When I posted earlier today on the improvement of behaviour amongst England’s travelling support, I didn’t expect the Guardian to follow suit just hours later with a similar piece on the change entitled “England fans lose their reputation for violence“.
In the wake of England’s qualification for the second round, they said today that there had been no football-related arrests in South Africa at all – save for the fan who confronted David Beckham in the dressing room following the draw in Cape Town, who will appear in court again tomorrow.
“It’s absolutely unheard of. There has been nothing untoward at all. The English fans have been ambassadors for their country. We’re delighted,” said Andy Holt, the assistant chief constable in charge of a group of 12 British police officers liaising with South African colleagues.
He said the stereotype of the travelling England fan as a beer-swilling, tattooed oaf with a penchant for hurling plastic furniture had been consigned to history, with measures taken in the last 10 years to ban known hooligans and a shift in demographics boosting the number of families, women and children following the team.
What I found interesting about this piece was its focus: it mentioned a “a cultural shift around England support”, but this was solely presented as being a result of very strong action taken by the authorities in banning those identified as potential trouble-makers from travelling, quoting again Andy Holt:
“What we’re seeing is that those that pose a risk of disorder are kept at home through the imposition of football banning orders,” he added, referring to the 3,143 people banned from travelling for the duration of the tournament.
The piece doesn’t mention the self-organisation of fans to help facilitate that “cultural shift” over the past decade, one we went to some length to explain.
Instead, the banning orders are presented as the key development in sanitising England’s support, and are presented uncritically. We mentioned the banning orders uncritically in our piece, too, but in the comments, Micah raised an issue we should have addressed in the post:
Hey Tom, what do you think [of] England forcing it’s citizens to hand over passports? What is the criteria in classifying someone a hooligan in England? Does that mean the 3,000+ forced to hand over passports were actually convicted of hooligan related violent crime?
This is a very, very good question. And unfortunately, the answer is not necessarily a very happy one for defenders of civil liberties, as another Guardian piece by lawyer Rupert Myers a few weeks ago explained:
Without necessarily ever having been found to have committed a crime, you’re put on a secret list that the police keep of people who pose a “risk”. Your activities are monitored along with those of others on the list; you’re never notified that you’re on the list, or told what it means; then you come to court for something relatively minor, maybe swearing in a particular sort of public place, or pushing someone in a crowd, and your life changes.
The police apply for an order curtailing your movements, you are forced to surrender your passport at certain times, and to report to the police. The application is made on the basis of reports of you associating with other people on the list, the very fact that you have been placed on this list is itself a reason for the police to get their order, and you have to defend yourself against allegations of being complicit in the activities of others who pose a “risk” even when those people can go unnamed, and the officers who have reported incidents go unidentified in the Crown’s case against you.
You therefore cannot challenge directly the witnesses to these incidents, and the aspersion is cast without any clear criteria ever having been given as to what being a “risk” means, or warnings that you may be associating with others who are themselves a “risk”. Given this, you would hope that the test for the court in deciding if the police can have their order is a severe one, but the court “must make such an order if it is shown that the person has previously caused or contributed to any violence or disorder in the UK or elsewhere … and if it is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that a banning order would help prevent [activity-] related violence or disorder in England and Wales or elsewhere”. This is, in short, the punishment of future crime.
You might be forgiven for thinking that I describe in the above paragraph members of a fundamentalist cell, and that the [activity] mentioned above was terrorism, but this is the position that you can find yourself in if you regularly attend football matches.
Myers then goes on to cite in full a concrete, real example of the kind of justice this metes out:
This law came into sharp focus for me this week when before a court came a man who drives a bus as part of the logistical support for away game fixtures. He has been a fan of his club for three decades, and he was never found guilty of any violent crime or disorder until he was prosecuted for public disorder for pushing a member of the public and a steward, causing no injuries and resulting in a fine of several hundred pounds.
At this point the police told him that he was a “risk” fan, and brought out a large police report of all the times he has facilitated “risk” groups. This man has driven men, women, young, old – anyone who wanted to come and be a part of the away game support for his club. The police report also disclosed that he attended a pub frequented by “risk” supporters of another team, as if to suggest that anybody in the pub knows that they are on these watchlists, or that the pub is advertised as such. On another occasion a bottle is said to have been thrown from the bus by another “risk” fan, who is unnamed in the police report.
Indeed, nobody else is named in the report, so when this man has the misfortune to be on the same train platform waiting for a to go home from an away match, and an unnamed “risk” fan is alleged to have smashed a bottle on the platform, this is argued to be an act of public disorder somehow connected to this man simply because he is there.
Ironically, the very same organisation we highlighted as having been central to changing the culture around England’s travelling support through creative measures to develop a more positive and welcoming atmosphere in host cities for visiting fans through “Fan Embassies“, the Football Supporters’ Federation, has also been at the forefront of raising the alarm about the special legal treatment football supporters are given merely because they are football supporters, with their campaign, “watching football is not a crime“:
Watching football is not a crime! is part of the FSF’s ongoing drive to monitor the police in their dealings with football supporters and work with them to ensure that all fans are treated fairly, within the law and in exactly the same way as other social groups.
This has included expressions of serious concern of how the police are using powers ill-defined, and applied with broad strokes that criminalise innocent football fans, as proven in one recent case.
Essentially, I just wanted to present here an alternative account of the type of crackdown mentioned in both our earlier post and the Guardian’s piece presented uncritically, though I’d add I’ll be dropping a line to the FSF to find out more about their position on the banning orders with regard to England’s travelling support. Thanks to Micah for raising the issue in the comments.