Among the thugs

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

There are two kinds of violence in Among the Thugs.

The first is the violence we, the reading and civilized public, are supposed to abhor: violence perpetrated by the football (soccer) hooligans.

The second kind of violence is that perpetrated by the police forces against protesters of all stripes, including those football hooligans, American author Bill Buford all but outright states is an entirely acceptable form of violence perpetrated by state actors.

Don’t get me wrong: Among The Thugs is an enjoyable read and the violence is certainly disturbing.
However, Buford falters many times and a large portion of his falters are the sanctioning of state terror and violence.

He also falters when it comes to recognizing the same behavior in state actors as in pseudo-state actors. That is, actions taken by established political parties and government authorities are lauded and when hate groups, like the National Front do the same thing, it’s somehow different.

Although that argument can certainly be made, that the state is allowed to kill but we as individual non-state-sponsored actors are not, it is certainly a flimsy one.

All around Buford excuses the action of state actors (police, stadium owners, the military, politicians) while condemning the actions of their non-state counterparts in similar situations.

Buford also leaves the audience hanging, wondering what the outcome of at least one tragedy is. Specifically, the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 that killed 96.

He also likes to judge, judge and judge.
Buford: Free of sin
The other major place Buford falters is in his judgment of the people he is following, the thugs as it were. I’m not writing about judgments of actions (they are abhorrent) but rather, personal choices that affect no one but the person who does them.

I mean, he’s really judgy. Didn’t go to college? To Buford, you’re scum. (More on that latter. Buford is a classist.) Tattoos? The same. Club supporter? The same. You did go to college, but you’re a supporter, involved in the violence (much of which is directed at willing and wanting participants of other clubs)? Well, you’re scum whom Buford will spend many, many pages and a long time interviewing, trying to figure out why you’ve chosen to be scum.

“The throng itself was something to behold. The flesh exposed was your standard, assembly line, gray weather English flesh – bright pink, therefore, and burning rapidly – except in this one respect: everybody had a tattoo. And not just a tattoo but many tattoos . . . It was also hard not to wonder about the person who would do this to his body. Getting a tattoo is a painful experience, a hot needle poking its way across the surface of the skin, filling up the cells underneath with ink. The pain, however – the blood that comes bubbling up, the rawness – goes away; the result, until it fades in middle age or is eradicated by surgery, lasts for ever (sic). All around I saw meters and meters of skin that had been stained with these totemic pledges of permanence. In addition to the cinematic display on this one fellow’s back, there was a tattooed neck, encircled with the neatly proportional letters, M-A-N-C-H-E-S-T-E-R U-N-I-T-E-D. There was a pair of tattooed nipples – they served as the eyes for the head of an especially ornate red devil (spreading across the chest and stomach). And there was a tattooed forehead imprinted with the name Bryan Robson, in honor of the Manchester United midfield player (and in the hope, perhaps, that Robson would neither be traded to another football club nor ever die).”

A few pages later, Buford assures the reader that he’s not judging. Please, allow me to be clear. In my reading, Buford is pulling a classic, “Look at the freak! Laugh at the freak!” routine.

“Violence or no violence, mine was not an attractive moral position. It was, however, an easy one, and it consisted in this: not thinking. As I entered this experience, I made a paint of removing moral judgment, like a coat.”

Later on, he writes about the things the Manchester United fans liked, this is presumably written without thought to the final chapters of the book, about these people actually being humans and actually liking other things.

“The supporters did not have a developed aptitude for meeting new people. They did not like people, apart from themselves. In fact, they didn’t like anything – much. I reflected on the values at the heart of their community. I composed a list.”

The list mentions lager, the club, county, Rolex watches, the catholic church, money, sausages, etc., 15 in all, including repeats and themselves.

“That was the most important item: they liked themselves; them and their mates.
The list of dislikes, I decided, was straightforward. It was (over and above Tottenham Hotspur) the following: the rest of the world.”

