Wave of revulsion at racist abuse of England football players

Last Sunday’s European Championship football final came down to a penalty shoot-out, which was won by Italy against England. Following the game, the three England players who missed penalties, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, suffered racist abuse on social media.

Twitter said Monday, “In the past 24 hours… we have swiftly removed over 1,000 Tweets and permanently suspended a number of accounts for violating our rules…”

The mural in Manchester dedicated to Rashford (WSWS Media)

The Guardian carried out an analysis of the scale of abuse directed at England’s black players. Across England’s three group games against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, there were “2,114 abusive tweets directed towards or naming the players and [manager Gareth] Southgate. This included 44 explicitly racist tweets, with messages using the N-word and monkey emojis directed at black players, and 58 that attacked players for their anti-racist actions, including taking the knee.”

A mural in Manchester dedicated to Rashford, who plays for Manchester United, was daubed with racist graffiti within an hour of the final game finishing.

The racist attacks immediately prompted a wave of popular revulsion, as hundreds of thousands of people sent supportive messages to the players on social media platforms.

Local residents immediately covered the graffiti daubed on the Rashford mural with bin liners. Over the next 24 hours, a large part of the wall mural was covered with hundreds of messages in support of the player.

Rashford has won the admiration of millions, above all for his activities off the football field. Many messages referred to the campaign he launched last year, in the teeth of government opposition, to demand that over a million of the UK’s poorest children be provided with free school meals over the summer holidays during the pandemic. Rashford relied on free school meals as a child. The mural includes a quotation from his mother who brought up her children holding down several jobs as a single parent: “Take pride in knowing that your struggle will play the biggest role in your purpose.”

An online petition created Monday morning demanding “Ban racists for life from all football matches in England” secured more than 300,000 signatures within eight hours. By Tuesday evening it had been endorsed by nearly one million people.

Amid official declarations by the Football Association and Prince William condemning racism, the Conservative government rushed out its own statements. This immediately backfired as one commentator after another pointed out the actual record of key government figures in cultivating racism. The main targets of public anger were Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Home Secretary Priti Patel (left) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson [Credit: Hannah McKay Pool via AP]

On Monday, Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that he hoped those who have been directing racist abuse at players “will crawl back under the rock from which you emerged.” Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was “disgusted” by the “vile” abuse, declaring on Twitter, “It has no place in our country and I back the police to hold those responsible accountable.”

Many noted that Johnson and Patel had both opposed England players taking the knee during the tournament as a mark of opposition to racism. Johnson refused to criticise those in the stadium at England’s tournament warm up games who booed players taking the knee, with a spokesman saying he was “more focused on action rather than gestures.” Patel went further in an interview on the newly founded right-wing news channel, GB TV, declaring, “I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics.” Asked whether fans had a right to boo players taking the knee, she replied, “That's a choice for them quite frankly,” before stating that protests against the police murder of George Floyd last year had had a “devastating” impact on policing.

Johnson is a man who wrote of the Commonwealth’s “regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.” As recently as 2018, flush from his success in the Brexit campaign, he sought to bolster support among the most right-wing layers in the Tory Party by referring to women in burkas as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” He wrote an article on Africa in 2002 declaring, “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,” adding, “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”

Most of Patel’s waking hours are spent on devising attacks on the rights of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

England player Tyrone Mings wrote of her, “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.”

Former England defender Gary Neville told Sky News, “The prime minister said it was OK for the population of this country to boo those players [taking the knee] who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism. It starts at the very top. I wasn’t surprised in the slightest that I woke up to those headlines [of players suffering racial abuse]; I expected it the minute the three players missed.”

Events, however, don’t just reveal hypocrisy at the highest levels of government. The public reaction to the abuse of the three players testifies to the overwhelming hostility to racism within the British population and to the Tories.

Also targeted for public anger was the right-wing media. The Sun tabloid made sure to lead off its front-page Tuesday with a full-page St George flag, with pictures of Rashford, Saka and Sancho superimposed, accompanied by a headline, “Nation Unites Against Racists: We’ve Got Your Back”.

Among the responses on Twitter were, “The Sun fuelled it. Nurtured it. The hypocrisy is stunning”; “I wouldn't use this paper to line my bins. This paper causes division with the ignorance and racism it spews on a regular basis. You're not fooling anyone with this”; and “maybe they can offer an unequivocal apology for publishing a column saying that taking the knee was ‘virtue-signalling baloney’, and a ‘grotesque woke pantomime’.”

Such an outpouring of mass sentiment is not only a latent threat to the government. It gives the lie to the claim of the various petty-bourgeois advocates of identity politics that racial divisions are more important than class divisions, and especially the assertion of a universal “white privilege”.

The scoundrel Sir Keir Starmer and his forerunner Jeremy Corbyn are both busy striking a pose of defending the England squad and making some easy political capital at Johnson’s expense. But this did not stop Labour under both leaders from working hand-in-glove with the Tories during the pandemic, while relying on the trade unions to suppress all opposition in the working class.

Events since Sunday’s match show that the Labour and trade union bureaucracy are sitting on a political and social powder-keg. The working class is more than capable of dealing a decisive blow to the most right-wing government in British history and the fascist dregs that take their cue from it. But this means breaking from these rotten organisations, and uniting all workers based on their common class interests in the fight for socialism.