The criminalisation of working-class football fans in Scotland

Nathan Hennebry details the means by which Police Scotland systematically targets working-class football fans, calling for class unity in the face of oppression
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Scotland’s working-class football fans have been subject to criminalisation for years. The offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act of 2012 (OBFA) was the first form of legislative attacks that the Scottish Government used in its campaign against football fans. The legislation was used to combat alleged “sectarian”behaviour, though actual instances of sectarianism were never dealt with. This legislation was used to target actively politically, and vocal football supporters across Scotland. Many instances of police harassment were reported shortly after the OBFA was introduced – one instance included a man being detained and questioned by police outside of Tynecastle for simply wearing a “Free Palestine” t-shirt.

The OBFA was railroaded by the SNP who showed no remorse in their brutality against working-class football fans. The actions of both Police Scotland and the SNP sparked mass outrage, and rightly so. Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC) a football fan organisation led the successful campaign against the legislation and the constant mistreatment against football fans by Police Scotland. FAC highlighted how the legislation was both discriminatory and dangerous as it singled out working-class fans. For those from different class backgrounds, the same actions and behaviours would often not result in any criminal charges. The identification of “football fan” (whether attending a game or watching a match in a pub) means that you would automatically be subject to this law and your rights restricted.

In more recent times, the criminalisation of working-class fans has not withheld its aggression. The Scottish government continues to utilise all the weapons in its arsenal to monitor, harass, deter, and arrest such individuals. One of many tools used by the police is the utilisation of media. Police Scotland officials callously labels fan organisations and supporters’ groups as “thugs”“violent”, and “dangerous”, no matter the context of the topic they’re addressing. Police Scotland do this to make an example of these fans to show other members of their class what will happen to them if they dare step out of line. The use of the media enables the government to feed an image to the masses that football fans are inherently criminal, forcing the belief that harassment and violence towards these fans is justified. 

What happens if the police deem you a “criminal”? You may either feel the raw wrath of Police Scotland’s procedure by being forcibly removed from the stadium, handcuffed, booked, and spend the night in the cells for simply being a football fan. Or perhaps you may be given the special treatment of being recorded, catalogued, and having your door kicked in during the early hours of the morning during an infamous dawn raid.

Though it may seem that the government and Police Scotland have an unchallengeable authority over working-class football fans, the light of organised action by the proletariat has once again shone brightly. With Bernard Higgins (Assistant Chief Constable) being tipped for a head position within Celtic FC’s security team, fans began a campaign to prevent this collusion between Police Scotland and Celtic’s security team from happening. For someone who personally oversaw the constant harassment towards football fans for several years to be the bookies favourite for the job had many fans utterly outraged. With the collective voice of FAC and the continued demonstrations by fan groups, in and out of stadiums, Celtic fans successfully campaigned against Bernard Higgins as he announced, himself, that he would not be taking the role. 

The success of the anti-Bernard Higgins campaign also came from individuals sharing their experiences across several videos, highlighting the targeted harassment that they had faced. Many of the fans’ experiences were unique, and many other experiences were identical –  officers conducting dawn raids and holding football fans in custody for prolonged periods, systematic harassments, humiliating strip searches, continuous baseless charges, accusing fans of being members of terrorist organisations, breaching data protection laws in order to allow officers to harass individuals via their mobile phones, targeting supporters’ busses, threating to arrest fans for questioning their methods, attempting to recruit fans as informants, and kettling. These techniques are not new and will never cease with the current government and policing body in place. 

The Scottish Government work very hard to ensure football fans are recognised as criminals, thugs, and terrorists. In doing so they can attempt to justify their methods, no matter how unethical and immoral they may be. One of Police Scotland’s favourite methods is kettling. This involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who then tighten to contain a crowd within a limited area, causing those caught in the kettle to struggle to breathe and often resulting in trampling. Police keep crowds within the kettle to survey, analyse and arrest those they wish. Celtic supporters’ group, The Green Brigade, have faced this tactic several times. Most shockingly, they were subject to this tactic during an anti-racism demonstration in 2020. Why? Simply because they are working-class football supporters, standing up against systematic oppression.

Make no mistake, this issue is not unique to Scotland. This style of working-class oppression is being conducted against comrades all across Britain. It is being conducted with the same purpose, with the same tactics, and with the same end goal in mind. Capitalist interest will always be defended through the arm of the police against the proletariat whether in Scotland, England, or Wales.To combat this form of working-class oppression, supporters from all Scottish clubs must unite, they must share their stories, they must work with groups such as FAC, and most importantly they must understand that the oppression they face is and always will be class-based. Whilst the victory against the Scottish Government and the OBFA legislation, and the appointment of Bernard Higgins have shown the power that the voice of football fans has, it will never be enough. By uniting as a working-class and toppling the British governments corrupt foundations, only then we can go to the football without looking over our backs in the fear of being subjected to police brutality, both physical and psychological.

Nathan Hennebry, is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch

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