Spurs merchandise on sale outside White Hart Lane. Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images.
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“We are the Yids”: should Spurs fans be prosecuted for using the Y word?

The case against three Tottenham Hotspur fans accused of “a racially aggravated public order offence” undermines the battle against bigotry. Now that the prosecution has been discontinued, the threat to freedom of speech has been resisted – for now.

Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced it would “discontinue” the prosecution of three Tottenham Hotspur fans for a racially aggravated public order offence. The story of how the case was brought, and how the accused fans have been treated, is shameful. And it throws up some challenging questions.

It is the story of how three ordinary football fans were arrested, accused publicly of being racist, subject to months of psychological pressure, had presumptions of innocence cast aside and their characters called into question. All on the basis of what the Crown Prosecution Service eventually conceded, after spending a large sum of public money, was “insufficient evidence”.

Some background is necessary for those unfamiliar with the nuances of football’s subculture. Tottenham Hotspur have, for many years, been identified as a club with a large Jewish support. This is partly because of the club’s location in north London, although neighbours Arsenal also have a large Jewish following. During the 1970s and early 1980s, though, Tottenham Hotspur’s perceived Jewish connections led to the club’s fans being subjected to anti-Semitic abuse at games. In response, Spurs fans began to use the term “Yids” to identify themselves. The chant “Yid Army” is heard frequently at Spurs games, and popular players are regaled with chants of “Yiddo” – most famously in the case of former striker Jermain Defoe, who was regularly serenaded with the chant “Jermain Defoe, he’s a Yiddo”.

While some were uncomfortable with a word that had been used by Mosley’s fascists as a term of abuse being bandied about so freely, it was generally accepted that Spurs fans’ use of the word “Yid” in a footballing context was a positive thing. And, as those familiar with Jewish history and culture pointed out, Yid was also used as a term of endearment and identification by Jewish people before Mosley’s fascists attempted to appropriate it. The word’s use at the football was a genuine, robust, street-level response to anti-Semitic abuse – not the kind of response those who discuss such issues at polite dinner parties may have constructed, but a genuine one nonetheless.

Then, in 2011, the anti-racist campaign Kick it Out released a film made by Jewish football fan David Baddiel and his brother Ivor. It was called “The Y Word” and it sought to place use of the word “Yids” on a par with terms of racial abuse such as “nigger” and “Paki”. The Baddiels said they started the campaign after being at a Chelsea game against Spurs in which a Chelsea fan they were sitting with – the brothers are Chelsea supporters – repeatedly shouted “Fuck the Yids” and “Fuck the Jews” at the Spurs fans in the away end. Leading footballers Frank Lampard, Ledley King and Gary Lineker were enlisted to tell viewers that “the Y-word is a race hate word”.

To many Spurs fans, the campaign seemed to blame them for the abuse that was directed at them. Having endured years of hearing songs about Auschwitz, Adolf Hitler and having hissing noises meant to replicate the sound of gas directed at them, they were now being told that their use of the word Yid made people hurl abuse at them. “They made me do it” is, of course, the well-worn response of bigots through the ages.

The campaign succeeded in cementing the use of “Yids” among Spurs fans as a badge of pride. And so the calls to prosecute were raised. Having failed to win the argument that in excess of 36,000 active anti-Semites turned out for a public display of bigotry at White Hart Lane every couple of weeks by racially abusing the team they followed, the anti “Y-word” campaign began to argue that prosecution should be brought on grounds of “causing offence”, thereby taking the issue onto dangerous new ground.

The Metropolitan Police had advised Spurs fans that chants such as “Yid Army” would not lead to prosecution, due to the fact that there was no “deliberate intention to cause offence”. Then, last September, the Football Association decided that use of the word “Yid” was “inappropriate in a football setting” and “could amount to a criminal offence”. Within less than a month a Spurs fan was arrested for using the word and charged. The arrest came at a game against West Ham where songs about Hitler, Nazi salutes and chants about gas chambers were seen and heard in the away end. The only arrest made was of the Spurs fan. A month later, two more Spurs fans were arrested and charged with racially aggravated public order offences.

