Riot act: extreme journalism

Soccer riotSwiss journalist Dominik Bärlocher,
who covers the riot beat at his newspaper, gives us a behind-the-scenes
look at a day covering a nasty football riot – including
face-punching, macing and teargas attacks. Spoiler: he managed to make
Also, check out the handy Riot Survival Guide he wrote for J-Source earlier this month.

I lace up my boots, stand up and wiggle my toes. The boot moves with the movement of my feet. Good. That way I’ll be able to run when I need to run. Today, I’m going to a football game. Not as a fan – even though my team is playing – but as a journalist. It is my job to investigate the opposing team’s fans. Even though that team’s fans were known as being mostly peaceful, the police have issued a warning that there’s been an increasing number of so-called “Category C”-fans.

Football fans are generally separated into three categories. Category A are the peaceful fans that just come to enjoy the game. Category B are the fans that are ready and willing to engage in violence should it arise but do not necessarily start the fight. Category C are the ones that come for the so-called “Third Halftime” – the post-game fighting between various hooligan “firms” and whichever Category B fans are around. It’s my job to find out how many hooligans there are exactly, why they’re there and what sort of people they are. I’ve been doing this for quite some time now and I know most established firms and how they operate, and have learned to recognize how they act before they start getting violent. This being a new firm, I am very nervous. I don’t know their number, their chants, their uniforms.

I get on the train to the game. The stadium is close to a train station and most fans arrive by train. At the train station, there is more police presence than usual. Obviously, they’re also preparing for the worst. That does not exactly fill me with great confidence. The same image presents itself in the sector where the opposing team’s fans are: Massive security presence in full riot gear. However, a glimmer of hope comes during the game. Despite there being a rather large group of fans – I estimate about 60 in hooligan clothes and at least as many who sympathize with them – chanting songs by hooligan bands and lighting up phosphorous flares during the game, they seem peaceful enough. Not that lighting up flares would be considered peaceful, since these things burn at about 1200°C. Therefore, they’re forbidden at football games and whenever one is lit, the riot-geared security-forces charge into the crowd and try to put it out in a bucket of sand. During the second half I’m halfway convinced that the warning issued by the police was an overstatement. These guys, while talking the talk and looking the part, seem rather civil, in the context of violent football fans, at least.

As it turns out, their team loses 2-0. And they were nice goals and when my team scored the second goal, I had to make effort to keep myself from cheering. I did that once, it did not go over well and I went home with a bloody nose. So now, I just keep quiet. However, the fans of the winning team decide to taunt and insult the losers, because apparently you have to be a really bad winner when you win. It goes over as well as you would expect it would and the barricades that separate the two fan-factions is quickly torn down.

This is where the first fight starts.

I get pushed around and fall at least three times as I try to claw my way up to the upper ranks as these fights tend to gravitate towards the playing field. Whenever I fall, someone drags me to my feet – which is actually part of the unofficial hooligan rulebook – and pushes me outside the fight. There are about thirty people involved in brawl—the biggest football fight I have been to so far. There are also plenty of bystanders just waiting for their shot. Because the fight was so surprisingly big, the security personnel and the police take about a minute or two to get into the fight. Soon, we hear the familiar hiss of tear gas canisters launched into the crowd and it is then that I notice the two rival firms seem to be working together to get everyone out of the cloud of CS gas.
We’re all escorted out of the stadium and off its premises and sent on our way to the train station.

While the hooligan firms are yelling at each other and insulting everyone and their mother while coughing and wheezing from the teargas, I decide to head to the station and see what goes on there. It’s relatively peaceful and calm there. Some rocks are on the floor, obviously having been thrown at police who responded by carpeting the area with rubber bullets. Suddenly, I hear someone insulting me. It appears as if the hooligans who were content by yelling at each other just three minutes ago have now found their way to the train station. I turn and see a fan in a black bomber-jacket and a black and yellow scarf that covers his mouth is charging at me. Adrenaline shoots into my bloodstream and I get really warm. The nice thing about adrenaline taking over is that time seems to slow down and so I can see the guy move very, very slowly. However, I realize that he must have snuck up on me because I don’t have time to dodge his punch, so I get hit in the face. Very slowly and very painfully. I don’t fall however, so I manage to punch back and hurl some choice expletives in the general direction of my assailant. Along with him, about a dozen members of the two hooligan firms have materialized about thirty feet from me. They start a fight and the police rush in to break it up. I retreat onto the platform and into a train. Numerous football-related riots have established trains a safe zone where nobody tries to start anything. This is mostly because there are families with kids in the trains who have absolutely nothing to do with anything. And hooligans usually tend to duke it out amongst themselves.

