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White Lives Matter banners 'take racism to a new level'

June 23, 2020

Football’s return to European stadiums has been a source of joy, but a spate of anti-Black Lives Matter protests has sullied the comeback. A high-profile incident in the Premier League was one of many.

The White Lives Matter banner flies over the Etihad Stadium
Image: picture-alliance/empics/S. Botterill

Monkey chants, a Confederate flag, "White Lives Matter" banners and even a call for the release of the policeman charged with the death of George Floyd have all been seen at football grounds in Europe over the past month.

The latest "White Lives Matter" banner, flown over Manchester City's stadium on Monday evening during a Premier League match against Burnley, has received worldwide attention.

The spread of such a message is a cause of concern for anti-racism campaigners and researchers, who say racism in football has "been taken to a new level" and the sport is being used "as a tool to propagate." 

Pavel Klymenko, head of policy at anti-discrimination network Fare, told DW that the Black Lives Matter message is being, sometimes wilfully, misunderstood as being as dismissive of white lives when, in fact, it is an attempt to address perceived systemic inequality and racism.

He believes football is being used to lead a racist backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.

"We will be seeing this more often, " Klymenko said. "It's easy to dismiss these types of incidents as extremist, but when it reaches the English Premier League it shows how it's spread. Part of the problem is that we have to admit this is wider than football. Football just provides the platform to propagate these ideas. "

A new dimension to racism

The Burnley fan who organized for the banner to be flown over the Etihad Stadium has refused to apologize, yet his own club condemned his actions. Players had taken a knee in support of Black Lives Matter just moments before the flyover.

Captain Ben Mee said the players were "ashamed and embarrassed".

"We are embarrassed that our name was in it, that they tried to attach it to our club - it doesn't belong anywhere near our club," he said post-match.

Christos Kassimeris, a professor at the European University of Cyprus who has published books on racism in football, said the backlash against Black Lives Matter has given racism in football a new dimension.

"These incidents are no longer about targeting any coloured footballer," he said.

"It's now targeting a whole movement. The traditional approach to racism in football has been taken to a new level."

Incidents spreading

'White/All Lives Matter' banners associated with football fan groups have now been seen in The Czech Republic, Ukraine, Hungary, the Netherlands, as well as the United Kingdom.

Fans of second divison Czech side Zbrojovka Brno added a Confederate flag to their "Ultras Lives Matter" banner, while in Ukraine, second-tier FC Minaj fans went one step further when they revealed a "Free Derek Chauvin" message.

Chauvin is the police officer charged with second-degree murder over the death of George Floyd.

Racist abuse has also been hurled at black players in Russia and The Czech Republic, including Viktoria Plzen's Jean-David Beauguel.

The latest incident saw Sparta Prague fans direct monkey chants towards another black Viktoria Plzen player Joel Ngandu Kayamba, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sparta ultras later released a statement condemning their own club's involvement in the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Far-right backlash

For Klymenko and Fare, the Black Lives Matter movement has been "fundamentally misunderstood".

"The far-right are propagating the message and now it's being taken up in wider sections of society," he said.

"Some know exactly what they're doing, others are ignorant. Black Lives Matter has been presented as black people demanding more rights and dismissing white lives, but it's a reflection of hundreds of years of inequality and racism and calling for that to be reversed.

"We have to be prepared for the backlash that is coming."

Kassimeris echoed Klymenko's belief that the incidents in football were a "reflection of society" and said European politics was giving people courage.

"Political leaders play a role - such as when [British prime minister] Boris Johnson calls women wearing burkas 'letterboxes' or [Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orban gives his overall view of migrants.

"It justifies these actions [in their eyes]."

What's next?

The way forward is a little murky. The Czech FA only handed Sigma Olomouc a €4500 ($5000) fine for the "racist behavior" of their fans against Beauguel.

Uefa themselves have appeared reluctant to hand down tough sanctions in the past and Kassimeris called their three-step protocol for tackling racist abuse "nonsense."

Klymenko said football "has a responsibility" to lead the way.

"It's important for clubs to confront their fans, work with their fans. It has to be clear that there will a consequence for spreading hate," he said.

European football took on the challenge of eradicating hooliganism prevalent from the 1970s into the 1990s, with largely positive outcomes. Racism was the next target.

Kassimeris says we're still waiting to see results in the fight against racism.

"That was 25 years ago and I haven't seen a difference. The same incidents we saw in the 1990s we still see today."

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor