How taking the knee began

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick popularised the gesture as a protest against police brutality and racism

Colin Kaepernick takes the knee
(Image credit: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

When an American football player began staging silent protests against racial injustice, few could have guessed that the gesture would trigger an international debate that is still raging five years later.

But “taking the knee” is back in the headlines after triggering fresh controversy that has resulted in an angry backlash against the UK government. Tory MP Steve Baker “broke cover on Tuesday to plead for his party to think again about dismissive attitudes” towards the protest gesture, reports The Guardian, and to call “for better understanding of the motives behind it”.

Standing up to injustice

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Countless people have taken the knee since NFL player Colin Kaepernick began kneeling on the sidelines at games during the US national anthem in 2016. The 49ers quarterback was protesting against police brutality and racism, following a spate of police-involved deaths of black Americans including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Kaepernick initially chose to sit on the bench during The Star-Spangled Banner, “but his quiet demonstrations were not immediately noticed”, reports The Independent.

Indeed, until 2009, “NFL players weren't typically on the field” while the anthem was blasted out, the paper continues. But between 2011 and 2014, the US Department of Defence gave the NFL “millions of dollars to promote patriotic displays, including on-field flag ceremonies and tributes to veterans”, with on-field anthem ceremonies becoming “expected pre-game rituals”.

So when Kaepernick attracted more attention by transitioning to taking a knee in protest, the backlash was fierce.

“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 explained at a press conference after beginning his protests.

“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 paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The quarterback decided to take the knee rather than sit at the advice of former NFL player Nate Boyer, an ex-special forces soldier, who suggested that kneeling would be more respectful towards veterans.

As Boyer told NPR in 2018, “people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave to pay respects. So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful.”

All the same, Kaepernick's gesture proved to be highly controversial. As more players followed his lead, then president Donald Trump called on NFL team owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who refused to stand for the anthem.

Origins in civil rights movement

“Kneeling has a long history in terms of prayer, in terms of protest, and in terms of challenging status quo arrangements,” Harry Edwards, a civil rights activist and sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Wall Street Journal last year.

“And so what happened with Kaepernick had a long history, going back over half a century, in this country.”

Similar protests were performed by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. One famous photograph shows King kneeling alongside other civil rights activists as he leads a prayer during a protest outside Dallas County, Alabama Courthouse on 1 February 1965.

“Around 250 people were arrested during the demonstration, which was part of a push to get African Americans in Selma registered to vote,” say Time magazine.

Yet while the images of King have inspired countless people worldwide, Kaepernick’s initial seated protest was intended to mirror protests by NBA basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996, “who took the same action citing US tyranny”, according to The Guardian’s Haroon Siddique.

‘Gesture politics’

Following the killing of African-American George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, taking the knee came to prominence once more during the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the globe.

Players and officials in the UK’s Premier League showed solidarity with demonstrators worldwide by taking the knee before kick-off at football matches.

But after the England team did likewise during Euro 2020, they were booed by some fans. Home Secretary Priti Patel also got the boot in by dismissing taking the knee as “gesture politics” and arguing that booing England players was a “choice” for fans to make.

Both Patel and Boris Johnson have been accused of hypocrisy, however, for subsequently condemning racist abuse targeted at black players.

England player Tyrone Mings tweeted: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

Amid mounting public criticism, former Brexit minister Baker has warned fellow Tory MPs that “this may be a decisive moment for our party”.

In a message to MPs in the Conservatives Against Racism For Equality group, Baker wrote: “Much as we can’t be associated with calls to defund the police, we urgently need to challenge our own attitude to people taking a knee. I fear we are in danger of misrepresenting our own heart for those who suffer injustice.”

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