Buford: Only the poor do evil things
Well put together young man? Good job? Decently educated? Meet Steve. And DJ, further down.

“In fact, for a while, I went out of my way to spend time with Steve, if only because, being articulate and intelligent, he was good company and because I always believed that he would be able to reveal something about why he, of all people, was attracted to violence of this kind. If the Daily Mail had been asked to create a twenty-two-year-old-working-class lad with his life sorted out, it could have presented Steve.”

Notice there how Buford baldly states that the want to be involved in this kind of group fighting and violence is seemingly not something the intelligent and articulate would want to be a part of?

Next stop on his logic train is: Domestic violence neither happens to nor is it perpetrated by members of the educated middle-and-up classes because they’re just too good for that.

Those who choose to kill outside and inside the heat of the moment, those who rape, those who lie, those who commit violence against their intimate partners and children (domestic violence) come from all demographics. Violence does not know intelligence or class. Ask MacBeth, Hamlet or King Lear. They were all upper class and they certainly killed, committed domestic or other types of violence or both.

Steve has an interesting argument, and one that I think holds water. The violence directed at others and property, in the context of the UK, is created by the inability of the hooligans to direct it at each other, i.e., the opposing clubs, who want to spar. Because the police are so efficient at preventing the violence between clubs, when it comes come out, the violence is done towards everything else. So too does the violence increase in severity, in the form of stabbings, because the police are too involved, no one has time to break out the fisticuffs.

“What made them particularly unusual was the way Steve presented them. He was rational and fluent and had given much thought to the problems he was discussing, although he had not thought about the implications of the thing – that this was socially deviant conduct of the highest order, involving injuries and maiming and the destruction of property., I don’t think he understood the implications; I don’t think he would have acknowledged them as valid.”

What Buford does not here acknowledge is valid is the hooligan’s point of view. He tries to claim that their behavior is “socially deviant conduct of the highest order,” even though it’s being practiced by willing participants of some scale.

As much as I am loathe to make this comparison (and argument), I think it is worth considering:
The hooligans (of differing clubs) are willing participants in, what was until the police stepped up their game, a violent but not usually life-threatening activity. Everyone, except for children not reined in by their parents, is a consenting adult consenting in the activity.

What other “socially deviant conduct of the highest order” was only, within the past 40 years, deemed to be acceptable between consenting adults?

In Belgium, euthanasia (or suicide) is totally legal if signed off on by three doctors, even for non-terminal things, like depression or schizophrenia or dementia. While in the US, this might be socially deviant behavior (it’s only not if the patient is terminal, and then, only in a few states) but in Belgium, it’s fine.
Who is Buford to say this is socially deviant behavior, especially when so much of the population is engaging in it, when the behavior is made extreme by the authorities whom he so praises and lauds?
Later on, he goes on about the physicality of the football matches, as a spectator. Packed in as sardines, no seats, moving as a crowd, running to the exists once the game is over. This he calls deviant, despite the fact that it’s how an entire country’s fans behave. And not a small country, either.

No, I think Buford does not know what deviant means.

This theme, at the top of this section, deals with Buford and his inability to understand violence outside of the context of the lower classes. (The way he sees the world and writes, it is truly a wonder he was raised in America, and not Great Brittan, with its diffusion of class.)

Steve is not the only person who consents to this violence, who is educated and from an upper-class family. There’s DJ.

“(I) couldn’t get away from the starkness of the conclusion I kept reaching: that there was no cause for the violence; no ‘reason’ for it at all. If anything there were ‘unreasons’: (sic) rather than economic hardship or political frustration, there was economic plenty and an untroubled, even complacent faith in a free market and nationalistic politics that was proud of both its comforts and its selfishness.
“I couldn’t believe that what I saw was all there was.
“This was where DJ came in. In the figure of DJ, I has the fundamental contradiction at its most concentrated.”

