I was watching West Ham at the Reebock Stadium, Bolton. It would have been 20 years ago. West Ham fans are known for their wit and you often had funny comments shouted from the West Ham end. On this day, though, there were two blokes sitting a couple of rows behind me shouting out stuff that I found far from funny. I can’t remember exactly what it was but it was racist and homophobic. They would shout these things with impunity and look around to see if others were laughing at them. I’m sorry to say that some were. However, I wasn’t. I felt immensely offended and angry. I considered going to find a steward, but decided against it. I think West Ham lost. I seem to remember seeing us lose three times at Bolton. The thing is that the game has gone, but the memory of those two idiots spouting their hateful vile, unchallenged views remains with me. There have been times when I have felt embarrassed about aspects of our club (the Icelandic banking collapse, the fact that our current owners made their money from pornography, etc), but I think this was a low for me. I wanted to distance myself from these people and everyone who laughed with them. Was I the only West Ham fan who felt like this?
I know the answer to that is no. There are many West Ham fans who, like me, would have been offended and ashamed to be associated with such racism or homophobic comments. I remember people protesting against the National Front throughout the East End, I remember being given an Anti-Nazi League sticker outside Upton Park in the 80’s and I remember listening, in wonder, to an old former docker, East Ender and West Ham fan about how he and his mates took on the fascists in Cable Street in the 1930s. Billy Bragg was hero of mine. He’s a long-time campaigner against racism and a West Ham fan. And what about great players like Clyde Best, leading the way for other black professional football players?
However, I also know that, as a club, we have been dogged by associations with the far right for many years. I also remember seeing gangs of lads shouting “Sieg Heil” on Green Street, I have heard monkey chants and seen bananas thrown on the pitch. I remember the terrible abuse that Justin Fashanu had. I also remember the anti-Spurs songs “We hate the Yids”, which I happily sang along with, at the time.
Yes. When I was young, I’d join in with the Spurs (“Yiddo!”) chants. If anyone questioned the anti-semitic nature of these (although no one would), I would have misguidedly justified it by saying that the Spurs fans sing back “We are the Yids”. I would also say that I wasn’t really suggesting that all Spurs fans were Jewish, as none of Spurs mates were. The truth is that I hadn’t really understood the full meaning of what I was doing. I hadn’t considered that I was supporting the cliche that Jewish people were distinctly different from the rest of us (and hence the old racist adage that all Jewish people are the same and that their religion is their only defining characteristic). I wouldn’t have imagined that it might have offended Jewish fans of either club, for whom the holocaust was still in living memory. And I certainly would never have thought that I would be normalising the anti-semitic language of the far right. West Ham fans still sing those songs and when they do, I cringe. I now know the stupidity and danger of anti-semitism. I know, from history, what it can lead to.
The breading ground of the far right is things like poverty, unemployment, bad housing, poor education and a sense of disempowerment. In 2012 when, in the summer of togetherness, the country cheered BAME athletes like Mo Farah and Jess Ennis at the Olympic Stadium, we were only just beginning to appreciate the implications of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the effect it would have on the world economy. In this country it heralded drastic Government spending cuts that in 2012 hadn’t yet been fully felt. Between 2010-2019 more than £30 billion in spending cuts were made to welfare, housing and social services. These cuts (and others in other western economies) affected the poorest communities the most.
Little wonder, then, that it has led to a more polarised politics and the rise of populist movements in Europe and the USA. The people most affected by the banking collapse were, really, the poorest communities and they have made their voices heard. Often it is an emotional, hurt, gut ‘voice’. Many people feel their way of life is threatened and often place that blame on the outsider (be that people from Eastern Europe, the Indian sub continent or the EU itself). It can also be said that these communities, built around Industrial hubs have been left behind by globalisation. The sense of threat has also been enhanced by the very real threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Innocent people have been murdered throughout Europe and the USA by people who are perceived to be outsiders. All this threat, dislocation and anxiety is perfect breeding ground for the nasty, hate-filled voice of the far right. Little surprise, therefore, we have heard that voice at football matches.
Much has been written and said about this issue. Guardian journalist Jacob Steinberg has highlighted much of this and, at times, it has been painful reading for West Ham fans. The Times newspaper published a manifesto that seems to me to be a step in the right direction. They called for a better representation of diverse communities throughout football (starting at the top), more consistent sanctions and a crack down on social media.
We certainly need to listen to the views of footballers from diverse communities. Raheem Sterling was lauded for showing great maturity in speaking out about racism. He, and others like Danny Rose, know what it feels like to receive hateful vitriol (I briefly received some nasty, angry tweets for daring to question the qualities of the current leader of the Labour party. It wasnt nice. I decided to avoid Twitter for a while after it). He and other BAME footballers, therefore, should be listened to. They are the experts, not us. One of my theatrical heroes (Augusto Boal) wrote a lot about using theatre to challenge oppression. His advice was that we should avoid the non-oppressed offering advice to the oppressed as it maintains, rather than challenges, the power balance / the status quo (Hegemony).
Sterling used Instagram to point out the difference between how the Mailonline reported two team mates buying properties for their parents. Whereas an article about Phil Foden talked about how he was committed to his family, the article about Tosin Adarabioyo drew attention to his lack of game time and hinted at him being paid too much. I dont suppose it should be a surprise, but The Times manifesto said nothing about press regulation.
After Sterling, along with Rose and Hudson-Odoi, was abused in Montenegro, there were calls for teams to be forced to play behind closed doors, as punishment. This would focus the minds of the football authorities in those countries (or individual football clubs), as it would cost them money. They might make a simple economic calculation that banning racist supporters or stepping up the amount of stewarding in the grounds, would cost them much less than having to play behind closed doors. However, when our options vary between carrot and stick, to only focus on punishment might further alienate local supporters. I’ve holidayed in Montenegro and know the people there are friendly. I would strongly suspect that, like me when I was at Bolton, there would have been a lot of home supporters that would have been disgusted by the behaviour of these other fans. If we punish the ‘good’ fans, as well as the ‘bad’ fans, then we risk them blaming FIFA and the English players rather then their own supporters.
So, one of the things that The Times didn’t touch focus on was supporting the silent majority. I believe that most fans hate the racists and the effect their words have on the reputation of their club. However, it is difficult to speak out. It feels disloyal to people who share the love of your team. It’s easier to turn a blind eye than to make a point of reporting someone. Therefore, this has to change. The racist fans need to know that most fans don’t want them in the ground (I include in this the Football Lads Alliance, which is just a front for the far right). We have to create a culture of zero tolerance at football grounds for racist abuse and safe ways of ordinary fans reporting abuse when they hear it.
We cant eradicate racism overnight from football grounds. Supporters come from from many backgrounds, with many views. However, we need to proactively take steps to do so. That starts at the top of the game but also on “the terraces”. I want to be able to silence the racists that sit amongst us. So I say, if you are part of the silent majority, let your voice also be heard.