Politicians will always jump on the bandwagon of populism when it suits them – that’s a given.
Take the ‘Clap for Carers’ every Thursday in the UK during the coronavirus pandemic. A fantastic gesture of support for workers in the medical and caring professions who were, quite literally, risking their own lives in the pursuit of saving others.
Clapping for a minute or two on your front doorstep was a show of community and togetherness, and yet politicians – ever the opportunists – couldn’t let the moment pass for some positive PR, and would film themselves clapping enthusiastically before sharing the video across their social media channels.
Was it not enough to simply take part in the clap? Of course not: in politics, you have to let everybody know that you are doing the right thing – after all, this is a career path in which many people often do the wrong thing, be it deliberate or otherwise.
All of which takes us to the Black Lives Matters protests, a horrendous but necessary reaction to yet another brutal murder of a black man at the hands of a police officer – the men and women we are supposed to trust to do the right thing.
Protesting during a viral pandemic is less than ideal, but unfortunately the death of George Floyd has brought systemic racism back onto the agenda – where it will stay until significant changes are made.
There have been police officers all over the world ‘taking a knee’ in solidarity with protestors of all races and ethnicities, and not shy of jumping on the bandwagon politicians have also been kneeling to show their support – Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, chief among them.
In fairness, Starmer may not just be an opportunist: he worked for many years as a human rights lawyer, and defended many an ‘underdog’ in his time – including Helen Steel and David Morris in the famous ‘McLibel’ case.
For Starmer, you suspect, taking a knee was a symbol, rather than an act of PR populism.
But what is ‘taking a knee’, and why is it so important.
What Is Taking a Knee?
In the USA, at major sporting events everyone at the venue is asked to stand for the national anthem. Those in attendance stand with their hand over their heart as laid out by the United States Code.
As a response to the increasing number of cases of violence against the BAME community by members of the police, Colin Kaepernick – a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers – decided to take a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner, which of course is the direct opposite of standing for the anthem.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said. “To me, 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 away with murder.”
Taking a knee became a symbol of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, who campaign for criminal justice reform – a topic that has become all-the-more relevant once more following the murder of George Floyd.
What Does Taking a Knee Mean?
Kaepernick’s original taking of the knee was designed to highlight the issues of racism in America – he knew that his symbolic act would hit home particularly hard in a country where the NFL is the most watched sporting competition.
Since his original take, other NFL stars have begun taking a knee to campaign for justice reform but also in opposition to the actions and policies of Donald Trump.
Opponents have called taking a knee unpatriotic and disrespectful to servicemen and women who gave their lives for the country – something that Kaepernick has refuted on numerous occasions.
As you can probably imagine, Trump is not a fan of the principle, and has even called on NFL owners to sack players who take a knee. “Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. He’s fired!” he said with customary cool and calm.
Who Was the First to Take a Knee?
It was Colin Kaepernick who first took the knee during the pre-season campaign for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, and that lit a fire under the NFL as many other players – more than 200 – took the knee at various points during the season.
Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s teammate at the 49ers, has said that kneeling, rather than sitting, during the anthem is a respectful gesture ‘like a flag flown at half-mast.’
The 49ers donated $1 million to a variety of community organisations that aim to tackle racial inequality to match Kaepernick’s own gesture, and many others from the world of sports and entertainment – such as Serena Williams, Steph Curry and Snoop Dogg – have also donated.
Barack Obama has backed the symbolism of taking the knee, while other sports stars including Megan Rapinoe have begun to take a knee outside of the NFL.
Since the death of George Floyd, a number of football players have taken the knee including Weston McKennie and Marcus Thuram, and Liverpool posted their own Black Lives Matters tribute by taking a knee in a team photo.
Liverpool’s squad took a knee at Anfield as a tribute to George Floyd today. pic.twitter.com/0c5qZfJn8n
— B/R Football (@brfootball) June 1, 2020