Normally, I only write about fans’ banners or occasionally other activities, but these are not normal times. The brutal killing of George Floyd, an African American, by a police officer on May 25 has sparked worldwide protests and condemnation. The Liverpool squad, inspired it seems by Virgil van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum have decided to take a stand, or more accurately, take the knee. Their decision to take part in such a visible protest with the clear intent that it spread worldwide through social and other media is unusual, though not unique in the history of the club as players have frequently supported other campaigns, but generally of a more local nature such Robbie Fowler’s support for the Liverpool Dockers’ strike and, of course, the Hillsborough Justice campaign.
This form of anti-racist protest came to prominence in 2016 when US quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to adopt the stance rather than stand for the US National Anthem in protest at the ongoing cases of police brutality and as part of the broader #BlackLivesMatter campaign. Since then, ‘taking the knee’ has become popular amongst other sports-players as a way of showing solidarity and support for anti-racist campaigns.
Wijnaldum’s tweet is interesting from a linguistic point of view, not only because it doesn’t mention George Floyd specifically – he is safe to assume people will know what it refers to, an acknowledgement of the worldwide condemnation it has rightly led to – but because of its deployment of different elements.
First there is the simple statement, ‘Unity is Strength’, familiar to anyone who has taken part in any trade union activity and a familiar sight as an LFC fan banner:
Normally, I would only focus on banners and fan postings, but these are not normal times. The killing of George Floyd, another African American to die at the hands – or in this case, ironically, the knee of a police officer
The image and phrase have been retweeted by the rest of the squad, demonstrating their unity on this issue, so combined with the photograph of a circle of players (itself a symbol of unity) it speaks not only to the protest it’s now part of but also to the unity of the players themselves on this issue.
The saying is then literally underscored with the raised fist emoji, which has largely been claimed by progressive movements, made even more potent here by displaying it in five colour variations (one for each continent?) to further express solidarity across different ethnic groups. Alongside the raised fist is the globe emoji. As my colleague Philip Seargeant has pointed out in his recent book The Emoji Revolution, the globe emoji was used by alt-right groups as an anti-semitic slur playing into the ‘Jewish global conspiracy’ trope, but it has increasingly been reclaimed by the left as a symbol of solidarity. Again, its circular form ties in with the players in the centre circle and even, essentially, the shape of the raised fist. The line of emoji is completed with a red heart. No need to say anything about that!
The tweet is rounded off with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the triangle of fists (the triangle being the most solid of geometrical shapes) which links to the ongoing flow of tweets about the protests.
So, text, image, emojis, hashtags and embedded links are all deployed in a unified message to express a unified response.
Of course, as is the nature of Twitter, there have been a variety of responses to Wijnaldum’s tweet (and other players’ who have sent out the same message), mostly positive but others drawing attention to a 2011 incident involving former player Luis Suarez who racially abused Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. On that occasion Suarez’s team-mates publicly showed their support for him as seen in this response to Wijnaldum:
The optics, of course, are not good: white T-shirts, the colour of innocence, and a jubilant Suarez leaping in the air, fist raised celebrating a goal depicted in the club’s colour red. In a 2019 interview on Sky Sports, Jamie Carragher, the then vice captain, apologised to Patrice Evra for the lapse in judgement in a discussion of racism in football in general and the Suarez incident in particular that was far more charitable, nuanced and enlightening than much of the discussion on Twitter. Anyone with a stomach for the FA’s report on the incident can find extracts from The Guardian or the whole report is also available from the FA website. It is however interesting that two expert witnesses, Professor Peter Wade, a specialist in race and ethnicity in Latin America, with particular emphasis on black populations, genetics and sexuality, and Dr James Scorer, an expert on national and regional identities in Latin American cinema, including that of Uruguay, were called to give evidence on what Suarez had said (in Spanish) to Evra and whether it would be deemed racist or not. The Spanish word he used ‘negro‘ can, they said, be used both negatively and affirmatively in the South American context and, not surprisingly, Suarez claimed he fell into the latter camp whilst Evra perceived it as racist. The FA decided that in a UK context the term would more likely be both intended and received as racist. Whatever your view – and I’m with the FA on this – it does show how language can be pivotal.
There is, however, no possibility of misunderstanding the Liverpool squad’s use of both verbal and body language to send out a very clear signal: #BlackLivesMatter