In my compartment, there’s a girl who just happened to be on the wrong train and actually just wants to get to the city centre to have a fun night with her friends. Across the aisle, there’s a small family in green and white – a family that has come from the game and they’re audibly enjoying the team’s victory. I sit down and watch the carnage unfold outside and nurse my bleeding nose. As I’m seeing whether it is broken or not – which it isn’t, as far as I can tell simply by the amount of blood I’m losing, but I still want to make sure – a couple fans from the opposing team enter the train. They’re not Category C fans, everyone sees that. They’re also pretty happy and chant their songs despite the fact that they lost. I get some beer spilled on me, but I don’t mind, I’m happy to be out of dodge and soon back at the office. All I got was a whiff of tear gas and a bloody nose. Meanwhile, the girl opposite me has noticed that I’m bleeding and asks if I’m okay. “I’ve had worse days”, I say, not knowing the situation I’d find myself in rather soon. Someone had opened a window, most likely to get rid of the stench of sweat and beer that originates in the general direction of the chanting fans. What I hear next is something right out of a nightmare: The familiar hiss of a teargas canister being fired, something landing inside the train and the “pop-hiss” that is the canister releasing the gas. The police had fired a teargas container into the train.

Before the gas gets really bad, I manage to tell the people in my direct vicinity to put the children close to the window as people will be pushing against the doors soon and pile up. Also, I tell them to hold their breath and cover their nose, mouth and close their eyes. And as if the situation wasn’t bad and dangerous enough, the girl opposite me informs me she has asthma and starts breathing rapidly. I hand her my hooded pullover so that she has at least some protection against the gas. As the fans are pushing against the doors that refuse to budge—you have to pull them open—and the parents of the children are screaming “There are children in here!”, a fan who I thought was drunk and close to passing out gets up and stands on the seat. He kicks the window repeatedly until it eventually breaks. Once a train window is cracked enough, it is possible to peel it out of the frame, much like a car windshield. At least now we’re getting fresh air while we’re coughing and crying. The girl with asthma is in full panic mode and is cowering in her seat, having pulled her legs up to her chest. Meanwhile, the police have approached the train as it must be smoking heavily from the tear gas coming out of the opened windows and the big hole where there formerly was a window. The drunk fan manages to half-scream half-cough the words “There are children in here” before the officers in full riot gear douse him with another load of tear gas.

He collapses and falls out of the window, but is caught by the policemen. Someone on a megaphone informs us that they will evacuate the children through the torn out window, which separates the kids and their parents. “Transport will be waiting for the parents of the children at the next station”, the megaphone bellows and mere seconds after that, the train starts moving. Fresh air rushes in and by the time we reach the next station we’re no longer feeling as if we’re choking to death, but we’re still coughing more than we talk.

As we lumber off the train, we see that there are medical teams standing by so I take Asthma Girl to one of them. I stay with her for about ten minutes before I get my hoodie back. Still coughing and aching from the teargas, I make my way to the office to write down what had just happened. Bloody-nosed and breathless, I sit down at my desk and grab a bottle of water while the computer boots up. I still manage to make the deadline, even though everyone in the room is torn between laughing at and feeling for me.

The worst thing about all this? This wasn’t even the worst football riot I’ve been at.

Dominik Bärlocher is a freelance journalist from Switzerland. He likes to write stories about public transport, football and political riots, rock  concerts and those weird stories nobody would expect to be good. In his free time, he plays football – the European kind, not American football – practises Aikido and reads a lot.