Territorial stigma and the Hillsborough Disaster
Kick-off was due at 3pm. By 3pm lives had been lost and decisions made that would impact families and one city for years to come.
This short piece considers the role that the territorial stigmatization of Liverpool played in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. It is illustrated with pictures taken at make-shift memorials in Liverpool city centre and at Anfield football stadium after the Hillsborough Independent Panel ruled, following two years of deliberation, that the 96 Liverpool F.C. fans who died on 15th April 1989 were killed unlawfully.
Territorial stigmatization refers to the phenomenon described first by Loïc Wacquant, who married together Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman’s work on stigma and French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on symbolic violence and group-making. Since its inception in 1993, Wacquant and others have refined the concept to describe the structural dynamics inherent in places “widely labelled as ‘no-go areas’, fearsome redoubts rife with crime, lawlessness and moral degeneracy where only the rejects of society could bear to dwell”. For Wacquant, the concept is tied strongly to the post-industrial or post-Fordist society and its marginalised populations.
Territorial stigmatization is separate from other types of stigma and is directed at spaces and places, imbuing these locations with a negative image. Often, the construction of such a negative image is aided by using existing stereotypes and stigmas such as racial or class stereotypes. The application of stereotypes about people living in a certain place, in turn, imbues that location with a negative image which, as a result of stigma’s ‘stickiness’, latches on to the residents. Often, residents find that the adhesive nature of territorial stigma follows them when they relocate; as Keene and Padilla illustrate, when residents relocate from stigmatized neighbourhoods in Chicago to East Iowa, they continue to be stigmatized because of the popular perception of their place of origin.
Liverpool is one of Britain’s major cities and has suffered greatly from stigmatization of its people and location. It has an image of social problems, of the stereotypical Scouser typified by Harry Enfield’s ‘calm down’ caricature, and of dereliction and depravity. The city was plunged into international infamy following decades of decline after the 1981 riots in Granby in the Liverpool 8 area of the city. Phil Scraton argues that the city’s portrayal was, in Lord Scarman’s investigation into the riots, tainted with notions of Liverpool’s “‘cultural deficiency’ and moral degeneracy” in explaining the city’s riots. Indeed, following the three days of riots in 1981, UK PM Thatcher (1979-1990) considered implementing a “managed decline” of the city.
The Hillsborough disaster should have been remembered as a football disaster in which 96 children, parents, friends and relatives left home that morning, travelled to Sheffield to attend a football game, and never returned home. It should have been remembered as a sporting tragedy, an example of decisions made by police and by officials that resulted in the unlawful deaths of sports fans. It should have been remembered as a tragic moment in sporting history, and a dark day for Liverpool—its club and its people. It should not, however, have been a moment of immense media and legal stigmatization for the city. It should not have been a time when the city needed to fight for truth to emerge from the wreckage of the day.
After 27 years, 26th April 2016 marked the day that Liverpool fans, the families of the 96 victims, and the city finally received word that the 96 died unlawfully and not as the result of fans present that day whose behaviour, the initial verdict had argued and the original story told, as they pushed forward in the stalls, had contributed to the deaths of their fellow fans.
But why did the public not doubt that Liverpool fans could have been capable of, essentially – if accidentally, as the original verdict, revoked in 2012, had stated – killing their fellow fans? Why did the public not question the negative images proffered by the press? Why was The Sun’s headline coverage that relied on ideas of moral degeneracy not questioned? Did the public truly believe that Liverpool fans “urinated on the brave cops”? The Sun’s coverage was particularly bleak, suggesting that, in addition to sullying the police, fans picked pockets of victims and attacked the police. It somehow, all too easily, fitted into the popular image of Scousers and Liverpool. It matched the ‘calm down’ image, the view of a morally degenerate population living in a city that needed closing, one which was dangerous and deviant.
Territorial stigmatization has long affected Liverpool. It was known for its poor public health in the 19th century, and its cosmopolitan population, its large population of Catholics and Protestants, its immigrant population, its distinctive accent, and its riots have further tarred Liverpool. Stigma is adhesive and can be difficult to remove. It builds on stereotypes and we rely on stereotypes to work as building blocks to sort and process the world around us. In particular, reducing the world to these cognitive sorting mechanisms means that we can quickly and easily determine who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. We can filter out who is part of our group and who is an ‘other’. I posit that it is our reliance on stereotypical views of place that allowed Liverpool and its fans to be stigmatised in the popular imagination. Long stereotyped and caricatured in the media, including comedy, television dramas, and the press, when news of Hillsborough unfolded it became all too easy to rely on those images, those stereotypical building blocks to interpret the situation. It was easy to imagine a tracksuit-clad Scouser committing the horrific acts that media and police suggested. It was less easy to process the fact that Liverpool and Everton fans together showed dignity, grace and strength as they fought for justice for their city. It simply did not fit into our stigmatized view of Liverpool that the fans were not responsible for their own demise.
And so, on 26th April 2016 when the verdict of ‘unlawful deaths’ was announced it was a victory for bereaved families and the city. It was also a wake-up call for us all to think beyond stereotypes and to be aware of the pernicious role territorial stigmatization plays in our way of processing and understanding the world.