On 5 June, Donald Trump tweeted that it was disrespectful to the American flag for National Football League (NFL) players to kneel during the national anthem. The NFL offered a robust response. Its commissioner, Roger Goodell, said the league supported peaceful protest by its players.
In an 81-second video released by the NFL, Goodell admitted the league had been wrong to ignore players who spoke out against police brutality.
It was a remarkable statement, for several reasons both domestic and international. Goodell is the voice of a league with seven owners who donated at least $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. The NFL, more than any other major US sports league, has wrestled in recent years with the issue of race. An overwhelming majority of NFL players are African-American but nearly every team-owner is white.
Now, the NFL’s new support for peaceful protest by its players makes it okay to “take a knee”, the respectful and grieving gesture first adopted by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016. For Kaepernick, a biracial man, it was a call to end racial injustice and police brutality toward people of colour. There was a backlash, spurred largely by Trump, who cast Kaepernick and other kneeling, predominantly African-American sportsmen as unpatriotic.
But now that the NFL has come out in support of taking a knee, this American sports league is riding a cultural movement that is spreading around the world.
Taking a knee, a phrase that seemed strange and grammatically awkward four years ago, has become a powerful — and more importantly, peaceful — symbol of resistance against injustice.
Across the United States, protestors are taking a knee. At a march in Minneapolis. In Washington, DC. In Portland, Oregon, police knelt before demonstrators. In New York, a police commander knelt alongside them. So too in Fort Worth, Texas; Santa Cruz, California; Des Moines, Iowa; Coral Gables, Florida; Wilmington, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky and elsewhere. In Los Angeles, the mayor knelt with protesters. In Delaware, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, took a knee when he visited a black church.
The world is taking a knee as well, in sorrow and solidarity. Earlier this week, a London march that chanted “black lives matter” knelt in rebuke to systemic injustice. On Friday, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau took a knee alongside anti-racism protesters in Ottawa. On Thursday, an Australian football club knelt a knee to put a spotlight on racial injustice in their country.
What’s happening is obvious. In the midst of its greatest shame — racism — and searing pain, America is once again leading the world. Taking a knee, an act of defiance and resistance, updates nonviolent protest gestures for a multimedia age. It is better than the clenched fist salute, which could suggest aggression. And it is less seemingly passive (and more immediate) than a hunger strike.
Thus far, the techniques of nonviolent protest are mostly the ones used by Mahatma Gandhi from a century ago. They were later deployed by Martin Luther King, the American black civil rights leader of the 1960s.
The Mahatma, who led the Indian independence movement against British colonial rule, called for peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, picketing, vigils, fasting, hunger strikes and civil disobedience. He called it “satyagraha”, a Hindi word that means the force of truth.
Gandhian methods were powerful, after all they triggered the end of the mighty British empire. But it could be argued that the world needed a new visual to symbolise peaceful and powerful protest. According to Chad Williams, professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, “Kneeling is both an act of defiance and resistance, but also of reverence, of mourning, but also honoring lives lost”. He adds, “It is also simple and clear. Its simplicity gave it symbolic power, and as we see now, its power persists”.
Nearly a hundred years ago, Gandhi wrote that “the essence of non-violent technique is that it seeks to liquidate antagonisms but not the antagonists”.
Taking a knee to protest local or international injustice is a powerful revival of the Gandhian spirit.