Across the Sea

I was around ten-years-old and my family was on tour to yet another boring castle or other, I thought at the time.  We had moved to London two years before and spent countless hours traveling around the UK – England, Scotland, Ireland now we’d crossed the border into Northern Ireland. At the time it didn’t mean anything to me. That would soon and forever change. We got out of the car and looked around visiting shops. It was the early 1990s and my father was a camera enthusiast. I don’t remember the model, but he had a more modern camera for our trip.

Many young fans might not know this, but we didn’t used to have cameras on phones and we didn’t even used to carry phones in our pockets! This beast above was as mobile as taking a family photo got. My father was taking a family photo and general photos of the area, this was the story of my life (still is) and not something out of the ordinary for me. I didn’t see the movement and I don’t even recall what the vehicle looked like, but I do recall the feeling of turning to see the vehicle and a mounted gun pointed at our family. It seems strange to me even now that such an enormous event, I can’t recall the imagery only the feelings.

To their credit it was a brief exchange, my Dad identified us as American tourists, showed them our passports and the diplomatic plates on our nearby vehicle. They welcomed us and the situation was diffused in short order. To my parents’ credit, they didn’t panic which is probably why the entire experience is dulled in my memory. That was the first time, the first time I discovered people that didn’t know me could hate me.

Over the next 10 years, I would learn a lot much more about my Irish heritage, the violence between Ireland and Northern Ireland (as well as England). The deeply rooted hate between the two cultures, separated by a border on one island or a short 20-mile stretch of sea separating the two islands. For hundreds of years, the English killing and deporting the Irish from their own lands. The English importing thousands of vessels loaded with food from Ireland in the 1840s, from the very worst hit cities during a famine that took 1 million Irish lives. How the Irish were leveraged as indentured servants to clear dangerous swamps filled with malaria to save their more expensive African slaves for the backbreaking work on their land. 

Last year was the 100-year memorial of the 1920 violence at Croke Park. British forces were pursuing Irish Republic Armies, as Ireland was seeking independence from England. In retaliation to IRA members killing British intelligence officers, they entered the Gaelic Football match, blocked the exits and opened fire on the crowd. They killed 14 people including children and injuring many others. The violence between these two groups ran deep and well into the 1990s. All because the Irish were born on one shore, the English on another. Hate, anger, confusion grew, but ideas for action didn’t – what could I do? What can anyone do about hate?

Jozy Altidore shared not long ago about his experience in Eredivisie and I’ve heard from so many there. Recently there was a USL incident at a Loudoun County United in Virginia, in which players heard monkey chants directed at NYRB 2 players (mentioned by Mandela Egbo). Last August Reggie Cannon was the target of racial abuse for taking a knee, in response to racial injustice. Then this at Mark McKenzie, in a USMNT game in Denver. 

As I watched Mark McKenzie share about the racial and disgusting offense he and his fellow players have endured my blood boiled. I can’t relate to what they’re going through, but I can empathize. I can hurt for my fellow man. It has been a year and a half-filled with so much hate and anger here in the US. An epicenter of anger and a cry for justice here in Louisville, with Brionne Taylor. It broke my heart for McKenzie and the other players who received abuse. In the midst of an awesome victory, to have their joy stolen to be reminded of that hate.

Mark also shared his experience on his Orange Slices, Podcast – a must-listen for all US fans:

Where does this hate come from? What can we do as fans? It’s good to see fans in the stadium taking action, an arrest was made of the person who threw a projective at Giovanni Reyna, but I’ve not seen any action from the racist chants, investigations of Mexico’s fans (led to a stoppage of play, but that was it). No arrest made in the USL game, but action. These little seeds of hope born of action and even the rise of groups like the Black Players for Change in Major League Soccer. Not only the groups rise with the help of leaders like Mark McKenzie himself, but how it has inspired black athletes internationally.

More action and being proactive is needed from #FIFA, #CONCACAF along with the leagues and stadiums around the country.  Fans need to join in being vigilant during matches, taking down numbers for activity. LouCity has a number to text if you hear or experience anything during the game. Fans need to capture offenders on camera when they are involved in racist chants or otherwise offensive dialog. It’ll take a collective, it’ll take action.

It was this quote from Reverend Desmond Tutu and his speech he shared with a crowd at James Madison University in 2007 that would inspire me one year later to sell everything that I owned and move to South Africa to be a part of positive change there in the aftermath of apartheid. There’s much work to be done all over the world and I have much room to grow myself. Even writing this article itself is me desiring to be more vocal, use my platform and take action.  

It’s not enough to be a “not racist” person we need to be anti-racist people for us to truly have meaningful progress. We must go out of our way to shame racist behavior, we can’t be silent, and tweeting that we stand with our players isn’t merely enough. What are you doing when you see or hear racist behavior? Are you prepared in advance to take action. Did you take down that number to reach out to at the beginning of the game if something were to happen? The power of brave words against it and push back in unison can often be enough to silence the public display of hate. Here’s a powerful example of fans supporting Leroy Kwadwo in a German match:

In 1998 a peace accord was struck between the IRA and Northern Ireland which finally ended in a 2005 disarmament. This didn’t happen without pain, without boldness, without the loved ones of people who had died in the violence speaking out. After hundreds of years of war, we’ve seen real progress over the last 16 years in Ireland. Is the hate gone from generations and hundreds of years of violence and death? Of course not. However, it is progress. That kind of progress is needed in soccer and in the US. This is an impossibly complex problem built over hundreds of years of anger, hate and confusion. US Soccer can lead the way in being part of the healing.

I stand with Reggie Cannon, Mark McKenzie, Mandelo Egbo, Jozy Altidore and so many other African American athletes who are already under tremendous pressure but get added hate because of the color of their skin. Let’s be better US Soccer, let’s be better US Soccer fans.

Let’s stand with those who are under attack, arm-in-arm, on one shore and across the seas.