Millwall players taking the knee on Saturday. Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

December 7, 2020   5 mins

On Saturday, the aspiring religion of the age met the masses. The two did not get on.

This year has seen a series of extraordinary events. First and foremost are the unprecedented lockdowns, which have removed from almost all our societies not just our ability to congregate, but also almost all of our social antennae. It is not just actors, comedians or public speakers who have lost that mechanism: we all have to some extent.

“Will this statement/opinion/joke go down well or badly?” is a fine judgement call. In public and relative private we all try things out and experiment all of the time. Take away all audiences beyond your immediate household and we must all subject ourselves to some other way of testing which way the wind is blowing. The only such device left is the online world, which — as should be obvious to all by now — has its own problems.

And so, during the middle of the oddest mass psychological experiment in history, came the death of George Floyd in May and the rapid escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement. A movement that attempted to push, inveigle and eventually intimidate itself into almost every walk of life inside America and beyond.

In Britain, institutions as far away from the scene of the crime as the British Library and Cambridge University seemed to think that the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of a Minnesota police officer (currently awaiting trial on a charge of murder) demanded some kind of response, lest they be accused of being insufficiently devout.

In ordinary times, people might have been able to get a sense of where other people stood on such a matter. Did users of the British Library really feel any culpability for events in Minnesota? Were things so bad in the state of race relations in America and across the western world (only the western world, naturally) that a stance was required — indeed demanded — of everyone? For a time, it seemed so. Almost every major British institution, including all its universities, issued statements about the death of a man in police custody on another continent, in a jurisdiction over which we have precisely zero control, and similar levels of influence.

‘Taking the knee’ became one of the emblems of obedience, or subservience, to the cause. Soon, even questioning the reverence of that hallowed, brand new tradition was cause to be pummelled online. And when all gatherings of more than six were banned by law, what other world mattered?

When Dominic Raab good-naturedly reflected on air that he wasn’t massively in favour of this new trend, that it seemed to come from Game of Thrones and that the only person he had ever gone on one knee for was Mrs Raab, social media rammed him hard. Had the Foreign Secretary never heard of Colin Kaepernick, they asked? How dare he suggest that a mere television show had any input into this ancient and noble custom, making light of such an important tradition.

By the summer, the ritual had spread. BBC cricket commentators would announce, as an England cricket match began, “And now both teams will take the knee”, as though this were an agreed-upon and ancient rite. It’s hard, though, to define precisely the line of causation between the actions of a policeman in Minnesota and the England cricket team.

Similarly with football, where, after the Premier League restarted in front of empty stands, the players took the knee. And then they took it again. And then they just kept on doing it — as though they weren’t sure how to stop and were worried that if they did stop, they might be accused of racism.

One felt them in the situation of the party faithful on their feet giving an ovation after a speech from Comrade Stalin. No one wants to be the first person to stop clapping after Stalin has just made his latest brilliant speech blaming systematic racism for the country’s ills and promising to eradicate it in just five years, with enough effort. You don’t want people to think you’re not 100% against systematic racism.

And it was all to do with the absence of crowds.

BLM is in Britain largely an elite faith, and one can just about imagine the stands at Lords or the Oval sitting patiently while the teams do whatever it is they feel they need to do. At a push, it is possible to imagine the crowd at a rugby match scuffing their shoes awkwardly as the teams perform whatever ablutions are needed. But a football match? No.

There seemed little likelihood that they would put up with this new performative gesture going on not just once, but months and months after the event that kicked it off. Football grounds, even after decades of gentrification and rising ticket prices, are not always genteel places. They are places where strong views are held about peoples’ failings, real or otherwise, with crowds who do not always keep their opinions to themselves.

And so, as the months dragged on and the strange new ritual seemed impossible to shrug off, the day was always going to come when the clubs reacquainted themselves with their supporters. Sure enough, on Saturday that happened, and the inevitable, predictable thing took place, at the home of one of the less genteel of football clubs: Millwall. At the start of the match between the south London side and visitors Derby County, both teams went down on one knee as is now their custom — and as they did so, many of the supporters began audibly to boo.

Since then, there has been a chorus of condemnation of Millwall supporters from every possible quarter. Derby’s interim boss, Wayne Rooney, described the booing as “disgraceful and mindless”. Millwall itself declared in a statement that it was “dismayed and saddened” by the incident, while the commentator and crisp-seller Gary Lineker lambasted those who had expressed their views by booing as “a minority”.

Soon it was a mistake not to actively condemn the booing. On Sunday, the Environment Secretary George Eustice was asked about the incident and walked into trouble by (correctly) saying that the Black Lives Matter movement itself does not reflect “what most of us believe”. Cue outrage and condemnation from those who insisted that this reply must mean that Eustice is not opposed to racism.

In fact, what happened was not just inevitable but necessary. A necessary reminder that while the presumptions of a relatively small number of political activists may have been able to intimidate vast institutions into going along with their claims and agenda, those claims and that agenda are not nearly so widely shared as they imagine. Saturday was, or should have been, a wake-up call.

The players looked genuinely shocked and surprised that the fans reacted the way they did — but they shouldn’t have been. It simply goes to show how easy it is, during this era of isolation and social distancing, to lose contact with the wider society around you.

Most people in Britain are clearly shown — in poll after poll as well as their everyday actions — to have little or no tolerance for racism. They want nothing to do with it. At the same time — and here is the nuance that the boards, corporations and celebrities miss – they feel no obligation to continue to perform any obeisance to a specific political movement. Or to continue to express remorse across the space of more than half a year for an act of violence carried out in Minnesota.

A majority feels that the BLM agenda is divisive and even dangerous, and were upset by the vandalism they saw in London over the summer, and the violence in America. Millwall supporters might have something of a reputation themselves, but on this occassion their sentiments are shared by many more — the difference is that most people just keep those views to themselves. Maybe because they’re polite. Or perhaps because they’re intimidated.

What happened on Saturday was one of the first times this year that the world of the internet and the real world collided. On the internet — social media in particular — it is possible to intimidate people into agreeing with whatever it is you would wish to make them do. Post a black box on your Instagram page or you are a racist. Say “Black Lives Matter” as though there is anyone — almost literally anyone — who says they do not.

And if you are in isolation and feel the terror that the whole world may come stampeding towards you, then it is easy for this tactic to work. But outside in the real world, it’s possible to look around and see that perhaps there are others who feel the same way as you do, and that maybe the ritual has gone on a bit too long already.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.