A little over a year ago, my son and I were part of the crowd of fellow fans that gathered in Trafalgar Square ahead of the Play-off Final. The call had gone out to assemble there, show our colours, sing our songs and make our presence known in capital. We celebrated our culture, our history, our irrational, tribal loyalty to one another and the club we love so dearly.
It was a good natured family occasion; there was a lot of booze involved, but the atmosphere was welcoming and fun. The kids played in the fountains and climbed the plinths. That sense of togetherness and shared goals stayed with me as much as the sense of disappointment of the result that was to follow.
And it made the scenes witnessed in London on Saturday all the more sickening.
Egged on by the incoherent ramblings of convicted fraudster Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, thousands of angry men associated with the neo-fascist Democratic Football Lads Alliance and individual “firms” of hooligans from around England and Wales descended on London, Manchester, Newcastle and other cities. Their stated goal was to “defend statues” that might be at risk from the tiny minority of anti-racist campaigners who have used graffiti to highlight the historical injustices perpetrated by the old dead white men depicted in stone and bronze. And sadly, but not unexpectedly, people purporting to be Sunderland supporters were among them.
We’ve all seen this ignorant but vocal minority within our own fanbase, particularly at away games; those who get coked-up on the bus down, spend most of the match goading the home fans rather than supporting our team, and are barely able to stand let alone fight by the end of the match.
There’s less overt racism in the stands these days - those who in the 1970s, 80s and 90s might have hurled slurs and bananas at black players, and beaten up any non-white people they chanced upon on the way home from the pub, now they’re on camera and that there’s a critical majority of us who will report incidents to stewards or through the Kick It Out app.
But we are also aware that it’s still there in the background, in certain pubs and on the concourse. It might be directed at the people keeping us safe or serving us food and drink, but racism at football matches is far from a historical phenomenon and it’s again spilling out onto the streets; it remains important is that this shameful behaviour does not go unchallenged or unpunished.
Pick a side
Despite what the propagandists of hate may claim, for the vast majority of white allies of the BLM movement like me, this isn’t about personal guilt or self-loathing. It’s about recognising our history and the way our country’s wealth has been built on the backs of slavery and empire. It about recognising that real institutional racism and interpersonal racism exists here today. It’s about recognising people’s lived experience of racism today and how that’s connected to our past.
It is relatively easy to be “colour blind” in your every day life, being nice to everyone no matter what their race or religion. It’s more difficult to show solidarity with those who suffer racism and to want to actively oppose it, call it out when we see and hear it and want to reform organisations that are institutionally racist.
It is not, as some suggest, racist to recognise and want to challenge structural racism.
So it is encouraging that football clubs and footballers are at the forefront of efforts to tackle racism head on. Black footballers are, alongside our vital front-line public service, transportation and distribution workers, a group who still regularly face racist abuse as well as the institutionalised racism within their industries.
We also know that black faces do not appear on the touchline, the boardroom, within in the ranks of the referees and among the men in suits who govern the game, in the same proportions as they are represented on the pitch or in society more generally. We’ve recently heard from former Sunderland player Kenwyne Jones that he was told by his white manager that the ‘pigs head’ incident in the Stoke City changing room wasn’t religious or racially motivated.
That’s clearly not how it felt for Kenwyne or his family.
The Premier League’s decision that players will be allowed to ‘Take a Knee’ in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement before the upcoming behind-closed-doors fixtures, and will have the slogan on their backs in place of their names, should be warmly welcomed. There is no moral equivalence between Black Lives Matter and those spouting ‘All Lives Matter’.
If being confronted with the truth about the injustices, historical and contemporary, that non-white people face in Britain today upsets a few people, then fine. Have your rant on twitter or facebook - it will be there for all of us to see.
The Limits of Toleration
Are we too tolerant of this intolerance? I believe it is our duty as democratic citizens to call out the fascists and racists within our midst, stand up to their attempt to divide our society.
I was one of the small minority of fans who stepped away from the club temporarily in protest at the appointment of self-proclaimed fascist, Paulo Di Canio, as Sunderland manager in 2013. How we could make such an appointment at a club that has long and established links with the trade union movement, perplexes me to this day. A knee-slide at St James’ Park isn’t enough to whitewash his association with the far-right ultra groups.
