What Millwall's Black Fans Think About the Club's Racist Image

We spoke to Ole Jensen about his new documentary 'Black & White Millwall', which explores how black Millwall fans reconcile their support of a club that's historically been synonymous with racism.

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Nov 29 2018, 11:49am

Screen shot via 'Black & White'

What do you think of when you hear the word "Millwall"? If you're not a Millwall fan yourself, I'd wager: angry white men who fly St George's flags from their homes and have, at some point in their lives, told people darker than them to "go back home".

As a Dane in south London with "some interest in football", researcher and academic Ole Jensen found himself having to rethink this commonly-held stereotype after stumbling across footage of a black Millwall fan called "Tiny", AKA Ian Garwood. He decided to dig deeper, and the result of his research is Black & White Millwall, a documentary that looks at the seemingly oxymoronic demographic of black Millwall fans and how they are able to reconcile their support of a club that, for many, is synonymous with the ugliest parts of football culture.

I called Ole the morning after the documentary's final promotional event – a screening, followed by a presentation at The Den itself – to discuss the project.

This interview has been edited for length.

VICE: Where did the idea for the project come from?
Ole Jensen: I've been doing research in south London for over seven years, focused on diversity, social and cultural dynamics, and social cohesion at the neighbourhood level. I came across a newspaper article about a black Millwall fan called "Tiny". As an outsider with some interest in football, I had the same stereotype about Millwall as everyone else: that Millwall is the face of hooliganism in England, with an element of racism as well. So the idea of a black Millwall fan was new to me, and from the perspective of a researcher you start thinking, 'What does that say about him and his sense of belonging at the neighbourhood level?'

Of course the project is about football in a sense, but it's also about the way the links between the neighbourhoods – the estates, the roads and the football stadium – have been merged over time. In that sense, being black and being Millwall suddenly starts making sense, and helped me to start asking a number of interesting questions.

What were the biggest challenges you faced while trying to make the documentary?
The biggest difficulties were in the first stage, when I was attempting to find people who were happy to be interviewed for the oral histories. Millwall have this slogan: "No one likes us, we don't care," and in a sense an extension of that is: "If you're not with us, you're against us." So if you're not one of us, we don't want to talk to you, because there is that experience of feeling that you're being stitched up and that you're a scapegoat and the underdog.

There's also the other element, that if you were – or are - a football hooligan, you probably don't want to grass yourself up on camera.
That's a very valid point, yes. The thing about making these oral histories was that I only talked to people that wanted to talk to me. So in that sense, the really hardcore wouldn't want to talk with me anyway. It's also about keeping their story among themselves, and if you speak to someone who's outside your group, then you're selling out. There are loyalties there that are important, and there are obviously lots of stories that I didn't catch.

Something that also came up in the Q&A is the fact that "being Millwall" is tied to the community – but the demographic of the surrounding areas has changed so much in the last 40 years, while the demographic of Millwall's fans haven't changed that much. There's a difficulty trying to get younger people from BAME backgrounds to see Millwall as a team they'd support. Why do you think it's still such an overwhelmingly white club?
I think there are several reasons. One of the things is the way that support of Millwall runs in the family. If your father was a Millwall fan you're more likely to be one yourself. Another reason is image: Millwall has the image of being a racist club, and that goes deep – why would you want to go to Millwall if that's the first thing you know about it? There's certainly a barrier there that they've been trying to overcome for many, many years. Something else is that, with the older fans I talked to, football was something you did in school and after school, and by extension you would then support your local club. The football loyalties in London are very different now; because of access to football on TV, you're more likely to support a team that actually wins something – so you have Arsenal and Manchester United supporters in south London! If you look at the ethnic breakdown of who's in the stands, proportions of BAME fans are higher, but it still doesn't in any way reflect the neighbourhood surrounding The Den.

Do you think this can be changed?
[Millwall] have been attempting to do so for a good many years, but nothing much has happened. I like to believe this documentary can help that, because I think we've been successful in showing a much more balanced view of what Millwall is all about. I'd like the documentary to be screened much more widely, maybe in schools, but also outside south London.

I think previous generations of immigrants, or their children, were possibly more likely to put up with racist abuse, or with just being in the vicinity of racism, for the sake of having people to hang out with. Whereas now you're less likely to put yourself in a space where you may encounter racial abuse; there's no reason to do so. Do you think that's one of the reasons they haven't been able to reach out to the next generation?
I think that combines with Millwall having a long-term reputation for racism. Tolerance for racism is absolutely much lower than it used to be. Most of those I talked to in the film who grew up in the 70s, for them, the experience of racism was every day almost, so negotiating that space didn't really matter that much and they were more likely to put up with it. One of the older guys, Norman Garcia, talked about his experience of being in the crowd when the opponents would be singing, "Millwall’s got a n****r." To him, that was just the way it was. But you're absolutely right – I don't think the next generation would put up with the same. During the last season I went to The Den a number of times to find out the nature of the language and the abuse; there's loads of C-words and F-words, but I didn't hear any racial abuse. I think the club has done a lot to ensure it doesn't happen inside the grounds. Of course, they can't really manage what happens outside – that's a different matter.

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Left: Millwall fan Ron Bell; right: headlines about Millwall

There's a sense that Millwall has been scapegoated as this uniquely racist and hooligan-filled football club, but really these are problems throughout football as a whole. A lot of the worst racism at Millwall was around the same time as the National Front was at its most popular. Do you think Millwall's status as a working class club made them uniquely susceptible to that kind of rhetoric?
The National Front in the 70s stated that they were explicitly targeting the terraces of working class clubs in order to gain members. I guess you could also use the term "white backlash" – Bermondsey used to be largely social housing, and in the 70s there was a loss of local work and housing, so you had the experience where your sons and daughters couldn't get social housing, but outsiders could. At that time there was a very strong, independent, white working class who saw its foundation fall apart, so there was obviously some reaction there. But yes, racism is definitely something that you see in football more widely. Quince Garcia, one of the interviewees, said racism is systemic in society, and he saw Millwall as a reflection of society, rather than racism being something specific to Millwall. I think that was a good reflection.

What has the reaction to the documentary been like?
Really good! I'd say the highlight was the Q&A at Peckhamplex, which you attended, because many of those who were there knew the club from the inside, and they shared many of the memories that we saw in the documentary. You could sense how they engaged with it as the film went on, so for me that was super rewarding.

It was interesting hearing firsthand stories from people who were there at the time, like the fan who was at the notorious 1985 Kenilworth Road Riot when Millwall played Luton.
Yes, that's what I liked about it; the ability to pick up on and record these memories which would usually not be picked up on. These are stories that are often disregarded or forgotten about because they only live in people's memories. What we're talking mostly about right now is the film, because that's the visual dimension, but the bit that will last are the oral histories that we've recorded. They're being stored in Southwark Local History library and will be around forever.

Thanks, Ole.

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