The lesson of “Celtic Fans Against Fascism”

A QPR fan writing for the 'Football Is Radical' blog reflects on the lessons of “Celtic Fans Against Fascism” and racism in football.

Football Is Radical – AUGUST 8, 2012
“The formation of TÁL and Celtic Fans Against Fascism was really the culmination of our reaction against the racism of our own supporters towards Rangers’ signing of the Black English player Mark Walters in the late 1980s.  In the first game that Walters played for Rangers at Celtic Park, many of our fans made monkey chants and threw bananas on to the trackside.  That day was one of the most depressing for the militant anti-fascists and republicans among our support…

The Irish in Scotland were themselves the victims of racism and discrimination.  Therefore, it was hypocritical, to say the least, for the second and third generation of that immigrant community to be the perpetrators of racism…

The most important aspect of all that period is that we won the political argument with the majority of fans as well as any physical confrontations with racists that resulted.  In the end, it really became “anti Celtic” to be a racist, with our fans now taking a pride in their progressive attitudes to politics and struggle.”

Excerpts from an interview with the editors of the TÁL Celtic fanzine, published in Class War in Winter 2007

This is by no means positing an answer to racism in football, but I thought the excerpt above is really interesting and useful in how we think about tackling racism as football fans and wanted to share some thoughts on it.

A really important part of this excerpt, to me, is that whilst it’s an encouraging piece about concrete anti-racist action at football in solidarity with immigrants, it also refuses to shy away from the fact that racism does exist in many football clubs – regardless of radical reputation.

When you love a football club with all the hypocrisies and split feelings that can conjure up, the first reaction is to be defensive when accusations of discrimination are levelled at a fan base.  You know that it isn’t representative of a whole fan base, but there can often (not always) be an illogical knee-jerk reaction based on loyalty.

Our club would never behave like that”.  ”It’s just a few idiots”.  ”You misheard what they were chanting.”

We’ve all heard, or maybe even made, those kind of excuses before.  As a result, it can be more convenient to ignore discrimination and save collective face rather than confront it and do something about it because of unswerving allegiance.

Reminded me of a sad time away at Millwall (I know they probably get more than their fair share of negative press so I’m not picking on them, this is just my experience) two seasons ago.  A man in the home support was openly doing monkey impressions and pointing at two black QPR fans a few rows ahead of us.  The desired victims of the abuse were livid and were held back by police and stewards as a load of us surged to the front in their defence.  One fan demanded the police do something about it – they said to “ignore it”.  From my privileged position of being a white football fan who’s never had to deal with that kind of abuse, what made it particularly fucked up to me was that the guy doing the monkey gestures was surrounded by fans who did nothing.  In front of kids, police, other fans.  He obviously felt that even completely on his own, he could behave like that in front of his own fans without any censure or retribution.  He was right, in that sense – no-one around him so much as batted an eyelid.  For the record, I have Millwall supporting friends who are all decent people who were as appalled as I was so it’s not a condemnation of the whole club and it’s support – but nonetheless, this whole incident went on with no interference from the home fans in that particular area.

Pointing out the irony of the pitch being sided with “Kick it Out” campaign boardings is a bit of a cheap shot, but it’s not surprising either.  Campaigns like this are well meaning but perhaps also foster complacency.  It’s something we can all point to and feel good about ourselves – and to some extent it is positive in that these kinds of campaigns normalise the idea of racist behaviour as abnormal, if not necessarily as unacceptable as it should be.  These campaigns rely on big gestures and the encouragement of fans to inform on others to the higher echelons of football.  Whilst this does occur sometimes, it is worthy of note that for better or worse, as a general rule, football fans do not tend to react positively to this approach.  The first thought in negative situations like this is not to run to the club or an anonymous phone line when things I do not agree with happen in the stands, and that’s the same for any other fan I’ve talked to about this kind of thing.  I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate course of action, of course it can be – but from my experience, I wouldn’t say that notifying an FA campaign or the club direct is the first port of call for most supporters.

Why that may be is a whole debate in itself and there are many factors at play, and it isn’t something I can claim to answer.  In some sense it’s perhaps the idea that your club’s supporters are fundamentally “yours”.  I.e. you can disagree with some of them, be embarassed and offended by them, but they are still your supporters.  It’s maybe a bit like being at school – your mates may do something out of order, but in most cases, you’ll keep your mouth shut, even though you know it’s the wrong thing to do.  It doesn’t mean people do not do anything about it and don’t speak out or take action (although of course, this frequently is the case) – but fans don’t tend to go through the “official channels”.

For evidence of that, you only have to look at messageboards after violence between two clubs – both may have behaved as bad as eachother, but for all the condemnation of violence, there’s always that underlying subtext – “well yeah maybe some of our fans acted up, but we weren’t as bad as those animals from X club”.  Or how players seen as bastards one week become “your bastards” to many fans when they play for you.  The same people who booed Joey Barton or Marlon King or Lee Hughes etc. can be singing their praises when their shirt design changes.  We may try and ignore it but so often, club loyalty and fear of alienation of other supporters both play a role in how we tackle any issue in football and it shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s all well and good to say “I wouldn’t stand for this” if you’re radically inclined but football stands are, by their nature, a big mix of people and opinions. We should not underestimate the fact that many fans simply want to support their team, regardless of what is being said and done around them.

All too often, people will be offended but do nothing.  For fear of retribution from the person being discriminatory, or of “making a scene”, or just wanting to ignore it and get on with watching the game.  More fundamentally though, the perpetrators of discrimination are often as much “part” of the fanbase as you or I are.  It’s convenient for us all to shrug our shoulders and say they aren’t proper fans and be blasé about it because we and our friends aren’t the ones doing it.  They are in our stands, supporting our team and are therefore our problem.  You can’t just ignore it – the hate exists whether we turn our nose up at their fan status or not.  Whilst it might make us feel better, it certainly doesn’t address the problem and in some senses it makes it worse.  For example, for a football fan in England who is white, heterosexual and male (like me), doing nothing more than asserting my (assumed) non-discriminatory status as a ‘real fan’ is simply an expression of the privilege that discrimination rarely affects ‘people like me’.  It relegates racism to something far less serious.  It makes racism an issue of offending sensibilities and ‘fan status’ rather than a serious problem that breeds hate, excludes others and all too often leads to violence and persecution.

My point with this ramble, and that excerpt from the TÁL editors above, is that fundamentally anti racist action has to come from the fans themselves.  Celebrity, liberal anti racism campaigns do achieve a level of normalisation for not accepting racism, but it sits above the fans rather than being “of” the fans.  No different to the “Respect” campaign – well-meaning as these campaigns can be, it is telling supporters what to do, rather than supporters themselves deciding what is and is not acceptable in the stands.

Celtic fans witnessed racism in their ranks and autonomously dealt with it – through dialogue with fans, through starting a fanzine to spread the word and through confronting racists en masse in and out of the stands to draw the line that racism is not acceptable.  Crucially, from within the fan base, not from UEFA, or the SFA or whatever – but from the people you share the stands with week in and week out.  

It’s an over-simplification of course, but fundamentally, a tannoy message and a celebrity telling a racist that monkey chants aren’t acceptable doesn’t make them sit down – it’s too external.  As well intentioned as “Kick it Out” is, it ignores the relationship with the fans – it’s being expressed by the same people who fuck with our kick off times, who allow sky high ticket prices, who instruct stewards to kick people out for standing and so on – the super structure of football.  You cannot safely predict that people who are reticent, angry or ambivalent about an FA mouthpiece most of the time to sit up and take notice of the same mouthpiece when it talks sense now and again.  Legitimate or otherwise, I know from myself that football supporters are not always the most logical – risking relationships and your job to lose your voice as you watch your team lose in the rain in Hartlepool is par for the course.  It’s not to say that fans don’t necessarily care – but an important campaign can be lost in a sea of complacency and routine.  Playing the same old recorded message about abuse from the stands can just fall into the same sonic landscape of a bad tannoy system telling you not to stand or that the match ball is sponsored by a local car showroom.  It gets lost in routine and people become detached from the message.  Anti racism ceases to be about active dissent – it falls helplessly into the audio and visual spectacle of detached fan compliance.

Fundamentally, whilst campaigns like Kick it Out could be better (perhaps with UEFA actually taking racism seriously, for starters), there is not much above that that they can do.  But a majority of fans drowning out such abuse, confronting it in numbers and winning the political argument from within the stands – that tends to be a different story.

We can’t be complacent and rely on liberal campaigns, the only way to really tackle racism is for fans themselves to take responsibility for what goes on in our stands.  When people hear something at the ground that offends them and feel too nervous to speak out (confrontations at the best of times can be very intimidating, and no less so at the football), all too often nothing but an awkward silence follows.  People may not realise that they are potentially surrounded by dozens of other people in earshot who feel just as offended – but just as intimidated.  But how would they know if we don’t talk about it?  That’s why, even if you don’t think your club has a problem, that talking about discrimination with your friends in the stands, on the messageboards, in the pub and so on, is so important.  When and if something like this happens, you can know that it’s not just you – but that other supporters feel just the same way and that can make the difference between keeping your mouth shut or standing up and doing something about it.  And that’s not just at your club – people may be over-zealous about the idea of “fan community”, but actions and words spread.  If you and your friends make a stand at one game, it can inspire other clubs to do it too.  Share your experiences online or pre/post match with fans of other clubs – you’ll be surprised just how many people are interested but felt too isolated and/or needed the inspiration to do something.

Drown it out with other chants, confront the perpetrator, boo – anything to make sure that the person realises that they are disgusting and offending their own fans.  People they may see every week and love the club just as much.  It’s a first step.  So don’t assume that everything’s ok – get talking and discussing!  Create a fanzine! Make a banner with your friends!  And that means, me, you and anyone else who enjoys going to the football – because we are all responsible for our game.

First Published: August 8th 2012

The Lesson of Celtic Fans Against Fascism