DJ had education, intelligence, awareness of the world, money, initiative, strong, supportive, rich family, Buford writes.

Here, again, we see Buford’s notion that if one is intelligent, or educated, or doesn’t come from a terrible family, he will not want to engage in violence.

This conceit is grounded in the wrong conception of other societal ills, like domestic violence. As written above, things like domestic violence, or violence for that matter, do not know class boundaries, do not care about education or care about family support.

The same goes for drugs. Or serial killers. (Jeffery Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, BTK Killer). Or rapists. Societal ills are not concentrated by class or education.

Let me repeat that: societal ills do not differentiate based on class, gender, race or education. They hit everybody, up and down the line. Buford’s conceit is just wrong, and I think, backwards.

Kettle calling the pot a fascist
Buford writes a lot about the National Front, the British fascist party, aka, white supremacists. To him, they are evil. A somewhat ridiculous evil, but an evil none the less. He never acknowledges the fascist behavior of the authorities that he signs off on, or that, when he rails against it, he later feels guilty about it.

I am NOT condoning the National Front, rather, I am attempting to point out Buford’s hypocrisy in holding up fascist police actions as normal and acceptable in comparison to his condemnation of the actual fascist party.

The scene that sums up what is wrong with what Buford puts forward comes near the end of the middle portion of the book. He’s at the front of the crowd and there is a dog handling police officer who has his attack dog by the collar with one hand and the dog’s chain in the other. The officer is whipping the crowd (they have not committed violence yet) in the face with the chain. Buford is one of the whipped people. The indignant white privileged American in Buford comes out.

After being whipped in the face, specifically the jaw, Buford yells at him, asking what the officer thinks he’s doing, hitting people minding their own business. He demands the officers badge number, so he can report him for police brutality. He does this in his American accent. The officer walks away.

“I have gone too far, I remember thinking. I have let myself become one of them. Here I am, being whipped by a policeman, arguing with him being urged on by the supporters behind me – by the supporters behind me? By the one thousand supporters behind me: here I am at the front of a crowd, among the people leading it.”

Good ole’ American fascism at its best: feeling guilty about standing up to police brutality.

Later on, or maybe before, we learn the police in this or another instant let loose the dogs on the crowd which had not done anything yet. Here in America, a police woman who let loose her dog (ordered by her sergeant) on a homeless man who was already subdued went to jail for a few years for violating that man’s civil rights. In a perfect world, I would like to think Buford would get upset about this kind of pre-emptive treatment by police of people who have not done anything wrong. Yet.

Police brutality and rioting: OK with Buford, but with you?
It is fascinating to watch, or rather read, as Buford condemns the populace for standing up to unjust, fascist regimes. Take the example of his explication of a photo from a Yugoslavian protest, of a well-dressed man dragging a tank captain out of a tank, the tank being used to break up the crowd.

Since the book was published in 1990, it’s my guess that the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened after he submitted his book to the editors. However, one of many American moments of crowd violence that appeared well before the publication does not appear: Kent State Massacres, or any police riot, for that matter. This is a troubling juxtaposition, considering Buford’s veneration of the police and military forces.
Back to Buford’s explication of the Yugoslavia riot photo:

“I note that they are mature adults – with handsome, attractive faces; one has a stylish haircut. I note the high calculation of their act – coming up behind the hatch and pulling out an armed man. It is bold, but thought out, the risks weighed. Studying this scene on the tank, in media res, I can infer the order of events that led to it: the crows, having surrounded the tank found itself unable to commit the next act – an unequivocally criminal one, antisocial, lawless – and then one man, the man with the mustache, scaled the tank. He was not a leader, or at least not a leader in the sense that we believe crowds to be governed by leaders.” (Emphasis added)

Buford describes how the authorities will consider the mustached man as responsible.

