It was the decision of one England footballer, Jermain Defoe, to join his team mates in kneeling during the national anthem that spurred the rest of the international side to consider making a show of solidarity. Instead of kneeing down like African American players across the United States, Defoe bowed in the direction of the flag, so did others. The result has been an outpouring of social media commentary from people both on the left and the right. And not just because the players have raised their right hands during the performance, becoming another two fingers to the justice system. The decision has become an extension of the trans-Atlantic Battle of Civil Springs — where Brits and Americans have been at each other’s throats for centuries. This is not a controversy that divides our illustrious neighbors from “over there.”
So why does the footballing action resonate in the United States, across two countries, in 18 months of president Donald Trump’s divisive speech and record?
The very name “national anthem” doesn’t suggest that it carries special meaning to America, and it’s not like Defoe has advocated defiance or rebellion. It is just that the reason behind any protests during the anthem is a complicated one. Some say it comes down to a belief that the anthem demeans slaves. Others see it as a symbol of the U.S.’s progress, the ideals of freedom, democracy and the promise of a more equal society.
Sociologist Laurel Brown, of the University of Texas at Austin, defines protest against injustice as “a strategy for righting wrongs by playing with the power structure.” “That manifests itself in power measures,” Brown said. “Whether they’re on anti-racism issues, gay rights issues, issues of the oppression of women or issues in religious/ethnic groups — something has been wrong with a system and individuals are finding ways to change that.”
Across the pond, protests happen a lot more often — but it’s for different reasons. In 2015 the Nigerian community in Manchester pulled together to protest the treatment of indigenous people in the North. Groups staged a sit-in at a British Embassy. After that action, the Nigerian High Commissioner to the U.K. pledged support for a peaceful dialogue to resolve the issue.
“This not a personal issue,” Nigerian High Commissioner Godwin O. Ojo said at the time. “These are issues affecting a whole area of Britain. These are issues affecting other countries in the United Kingdom, where many Nigerians live and die.” The issue has not received the same treatment.
Other protests such as the Unite Against Fascism campaigns in London in April last year drew widespread media attention, but paled in comparison to the recent anthem protest, which was largely absent from the reporting of the mainstream media. Social media platforms were swift to point out the media oversight. It was a heartening reminder of the conversation taking place in those underrepresented communities, beyond the traditional prism of “the angrier whites will get.”
For her part, Brown believes some anger is in order. “Protest is a force for good and I think that people need to do more of it,” she said. “It’s not going to go away. Whether it’s by brown people in Britain, by black people in the United States or by women around the world.”