a globally-recognised symbol of opposition to racism.

Eustice instead used an interview with Sky News to denounce Black Lives Matter as a “political movement” – a complaint frequently used by those who simply oppose its campaign for racial equality. As Eustice sided with the Millwall mob, the nation’s canines no doubt let out a collective howl, as they heard a not-so-subtle dog-whistle.

It was Donald Trump who infamously said that “you had some very fine people on both sides” after violence erupted at a white supremacist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 – and Eustice was uncomfortably close to channelling the defeated American President with his comments.

For the minister’s benefit, it is perhaps worth recalling that taking the knee was first adopted as a sign of protest against police brutality in 2016 by Colin Kapernick, an American Football quarterback who played for the San Francisco 49ers. Kapernick refused to stand during the US national anthem – a traditional pre-match NFL ritual – saying that “this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way… There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

It was a message that obviously chimed with the UK, too, where police officers don’t carry guns but black prisoners are still twice as likely to die in prison as people from any other ethnicity.

When George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis in May provoked a wave of global protest, Britain – with its shared transatlantic history – was always likely to feel the strongest tremors. In spite of Brexit’s mythological imperial nostalgia, the likes of Reni Eddo-Lodge, Afua Hirsch and David Olusoga have led us over recent years to a greater understanding of the legacy of the British Empire and the nation’s collective amnesia about our colonial past.

Thus George Floyd’s fate formed part of a long and complex narrative, which suggested that black lives really didn’t seem to matter as much as white ones – not just in the past, but in the present, too.

The ideology of racism, once used to justify the subjugation of black people overseas, has seeped into the institutions of the state – and the psychology of the nations that now practise it at home.


The Institutions of Racism

The pressure on English football to acknowledge these realities when the sport woke up from its Coronavirus-induced coma in the Summer was irresistible.

Since June, players across England’s four professional divisions have routinely taken a knee at the beginning of every match and, although it is not compulsory, most continue to do so.

The England team followed suit before its recent round of Nations League matches under the auspices of the Football Association, which roundly condemned the booing at Millwall.

Yet the FA’s own composition – and the language it uses – betrays the structural racism that the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to challenge. Nine out of 10 of the FA’s governing board members are white; none have African-Caribbean heritage.

Just last month, the FA’s Chairman, Greg Clarke, was forced to step down after making offensive remarks that stereotyped Asian employees. Giving evidence before a parliamentary committee, he referred to black players as “coloured”.

Clarke once described the issue of institutional racism in football as “fluff”, despite the astounding under-representation of black coaches in the game. Around a quarter of players in the Premier League are black or mixed race, but there are just six non-white head coaches across all four divisions of professional football.

And what of Millwall, whose players faced the ire of fans on the return of paying spectators to their ground, ‘the Den’, in London’s South Bermondsey?

The truth is that, while Millwall was once a fertile recruiting ground for the National Front, the British National Party and other far-right groups, few clubs have been more proactive in seeking to combat racism. From the late 1980s onwards, the club’s pioneering ‘Football In The Community’ scheme sought to tackle the root causes of racism in the local area – and still does.

But this isn’t an isolated issue. The fact that a significant section of Millwall supporters felt confident of jeering an anti-racism message tells you – as if you didn’t know – that this issue runs far deeper than one club.

It can be found all the way to Downing Street and its environs, where George Eustice has joined Priti Patel and Boris Johnson in a stomach-churning ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ weaponisation of right-wing rhetoric. By conflating taking the knee with Black Lives Matter as “a political movement that is different to what most of us believe in”, Eustice borrowed the language of the racists who justified the booing – whilst at the same time attempting to espouse anti-racism.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, Paul Golding – the leader of the far-right group Britain First – recorded a video outside Millwall’s ground in the aftermath of Saturday’s furore, describing Black Lives Matter as an “an anarchist, communist movement that seeks the destruction of family values”.

Eustice would be better advised to listen to Millwall’s players, who issued a statement before Saturday’s match saying 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”. Or he could listen to the club’s defender, Mahlon Romeo, whose forlorn post-match comments to the South London Press revealed how wounded he was by the booing.

“This is the first time I feel disrespected,” Romeo said. “Because you have booed and condemned a peaceful gesture which – and it needs repeating – was put in place to highlight, combat and tackle any discriminatory behaviour and racism in general… I feel really low – probably the lowest I’ve felt in my time at this club.”

There are unconfirmed reports today that Romeo has handed in a transfer request. 

George Eustice, on the other hand, is clearly bidding for promotion.


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