Then: “He is merely the first to cross an important boundary of behavior, a tactic boundary that, recognized by everyone there, separates one kind of conduct from another. He is prepared to commit this ‘threshold’ act – an act which, created by the crowd, would have been impossible without the crowd, even though the crowd itself is not prepared to follow: yet.” (Author’s emphasis)

Buford goes on to write that there cannot be many times in one’s life when the structures of a civilized life, shelter, routine, responsibility, the sense of right and wrong, disappear into this crowd violence.
Buford is, unequivocally, defending the use of the military personnel and weapons of war to quell protest by citizens in the military’s own country.

Take a minute to think about, say, the Occupy Wallstreet protesters, across the country. You may not have agreed with them, but what should they do, and what should you do, had the government chosen to roll out the .50-caliber machine guns, the armored personnel carriers, the tanks and other weapons of war against the people, in this instance lawfully, protesting the actions of their government.

As I will try to outline in the conclusion, Buford’s opining about the lawlessness of people protesting things like brutality leads to the acceptance and further violence. A perfect example, the cop who thought it was OK to use pepper spray on non-violent sitting protesters at a California public university, part of the Occupy Wallstreet protests.

How would you feel to see a tank riding down your street, presumably prepared to start firing its cannon into your town, in response to protests?

In Buford’s opinion, the government has not broken the social compact it has with the governed when it brings out the weapons of war to end street demonstrations. In his opinion, this is still consistent with civilization. The people’s own government (in this case, in the former Yugoslavia) acting like it is invading a hostile country, this is civilized behavior.

Please think about Buford’s position here. He claims the crowd is not acting in a civilized manner, although he takes no actual position on the crowd’s rationality.

I will instead write that the crowd was, contrary to Buford’s implied logic, acting in an entirely rational manner and in fact, likely, in a civilized matter. The people were responding to a military invasion with the only means available to them: their craft. They were clever or crafty and used the hubris of the tank commander against him.

Buford should be held up as a shining example of the logic of a fascist. The police are always right. Might makes right. Etc. Etc. If Richard Nixon and Buford (vis a vis, Kent State Massacre or the slightly later Jackson State Massacre) ever had occasion to meet, I cannot fathom them not getting along like gangbusters.

There is another legitimate point that needs to be acknowledged before moving on to the next example of Buford’s blind eye to police brutality. That is, partially, his comparison between apple riots and orange riots.

The thugs, in Buford’s book, are soccer hooligans who self-select for Fight Club style violence with (in the context of the crowd) consenting partners (the hooligans of opposing teams).

However, Buford conflates these “thugs” (I think of them as consenting adults participating in a taboo activity) with crowds, or more aptly, the public at large fighting back against fascist governments (the Yugoslavia picture) or the public peacefully protesting and not fighting back.

Buford writes, as quoted above, about the leaderlessness of a crowd. This is conflating the two separate types of violent crowds. The thugs do have leaders, which he makes quite clear, since he follows them relentlessly.

For those who do not know what a police riot is, please read the next few paragraphs. If you already do, skip down beyond the block quote.

In 1968, police officers rioted against protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. From the Federal Judicial Center’s summary of the Walker Report, following the riot. To be clear, 1968 was far from the first police riot.

”The nature of the response was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night.
That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring.
Newsmen and photographers were singled out for assault, and their equipment deliberately damaged. Fundamental police training was ignored; and officers, when on the scene, were often unable to control their men. As one police officer put it: ‘What happened didn’t have anything to do with police work.’ . . .”

What this description leaves out is the simple legal and physical power difference between police and the public. Hitting or threatening to hit a cop is a much greater crime than being hit by a member of the public (battery on a peace officer vs battery) and the cop has the right to hit you. You don’t have the right to hit the cop. In federal law, the difference is so stark that just landing a glancing blow on a federal cop could mean 10 years in federal prison.

