Saturday, December 22, 2012

Crowd Control and Self-Fulfilling Fears

Up  to the minute as ever, I’ve been wondering about the enquiry into the deaths at Hillsborough stadium in 1989, and the context in which it happened. To pick the enquiry and the report to bits would take a great deal of time and effort, so it’s a good thing for me that it isn’t my intention to do it. It would be both lazy and cynical to think that, just as at the time, and in the prevailing mood, it was easiest to blame the fans, now, when the public mood has changed, and everyone in a position of responsibility that day is dead or retired, it is easiest to blame the police. Lazy, cynical and possible false.

It is likely that none of those who died that day were directly responsible for the events that led to their deaths. It is not my intention to suggest otherwise. But one day it was going to happen, because of the culture in which football was played, and to a certain extent still is.

Football fans had for decades been accustomed to behaving like animals. The more they behaved like animals, the more they were treated like animals, and the more they were treated like animals, the more they behaved like animals.

I used to go to Highbury in the mid-eighties, and I saw the fans herded like wild dogs from the station to the ground, between lines of police, screaming abuse and making threatening gestures at passers-by. I saw them howling like crazed apes at opposing players, opposing fans, and each other, even when not much was happening. We ignored the lines and walked like human beings towards the gate, were greeted with a ‘good afternoon, sir’, which we returned, showed out tickets, allowed ourselves to be apologised to for having our pockets patted, and were invited to go in and enjoy the game. The police took no notice of us. Because we did not invite them to treat us as animals.

The cages that caused the deaths at Hillsborough were still there in part as a result of the brutish, sub-human thuggery of Liverpool fans at the Heysel stadium in 1985, who caused the deaths of 39 Italian fans simply because they realized that they could.

The decision to open the gate at Hillsborough was taken by the police to prevent a mob forming outside the ground, because they knew very well what a mob like that was capable of. I repeat, one day it was going to happen. In this the clubs and the league are no different from the trades’ unions and other organizations that call violent gangs out onto the streets in the knowledge that there will be trouble, and then wash their hands and pretend it’s someone else’s problem.

It should have been dealt with decades before. Grounds should have been shut, points deducted, clubs relegated even, when the fans didn’t behave. It would have meant legal battles, some clubs, the unlucky ones or those that didn’t take their responsibilities seriously, would have gone to the wall, the press and the public would have been against them, calling it an over-reaction. It would have taken courage, political and commercial courage, which is why the politicians and the FA were never going to do it.

I’m a teacher, and perhaps I see things differently from many people, but the idea of treating people as inhuman, even when that is how they see themselves, is disagreeable to me. The intention should have been to rescue the humanity of the fans, from themselves, rather than accept them at their own estimation, as wild animals. Football could have become what other sports are, entertainment, fun, rather than tribal warfare.


Vincent said...

Excellent. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. It deserves wider publication.

But then you would have to go through it carefully & do a risk analysis. The phrase "brutish, sub-human thuggery of Liverpool fans" might haunt you like the words which put the fatwa on Salman Rushdie's head. Unless you want to sacrifice your life for principles of freedom.

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CIngram said...

I wrote it a little while ago, but I considered carefully whether to publish it because it is not intended to be a condemnation of any particular group of fans (the events happened to involve Liverpool but that was only chance. The behaviour of most teams' supporters and the way they allowed themselves to be treated were very similar at the time; it could have been anyone and anywhere), and certainly not to blame any person or group for that terrible day at Hillsborough.

The piece is intended to provide a deeper perspective on the cultural background in which those events became almost inevitable.

People, in groups even more than individually, respond to the way they are treated and to the expectations of them. The way the problems in English football were handled for many years barely contained the violence, which took advantage of any lapse or hole it could explode through.

I don't expect to enter politics, or public life in any form, but even so I should probably clarify that the phrase refers very specifically to the behaviour of the fans who caused the deaths at Heysel. Like millions of people, I watched the drama unfold live. It was horrifying, and the phrase accurately describes the people responsible. I stand by it (though posiibly not to the point of death).

Oddly, I watched it happen in a students' union building so crowded that if anyone had shouted fire we would all have been crushed to death. The atmosphere was different, though. Not threatening. We were all trying to make room for each other to enjoy the game, and then, of course, no one moved, and we nsrely spoke, for a very long time, even as the game was played.

James Higham said...

Gee, you're onto that one quickly. Nothing gets past you, CI. Hope you have a nice one tomorrow.

CIngram said...

@James Higham

Sharp as a razor, me;-) Don't miss a thing. Happy Christmas to you, too..

Pearldiver said...

Interesting piece, thank you. You wrote about 'a deeper perspective on the cultural background' and this is what interests me.
Sometimes I think about different aspect - the need and space for "manly' behavior, expression of masculinity, and need for that in different cultural/social layers... The variety of expressions of this need from culture to culture shows that it is not a part of "initial Man's design", but comes from understanding of masculinity in particular ethnicity/community/social group - e.g. when proposed a method of taming horses without force and dominance some men in UK reacted like "force and dominance have always been part of horse taming by man, why we need to change it?" (BBC program). What if conviction that this is how real men behaves being a football fan is one of their basic understanding of masculinity, and any other feels 'feminine' or 'wimp' for them? and as 'real men' they can die for it? How can somebody deal with that? Sorry, English is my third language.

CIngram said...

Football certainly provides an opportunity to experience a strong tribal identity and- almost uniquely among sports- to express it in an atmosphere that seems both to encourage it and to hide it. The individual can safely do whatever he feels like. I imagine it's highly cathartic as well as giving the ego a boost. The problem is when it becomes, for whatever reason, in someone's interest to preserve this behaviour and give it cultural value.