Euro 2020 and social resistance against racism in UK
The ongoing Tokyo Olympics is the latest sporting event where the trend of taking the knee by players has made its way in. Athletes at these Games are allowed to make a protest after the International Olympic Committee relaxed Rule 50, which previously forbade athletes to make any kind of "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." It follows the Euro 2020 where knee-taking by English footballers had stirred a political debate, but eventually won over the argument against racial injustices. These are powerful imprints of the anti-racism movement Black Lives Matter (BLM). No wonder the editors of Oxford Dictionary, in 2017, added the changed meaning of the word "woke" to be awake to sensitive social issues, such as racism, from its traditional usage as past participle of "wake". It became popular as the BLM movement started using the hashtag #StayWoke on social media. But many others, particularly the conservatives, deride the term as an insult. Thereby, it is unlikely that the ongoing debate about whether society is becoming too woke or anti-woke will be resolved anytime soon.
However, the solidarity shown in support of three English footballers who were subjected to racial abuse on social media and public sphere, after their failure in scoring from penalty shots in the Euro 2020 final, was something new. The torrent of abusive messages aimed at the trio—Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho—was horrendous. It was especially hard for the Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford as he had been already a target of some members of the right-wing forces, including the ruling Conservative Party of the UK, for his off-pitch activism that angered them.
After England's defeat in the final, Rashford's mural in Manchester was also defaced. When the news broke, hundreds of people visited the mural and paid tributes to him for his playing and social activism. Later, the city council decided to preserve all those messages saying that these tributes needed to be preserved for future generations to mark the national moment of solidarity. Politicians, irrespective of party affiliations, including those well-known for their dismissive attitude towards benefits of diversity and multiculturalism, and media outlets including those xenophobic tabloids, all in unison supported the English team. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, much criticised for his offensive comments about women, ethnic minorities and gay people and for refusing to condemn those spectators who booed footballers for taking the knee, started his day, the night after, with a tweet: "This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves." Home Secretary Priti Patel, who termed the knee-taking as "gesture politics", also expressed her disgust and promised actions against the social media onslaught.
The England manager, Gareth Southgate, said the abuse players had received was "unforgivable"—"It's just not what we stand for. We have been a beacon of light in bringing people together, in people being able to relate to the national team, and the national team stands for everybody and so that togetherness has to continue. We heal together as a team now, and we're there for them [Sancho, Rashford and Saka] and I know that 99 percent of the public will be as well," he said. English captain Harry Kane went one step farther by saying, "If you abuse anyone on social media, you're not an England fan and we don't want you."
Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram said they had removed hundreds of racist messages and suspended offending accounts. The resistance appears to be holding firmly. On July 21, Marcus Rashford tweeted saying that the right-wing magazine The Spectator was planning to run a story on him the next day about how he had benefited commercially in the last 18 months. Clearly, he had suspected that the aim of the planned article was to discredit his activism. Rashford wrote, "To clarify, I don't need to partner with brands. I partner because I want to progress the work I do off the pitch and most of any fee I would receive contributes to that. Last summer, 1.3m children had access to food support, through my relationship with Burberry children have a safe place to be after school where they will be fed, following the November investment vulnerable children have safe places to go this summer holiday, and due to my relationship with Macmillan 80,000 children now have a book to call their own."
He threw back an open question saying, "Why has there always got to be a motive? Why can't we just do the right thing?" Support for Rashford poured in from powerful politicians like the Mayor of Manchester and some leading opposition figures and celebrities. Facing the backlash, The Spectator announced it would not publish the planned article.
Then broke the story about an embarrassing trouble that the newly launched TV channel GB News had to endure. The new channel was designed mirroring Rupert Murdoch's US cable TV Fox News. The channel attracted zero viewers during some of its broadcasts during the second week of July, according to official television audience figures produced by rating agency Barb. It was due to a viewer boycott prompted by one of its presenters taking the knee in solidarity with the England football team—viewers who pledged to stop watching the channel, making accusations that it had sold out and gone "woke", or were in favour of Black Lives Matter. Earlier, the channel faced significant threats of boycott by some big brand advertisers who said they want to see its output "genuinely balanced". This stance taken by some brands, unrelated to the EURO 2020, is not that outlandish.
Businesses' reaction to BLM protests in the United States and Europe this time have been markedly different to their past silence at instances of police brutality against Black people. Since the killing of George Floyd, many global corporations and brands, especially in the US, proactively extended their support through actions like aligning their marketing campaigns with the BLM. Nike then placed an ad on social media saying: "For once, don't do it, stop pretending that's not a problem in America. Don't turn your back on racism." Other shoemakers like Adidas and Converse reposted the same ad, while Netflix tweeted, "To be silent is to be complicit".
Some British brands too started aligning them. Unilever announced, "Previously called Fair & Lovely, we changed our brand name to Glow & Lovely to embrace a more inclusive vision of beauty". However, it was nothing like the United States. Perhaps the reason can be better explained with the results of an opinion poll by Opinium carried out in November 2020, which showed that about 55 percent of people in the UK believed that BLM had increased racial tension. In the UK, the resurgence of BLM last year stoked new debates over Britain's colonial past and history of slave trade. Some leading Conservatives were very vocal against the movement and the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, urged schools not to support the "political" movement in lessons. Despite such underlying tension, the English football team's success in winning the argument about taking the knee gives hope that the tides are turning. It emerged in social media trending analysis that post-tournament anti-racism had a more than 99:1 share of the argument online. Undoubtedly, it can be termed as a glorious example of social resistance.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist. His twitter handle is @ahmedka1.