Skinny Guardian

7 December 2020, 21:54 (UTC), 1242 words. Barney Ronay.

Booing those that kneel is an act of violent disrespect, a handshake met by a punch

There is a famous, perhaps apocryphal tale about the Millwall end throwing a hand grenade on to the pitch at Griffin Park in November 1965. That story is often taken as an example of extreme Millwall hostility. In fact it was a joke (the grenade was a harmless blank).

Fast-forward more than half a century and something similar was lobbed on to the pitch at the Den in the moments before kick-off on Saturday. Except, this one isn’t a dud. And its explosive effects are far from over.

It is hard to know what to make of the news that Millwall and QPR players will now link arms before kick-off on Tuesday night at the Den “in a show of solidarity for football’s fight against racism”.

This is clearly a case of damage-limitation – and too little, too late for a club, in Millwall’s case, who knew this was coming weeks ago, failed to respond to the warning signs, and have yet to work out a way to placate both their fans and the demands of the outside world. The damage is out there, though. And it won’t be solved by a clapping circle.

It is also hard to overstate the effects of the sustained booing from the home fans before kick-off against Derby. The boos were directed at Millwall’s players for taking a knee against discrimination, and specifically racism. They were also in evidence at Colchester. Social media is awash with supportive messages purporting to speak as fans of other clubs. This is a very real point of tension.

There doesn’t seem much point at this stage in dwelling on the extraordinary lack of respect shown toward those for whom such gestures have a deep and personal meaning. Or on the inability to remain silent for five seconds if your politics preclude you from sharing the moment.

Not to mention the fact those involved must realise that booing – not ignoring, but actually pissing all over – a gesture that expresses anti-racism is by its nature a racist act.

Yes, really. Call it what it is. No need to hide behind the trumped-up connection to Black Lives Matter UK, a fringe organisation that has nothing to do with English football; and which doesn’t really exist in the everyday lives of anyone concerned, other than as a distant enemy in the culture wars.

As for the idea this was a response to having “politics” inserted into our football grounds, well, politics are everywhere. Ignore them if you like. That is one of the freedoms we have.

The Millwall players kneel before the match against Derby.
The Millwall players kneel before the match against Derby. Photograph: Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

The idea that BLM UK is simply an unignorable enemy, Marxist anarchists currently threatening our very way of life, is laughable.

Neither the Premier League nor the EFL have any formal connection to this small, fringe organisation (the EFL’s anti-racism slogan is Not Today or Any Day, a terrible slogan, but not a political one).

Plus, of course, BLM UK in no sense “owns” or defines the taking of a knee, which goes back at least as far as the civil rights movement. For many people who have experienced prejudice, taking a knee at football is a sign they are now welcome in these places, that their children can safely come, that acceptance awaits them not hostility.

To boo across the top is an act of violent disrespect totally out of kilter with the gesture itself, a handshake met with a punch to the throat. Not to mention a pretty good way of keeping the gate numbers down for the foreseeable future in a borough where 47% of people are black British or other minority ethnic group.

A statement of personal interest: I have been going to The Den, old and new, for 35 years. I can see the ground from my front door. Via these pages I helped to stop Millwall being forced out of the Den a few years back but I know also that simply writing this article will cause huge offence.

There will be fans who see it as a betrayal of the club to point out the hurt caused on Saturday. This is incorrect. It is instead an act of despairing love and a refusal to allow this version of Millwall, south-east London or modern life – tribally angry, consumed by the wider culture war – to drown out everything else.

The other side of this discourse is also incorrect: the urge to pile on, to dismiss everything and everyone here as defective human matter, a bad lot to be given up on.

There has been significant progress at Millwall and in this part of London over the past four decades. These are changes that actually matter, because this is where the rivers meet, a football club that exists in one of the few remaining ungentrified areas of inner London.

It is an attractive fiction for some to maintain South Bermondsey was always a hive of far-right activity (the National Front was chased out of Millwall in the 1970s). But we do know that racism exists in society. We know that it exists where tensions are felt most keenly.

When an institution like Millwall FC promote anti-racism, when it works to break barriers down – as the community trust has – when the people in the ground become more mixed (as they have), when black players are routinely voted player of the year (a small thing but still the case); then this is actual progress in a place where it is felt, not just a gallery of the pre-converted.

Club, fans and community trust have been proud of this progress but it has also now been beaten into tiny pieces with the bluntest of clubs.

There has been some talk already this week of internal meltdown, with disenchanted employees considering their positions and long-standing home-and-away fans who feel bereft, betrayed and humiliated.

This may now get much worse. Millwall play QPR on Tuesday night with that pin already pulled. A group of 2,000 home fans will again be present. Both teams intend to take a knee. The talk around the place is that at least one player is prepared to leave the pitch if the boos are repeated.

The Den has always been a place of naysaying, of fuck-yous, of comically cussed hostility. For all the upset caused, it is still the case that no one can or will be punished for booing. This is also one of our freedoms.

But the delusion here is that by booing the taking of a knee those present are standing up to some greater power, refusing to be told by those in charge, taking back control.

This is entirely back to front. There is nothing to be gained from disempowered people squabbling among themselves. The best fuck-you in the world is the one directed towards those with actual influence, those who do actually have the power to deny you opportunity or freedom; a fuck-you that involves punching up not down.

The club itself has the power to intervene here, to set an example and to lead. The anger that led to Saturday was a long time brewing, germinated in part, it seems, by a failure to adequately accommodate the club’s remembrance game in November.

For now south-east London holds its breath. Some still maintain this was about politics. It has been made quite clear, and from many sides, that it looks and feels like racism. An escalation will pose the question of how exactly the club can survive such contortions.