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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times