I found it intolerable.
It’s a wound that is still yet to fully heal - a point of bitter and impassioned debate that has the ability to prompt a cry of “keep football and politics separate” from even most left-wing Sunderland fans, who seemed then and even to to be ready to trade short-term local bragging rights for the long-term reputation of the club as a progressive institution and an employer that values equality.
It took the appointment of a principled, intelligent and compassionate man, Martin O’Neill, to restore my faith in the club’s underlying values. But the Di Canio saga represents, for me, the point in our modern history when the club lost some of its status as one of the most respected and well-liked clubs in England. It was an insult to everyone who has died fighting for freedom and equality over the last century.
Our fore-bearers fought and died alongside people from across the global of all races and religions to keep fascism and nazism at bay in the 1930s and ‘40s. Liberal, conservative, socialist, communist; our grandparents and great-grandparents came together to do this in the name of defeating a common enemy that threatened not just the existence of one country or people but of our common humanity and civilisation. Their memorials are rightly sacred to all right-thinking people in the UK, and thankfully escaped further damage in yesterday’s clashes.
This anti-fascism should be our default position as civilised, educated human beings. But a nuanced and truthful understanding of our history seems to have been lost somewhere in the current culture war being raged by wannabe demagogues as they flail wildly against the tides of history. Right-wing populists have successfully harnessed the everyday patriotism and pride in our wartime victories of working class people in the service of their regressive nationalistic agendas. The Tory government has made it a key part of their strategy to target post-industrial and coastal communities outside the metropolis, setting their interests apart from their brothers and sisters in urban centres, and football is clearly part of that strategy.
Antifascism and Football
It is our duty to fight racism and fascism physically, not just metaphorically?
There comes a time when the situation demands that strong words are back up by strong action. In September 1933, the fight was taken to Oswald Mosely’s fascist Blackshirts, who were chased out of Sunderland and beaten on the streets of Stockton as they attempted to spread their treacherous message to the economically distressed working classes of County Durham.
FC St Pauli in Germany, have anti-fascism ingrained in their supporter culture and have become a global symbol of resistance to racism within the sport. In Italy, Lazio’s fascists are opposed by AS Roma’s antifa fan groups. Some football clubs here in the UK, especially those from areas with long histories of opposition to British nationalism, such as Celtic, Wrexham and my local team Bangor 1876, also have prominent left-wing ultra groups. In shouldn’t be surprising, then, that on Saturday in Manchester, a group of up to 100 teenage antifascist Wrexham fans arrived at Piccadilly Station and immediately took the fight to the far-right “football lads” who had gathered to protest against anti-racism.
As momentarily amusing as it might be to see the confusion on the faces of fascist thugs as it dawns on them that other football fans might not side with the brave defenders of statues, this is surely not what we want the future to look like; organised groups of fans with opposing politics facing off against one another in street battles.
Violence begets violence, and these right-wing snowflakes will amplify any instance where they’re given a taste of their own medicine to create new martyrs to their bigoted cause. We should be prepared to defend ourselves, but not sink to their level.
If fighting the fascists on the streets is not the answer, what, then, is to be done about it?
If you are reading this article and it has made you angry at the fact that the reputation of football fans, the vast majority of whom are peaceful and sensible, has yet again been tarnished by the small minority of idiots who place the feelings of dead white slavers and imperialists over the lived experience of living black and minority ethnic people, we at Roker Report stand in solidarity with you.
If you see it, call it out, we will back you up.
If you’re reading this article and it’s made you think again about your own prejudices, biases and understanding of history, then welcome to the club. We all have prejudices; what’s important is to recognise and examine them, and be a better human every day. Read, listen and learn from others. Don’t take what you see on facebook as gospel. Understand that your pride in your country can be used as a tool by powerful people to block changes that would benefit us all. All human life does matter, and it is the fact that black human lives and experiences are undervalued in our society and in our game that we’re fighting to change.
If, on the other hand, this article has made you angry because it’s pricked your sense of superiority as a white English person, write me a letter, we’ll publish it with your name attached and I will respond to you directly.