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The power of protest in pop culture – how Trump is losing

American footballers won’t stand for the national anthem, sparking a global conversation that the president is struggling to keep control of as #BendTheKnee goes viral


The date is October 16, 1968. It’s three years since the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Johnson, two years since the Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton, and six months since the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Tommie Smith has just represented Team USA in the Mexico City Olympic Games, where he won gold in the 200 metres. But it wasn’t what he did on the track that made history; it was what he did on the podium.

The image of the Black Power Salute at the Mexico City Olympics became a part of history that is written about in history text books, taught in schools and universities, and showcased in museums. Symbolic of the Black Power movement, the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium is arguably as prominent as the photo of Huey Newton holding a gun and a spear, Angela Davis’ afro, or the famous black fist logo. Smith said he saw the gesture as a “human rights salute”, not a Black Power one.

Protesting in this way on one of the biggest stages of the world was generally remembered as bold, brave and perhaps the most political statement in the history of the Olympic Games. More subtly, Peter Norman, the white, Australian athlete who finished second in the race, was also a part of the protest in support of his fellow medallists. He wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, which was an organisation dedicated to ending racism in sport.

“At the time, people thought the Black Power salute was damaging to the spirit of the games, many thought Tommie Smith and John Carlos were breaking the spirit of unity”

But the salute was what really offended people. At the time, people thought the Black Power salute was damaging to the spirit of the games. The five Olympic rings symbolise unity of the five continents, and to many, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were breaking that unity. They were booed as they left the medal ceremony, they received death threats, the International Olympic Committee condemned them, and eventually, they were suspended from the US Olympic team.

There’s a layer of boldness in sportspeople or musicians protesting on the world stage that is easy to forget, with their actions carried out on such a huge stage. They have everything to lose. They create agency for people who aren’t interested in politics or race related issues, and they make those issues accessible to everyone watching.

Just like Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for three years after refusing to be inducted into the US Army, Colin Kaepernick was left unemployed after he chose to kneel for the national anthem during a game last September, nearly 50 years after the Black Power Salute in Mexico City. He is still unemployed.

He expressed, quite clearly, why he chose to kneel in an interview after the game in 2016.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Whether Kaepernick is being accused of playing the race card or disrespecting the national anthem, he is still undeniably forcing people to listen who don’t want to. But having the audacity to do that is seen as a problem by so many, because sport and politics shouldn’t mix, right?

“Anyone with a platform has a voice that is invaluable”

Sportsmen, sportswomen, music artists, models, or anyone with a platform has a voice that is invaluable when it comes to speaking out against inequality. Whether it’s J Cole telling people to Boycott the NFL, or Clara Amfo pulling out of the L’Oreal True Match campaign in support of Munroe Bergdorf, it’s important. Sometimes people forget how much culture plays a part in history, andwe forget how useful it is as a protest tool when it comes to forcing people to listen to problems that are sometimes very easily ignored.

American footballers are now able to tell the people who only want entertainment from sport, that it’s much more than that. Colin Kaepernick forced people to take notice – and many of these people are simply spectators would never have imagined that they’d be forced to do that while enjoying a leisurely game of American Football. Many of them Trump supporters. And who knows, maybe even some of those horrified NFL fans could be the white supremacists who were protesting in Charlottesville. That is the very beauty of #BendTheKnee, the viral hashtag that’s translating into on-field or onstage protest, a movement that’s now being supported by Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder, cultural icons outside of sport.

“People everywhere are being forced to talk about racism in the USA

The point is that many people don’t want to see politics crossing over into sport and culture, and that is exactly why we should support it. The NFL has never been as politicised as it is now – from the USA to the UK’s NFL game. People everywhere are being forced to talk about racism in the USA – i and it’s all because a few American Football players dared to kneel for the Star-Spangled Banner.

Colin Kaepernick did not have a John Carlos or Peter Norman with him when he refused to stand for the first time last September. He did it alone, and it’s taken a while for more and more players to follow suit.  

Ironically, the then-businessman-but-now-President-of-The-Land-of-the-Free put it excellently himself in 2013, when he told Obama to focus on bigger problems than the NFL – who said that if he owned the Washington Redskins, knowing the name was offensive to “a sizeable group of people,” he would “think about changing it”.

Naturally, Trump’s weigh in on the situation was triggered by the fact that Obama dared to have an opinion on the fact that Native Americans may be offended by the name ‘Redskins’:

We may never understand why Trump has the audacity to call peaceful protesters “sons of bitches”, but we do know that this is a sign of him being triggered. And all that triggering does is prove how necessary it is to keep on protesting, keep on kneeling and keep on being unapologetically vocal about injustice. Trump’s most recent tweets are weak claims that NFL ratings are down and that the boos were loudest when “the entire Dallas team kneeled”, only serving to highlight how strong people’s feelings are and the sense of unity that comes with it – an entire team is kneeling.

Without even being on a pitch, Kaepernick is winning in more ways than he probably could ever have imagined.