I came of age watching football in the 1980s. It was a grim time for the game throughout Europe but especially in the UK. I remember it as an era rife with hooliganism. I have vivid memories of a night spent in Edinburgh being chased from place to place by Hearts fans, and of fearing for my life when I accidentally approached the wrong end of Meadow Lane on a night when Notts County were playing Millwall. It is hard to convey the alarm inspired by rounding a corner and finding oneself amongst a crowd of 600 or so psychopaths, sodden with drink, singing, “No one likes us, no one likes us, WE DON’T CARE!”
I suspect that the upsurge in hooligan violence in those days was related to the persistent weakness of the British economy in those days, but I don’t really have the sociological expertise to make the case. What I do know is that there were definitely a lot of angry people in the neighborhood of football grounds back then. The Thatcher government was intent on combating the problem, particularly in the wake of horrendous events at the Heysel Stadium in Belgium, where 39 Juventus fans were killed in a crush resulting from aggressive behavior by Liverpool supporters.
The Thatcherite approach to problem was, as it was to practically every social issue afflicting the country, was increased law enforcement and the short, sharp, shock. A key part of this strategy, which might be called negative integration, was a focus on demonizing the hooligans and, although there were pious references to the decent supporters, this was really done with a nudge and a wink. It was put about as common knowledge the football fans were a bunch of drunken asocials who posed a threat to the social order. One result of this was that the terraces at the ends of football grounds were fenced in. The similarity to a zoo (or a prison) was hard to miss, as was the implication that those caged within were, somehow, less than human.
It was against this backdrop that the tragic events of 15 April 1989 took place at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Supporters of Liverpool were packed into pens at one end of the ground in such density that 96 people had the life crushed out of them. In the immediate aftermath, the responsible officials began disseminating a version of events that put the blame squarely on the supporters. The British boulevard press, with a few exceptions the mouthpiece for the Thatcherite social and political narrative, went into high gear to promote the idea that Liverpool fans, drunk and out of control, were responsible. The Sun printed utterly scurrilous stories about fans picking the pockets of victims and urinating on the police.
I can remember seeing the footage on the evening news in the United States. A chill ran up my spine, as I’m sure it did for many other people who had spent time penned in the terraces. My first thought was, “that could quite easily have been me.” I thought about the times that I had stood on the terraces in a crowd so thick that I was lifted off my feet. I remembered the time that I was caught in a crowd surge on the terraces at the City Ground in Nottingham and mashed so hard against a steel barrier that my bladder emptied (ok, the four pints of lager that I’d had beforehand didn’t help buy you get my point). I’ve talked to dozens of supporters who attended matches in those days, and I’ve heard a lot of similar feelings expressed.
I mention all of this because a commission formed by the British Government released a comprehensive report on those events yesterday. It runs nearly 400 pages and makes for some incredibly grim reading. The South Yorkshire Police, who were responsible for crowd control on the day, were guilty of gross incompetence in (among other things) allowing the Leppings Lane end of the ground to become so packed, for not allowing the gates at the front of the pen to be opened to relieve the crush, and for failing to ensure appropriate and timely access for emergency services. One immediate consequence of this grotesque failure of organization (to say nothing of human decency) was that 41 people who might have been saved by prompt medical assistance were allowed to die from their injuries. That in itself would be bad enough. Worse yet, the report shows that, in the wake of the tragedy, the police engaged in a systematic effort to deflect blame, involving the doctoring of 164 witness statements to bring them into line with the police’s contention that it was the supporters themselves who were at fault.
There are a whole range of shocking elements to this story. The fact that it took nearly 25 years for the actual truth of the events to be revealed, and that a major metropolitan police force was able to engage in such a widespread pattern of disinformation and evidence tampering. There are a lot of ways that one could look at this story, but the thing that I find most compelling is the degree to which it was a construction of the broader social policies in place at the time. Official sources were wont to put about the image of the rabid, drunken football supporter as a sort bête noire, an expression of the broader problem of social decay that required a rigorous, carceral response. When you reduce a particular group of human beings to the status of animals, it becomes much easier to overcome our normal, inbuilt sympathy toward them. Certainly, there were people around the football culture who were drunk and out of control. There are today, and as far as I can tell there have been for many decades. That does not change the fact that to create an atmosphere, and in this case an institutional culture, in which humans are reconfigured as in some important sense non-human is to sew the wind. It was left for the supporters, trapped in the pens off Leppings Lane, to reap the whirlwind.