Unusually for cases such as this, the names of the fans were released immediately by the police. As was the information that one of them had a wrap of cocaine on him. Publicly labelled as racists, the fans had bail conditions imposed which included not being allowed with 2,500 yards of any stadium where Spurs were playing from four hours before until four hours after a game. Tottenham Hotspur, which had issued statements saying it did not believe its fans intended to cause offence when using the word “Yids”, interpreted the bail conditions as meaning it had to ban the fans from the ground by withdrawing season tickets and memberships. The presumption of innocence until guilt is proven was cast aside.

In the article “Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law – unless you are a football fan” that I wrote with solicitor Darren White on this site a few weeks ago, the effect of “subjecting someone of previous good character to the full rigor of the legal process” was quoted. What happened to the three fans in what became known as “The Y-Word case” – a description that itself embraced the prosecution’s assertion as fact – illustrates that point starkly. All three were bailed three times. Each time they did not know what would be happening to them, increasing the mental stress they faced. Each hearing involved time off work and travel costs. One of the dates they were given, and which was subsequently postponed, was Christmas Eve.

Finally, after being charged and having been put through hell for months, the three were told last Thursday that the case was to be discontinued and the charges dropped. The CPS said there was “insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction”. Tottenham Hotspur immediately rescinded the bans and refunded money for the games the fans had missed. The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust (which I should point out I am on the board of), which had backed the fans throughout, welcomed the decision and carried a strongly-worded statement from the defence team it had worked with on its website. The defence team criticised a “misguided and over-zealous approach by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police”. The statement is worth reading in full, for its criticisms of the legal process, its understanding of cultural history and its refusal to concede the term “Yid” to the fascists and bigots, and for this statement:

Any organisation or individual that sets out to brand Spurs fans’ use of the word ‘Yid’ as being racist runs a high risk of being perceived as pursuing other self-serving agendas. We urge them to focus their attention on those who are clearly using threatening or abusive words or behaviour towards others based on hostility or hate towards others race or religion.

The treatment of the Tottenham Three is further evidence of what Darren White and I argued in that “Everyone is equal” blog. Football fans are subjected to a different framework of justice. But this case raises other questions that need answering.

What made the FA suddenly change its stance last September? And what made the Metropolitan Police, the only police force in the country to prosecute on these grounds, change its mind? Does the fact that both organisations have suffered criticism for their stances on racism have any bearing on the change of attitude?

If there is insufficient evidence to secure a conviction now, could there have been sufficient evidence when the decision to prosecute was taken? No new evidence that could have undermined any of the previous evidence has come to light since the original decision. As the CPS is a publicly-funded organisation, we have a right to question the quality of its decision-making.

Will the people who pointed the finger at Spurs fans, and who used their public platforms and connections to vilify, ridicule and shout down any who dared challenge them, now dedicate equal vigour to pursuing the real anti-Semites? It cannot be beyond the wit of these intelligent people to identify the difference between a Spurs fan chanting “We are the Yids” and, for example, a Chelsea fan directing a chant of “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz” at Spurs fans.

Football does not exist in a vacuum. Misguided actions such as the prosecution of the Tottenham Three ultimately undermine the battle against bigotry, allowing the “It’s political correctness gone mad” brigade to dismiss every attempt to challenge prejudice. Attempts to introduce a legal principle of “offence” also raise worrying threats to freedom of speech and expression, something that the people of Scotland are finding to their cost, as journalist Kevin McKenna argues in a fine article in the Guardian. A piece by freelance writer Kirk Leech on the Huffington Post also does a fine job in setting out the dangers posed by the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill.

For now, the threat to freedom of speech in England and Wales has been resisted. And the disgraceful treatment of three innocent football fans has been countered. But to ensure that cases such as this never happen again, the questions this one raises must be answered.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain