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These colours don't run
Commentators and journalists have lined up to heap condemnation on the kind of violence and mayhem which most people involved in football had allowed themselves to believe was a thing of the past. Others have pointed to the history of violence between the supporters of both clubs in question, doing so in support of the view that it was a certainty there was going to be trouble and that accordingly the police and the clubs should have been better prepared for the chaos that ensued.
Sadly, though predictably, there’s been a distinct lack of any analysis which comes close to trying to explain the impulse behind the kind of scenes witnessed the other night, the motivation of those involved, and how both are a result of social factors and not merely the actions of a few ‘mindless yobs’ hell bent on trouble.
The simple fact is that young men get involved in football or gang violence because it feels good. The sense of power, excitement, invincibility, and togetherness when so many come together in common cause, whatever the cause may be, is salutary and an antidote to the banality, rigid structure, and meaningless of everyday life as experienced by the vast majority of people, especially among the working class.
Watching those fans who invaded the pitch at Upton Park during the game the other night, many of them clearly men in their thirties, some running around taunting the players, others the opposition fans, was to watch men who for those few minutes were experiencing the euphoria of liberation from stifling convention, routine and anonymity. Suddenly they were important, asserting themselves and through themselves their cause, which in this case happened to be West Ham United football club.
Outside the ground before the match, with both sets of supporters baying for the other’s blood, and separated only by a thin line of police, the atmosphere produced by such hatred was so powerful and electric it managed to come through over the television. There was hatred written on the faces of those involved, yes, but there was also the elation experienced as a consequence of human solidarity.
Many of us, while not ever having been involved in organised football violence ourselves, will nonetheless have witnessed it first hand. During the mid to late eighties, when it was part and parcel of working class culture throughout the UK, at the height of Thatcher’s deindustrialisation of the British economy, it was common to see large groups of young men, oftentimes in their hundreds, marching (make that swaggering), through city centres the length and breadth of Britain on a Saturday afternoon. The sense of pride and power they exuded whilst doing so was palpable. Dressed in designer sportswear, chanting and singing, united and bonded tight, proud at that moment of who they were and what they represented, these were young men with a purpose in life – one we may well have disagreed with but a purpose all the same.
Then, in the ground, congregated together, soaking up the atmosphere of the game, taunting and being taunted by the opposing fans, the adrenalin rush and sheer excitement experienced can only be described as transcendent. In their eyes they represent not only their football club but also in many cases a defined community. Certainly with regard to West Ham and Millwall, fans on either side view their rivalry as a war between two traditionally working class and deprived areas of London – the East End and South of the River.
And, yes, while many ordinary fans are ashamed or disgusted by these organised football gangs, or ‘firms’ as they’re commonly referred to by those involved, there are others who will no doubt view them from afar with a sense of pride.
The point is that groups of young working class males - and by the way this urban myth about organised football firms being made up of middle class stockbrokers and accountants on away days is utter nonsense - fighting other groups or gangs of working class males is as old as the urbanisation of British society. With capitalism breeding atomisation, alienation and low self esteem, and of increasing magnitude the farther down the economic and social strata you go, people find ways to fulfil the need for solidarity and purpose in their lives through a group identity via alternative means and social networks. Ideally this will manifest itself politically, through involvement in progressive campaigns and organisations committed to resisting the individual and social consequences wrought by the status quo. For many young men, however, it is football that provides them with the opportunity to fulfil this need, at the same time allowing them to vent anger and frustration at the extent of their alienation.
The scenes witnessed at West Ham this week could be the catalyst for a resurgence of violence at football grounds across the country. What mainstream commentators cannot comprehend is that those involved will be revelling in the notoriety of what took place and the impact it has had. Rather than shame they will be filled with pride at having, in their eyes, fought on behalf of their football colours and respective communities. The respect they will undoubtedly receive from other football firms around the country as a result will be a badge of honour to them, and as such the mayhem and violence we saw the other night will be revered and talked about for years to come in pubs and clubs throughout the East End.
The point is that the gang culture which exists in urban centres throughout the UK and beyond comes complete with its own lexicon, morals, and value system. The violence it exalts and represents is merely a reflection of the violence of the economic and social system which gave birth to it.
Something that should never be forgotten is that liberal condemnation of football violence at home finds its echo in liberal support and justification for violence abroad under the guise of so-called humanitarian interventions - in places like the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan - which are responsible for the slaughter of millions.
This article was first published on Socialist Unity