It should be noted that Buford does not write, either, about things like the Watts riots. In those, just like in the Yugoslavia example, people are revolting against oppression. Consenting thugs and people revolting against oppression are two very different things and should not be conflated in a glib way.
The next example of Buford’s “Let’s go fascist police!” comes at the end of the book in what is a police/military riot.

Buford ends his adventures in Sardinia, where Manchester United, the most feared of all the teams, is to play the Danes, who are made out to be bloodthirsty like their ancestors but appear not to be.
Long story short, the rioters get some good rioting in, followed by a counter-riot by the military/police. Specifically, it is a police riot.

The police/military start out with tear gas. Tear gas is not less than lethal, as it is portrayed. The projectile, the tear gas canister, is just as dangerous as a bullet to the head. Many people have been killed by teargas canisters, including a journalist, Ruben Salazar, who was in a bar when police decided to gas it. Most of his head was taken off. (Happened in: 1970).

So, the police/military are able to regroup and rally. And when they do, they riot. Buford is at the receiving end of this violence, savagely beat in his kidneys and other organs by one officer, then two, then more. And they don’t stop. The police become the thugs that Buford so denigrates, but Buford does not think of them as thugs.

“The two policeman were soon joined by a colleague. It was getting pretty crowded, but there were still my shoulders. They became the concern of the third policeman. His real concern, I concluded after examining the bruising, was not the shoulders as such; he was trying to get to the collarbone. He, too, was trying to move me around with his free hand, so he could get a clear view of his target; it was the snap-crackle-pop sound that he was after, the one the collarbone makes when it breaks in half.”

Please engage with me in a thought experiment. Your friend is being beaten as described above, except this is on an American street. What would you do? They’re police, so, you run away? But, if they’re thugs, you, a law-abiding American, go for your lawfully concealed-or-unconcealed pistol and threaten to shoot, right? The police are acting like thugs, but are afforded special privileges, privileges Buford has no problems with.

Another man was beat until his thighbone broke.
“I thought it must be difficult to beat up someone with such force that it breaks the thighbone into several parts.”

The bigger point to be made is that Buford, through his writing, helps to further the idea that this behavior by police is acceptable, and especially acceptable when the victims or their violence are “thugs,” an especially dangerous idea in 2015, when “thug” can be construed as code for a young black man.

Observations of the group dynamic
On a positive note, Buford does well describing the dynamics of the group situation and the dynamics of a group situation that involves boys. He describes how, were they to turn on you, they would turn on you in a pack. So too does the pack mentality govern the actions of the adults. Once someone chooses to cross a line, everyone collectively chooses to agree to step over the line, or holds back. The more fluid, or the more involved the event (or rioting) already is, the easier it is for the individual to step over that next line, and to have the group follow.

Just before the direct quote, Buford describes how a youngish man decided to take some kind of very large and heavy object, during the Turin incident, and throw it into a bus windshield. One of Buford’s weaknesses is how much fluff he has to write around everything, hence my summarization.

“He knew he had something that no one else had done yet, that he has escalated the violence, that the act had crossed another boundary of what was permissible. He had thrown a missile that was certain to cause serious physical injury. He had done something bad – extremely bad – and his face, while acknowledging the badness of it, was actually saying something more complex. It was saying that what he had done wasn’t all that bad, really; in the context of the day, it wasn’t that extreme, was it? What his face expressed, I realized – his eyes seemed to twinkle – was no more than this: I have just been naughty.”

Notice the overuse of dashes? I did too.

Conclusion
While Buford does a good job describing the violence of self-selecting crowds of consenting adults (and juveniles) to fight other crowds of self-selecting adults and juveniles, he condones police brutality and police riots.

He also conflates two separate types of crowd violence: that of the self-selecting crowd and the that of the people rising up against conditions in their community.

The latter group is not thugs. They are people revolting against the situation the government has placed them in. They have grievances, and the grievances has extended beyond the breaking point.

Buford also seems to pretend that the educated or upper classes are someone immune from societal ills. This is patently false.