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Sometimes the most meaningful gestures are the smallest, such as kneeling at the beginning of a ball game, or sitting down in the middle of a parade. Weirdly, the calmness of that defiance often provokes the most aggressive and outsized response.

It's amazing how many of the world's most potent protests have involved stillness: sitting at a lunch counter; or being chained to a fence; or standing in front of a tank. It's a powerful lesson that is being played out even now. A handful of professional athletes refuses to stand for the U.S. national anthem, and in Toronto earlier this summer a group of Black Lives Matter protesters briefly brought to a standstill the Pride Parade, in both cases to highlight systemic racism. In both cases, the backlash proved the protesters' very point. There is smoke, and there is fire, and most of us have just ignored it for years.

On Thursday, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall knelt – or, in strange American parlance, "took a knee" – rather than stand for the anthem. He did it to protest against "social injustice," he said after the game, and he was kneeling in solidarity with his friend Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers' backup quarterback, who had set off a firestorm by refusing to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner this season. As Mr. Kaepernick told reporters, "it's not a protest against America. It's a protest against oppression and injustices and the equality that's not being given to all people."

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Like Mr. Kaepernick, Mr. Marshall was racially abused on social media, although the brainiacs of Twitter hurled much of their invective at the wrong football player, New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall. (Interestingly, Megan Rapinoe, the gay white soccer star who has also been kneeling in solidarity, has not received similar abuse, though her cowardly team officials have taken to playing the national anthem while players are still in the locker room.)

I have a feeling that not many trolls bothered to read Mr. Marshall's explanation for his actions, which he gave to football writer Robert Klemko after the game. He had been racially profiled and stopped by police multiple times when he lived in Las Vegas, he said. During a recent dinner in Miami, gunshots had gone off outside, and Mr. Marshall was wrongly identified by a woman in the restaurant. He was manhandled and handcuffed by a police officer with a drawn taser before he was let go. These things happen, unseen, all over the country, and he had the power to bring them to light.

And if you think "ah, that's just crazy old America," you might not have been following the controversies around racial profiling in Canada's largest city, or heard some of the repulsive comments made after the violent deaths of Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa or Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan. Possibly you haven't seen the video of Edmonton actor and athlete Jesse Lipscombe being pelted with racist slurs on the street while he was filming a public-service ad there. Mr. Lipscombe confronted his attacker with admirable restraint, which has led to the creation of the hashtag #makeitawkward, asking other people to call out racism when they see it.

Hell yeah, make it awkward. Make it inconvenient too. There is nothing to make people sit up and take notice, in these days of angstrom-sized attention spans, than inconveniencing them for a moment or two. Black Lives Matter was excoriated for stopping the Pride Parade in Toronto and making some demands of its organizers, although no one was hurt by the action (unless you count having to dance in place for half an hour). There was vocal disagreement about some of their demands – removing police floats in future parades, for example – but at least the issues were out in the open and being debated, instead of swept under the carpet.

When Idle No More protesters stopped Via Rail trains to draw attention to their legitimate complaints, commuters were sent into Rumpelstiltskin-like rages. What would have been better, though? Violent protest? Tearing up the tracks? No one would have listened if they had stayed at home. The conversation would not even have started. It's easier to contemplate an inedible Via Rail sandwich for three hours than it is to consider that a woman might be standing on the tracks in the freezing cold because she has had a less positive experience of this country than you.

The woman standing out in the winter wind is risking something – her time, her physical effort, the psychic energy she'll have to spend fending off the inevitable backlash. The more high-profile the protester, the higher price he or she has to pay. Mr. Marshall, Mr. Kaepernick and Ms. Rapinoe might lose lucrative sponsorship deals. They might lose the respect of their teammates and their coaches. They're certainly going to hear from every tinhorn patriot with an Internet connection.

Maybe their protests will spread and catch fire, or maybe they'll be doused by inertia. At least they have made it awkward for everyone involved. By their very presence – by their stillness – they've made it hard for anyone to sit on the sidelines and not take sides.

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