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From Baltimore to Belgrade (and Back)

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Baltimore and Belgrade. They couldn’t be farther apart. Perhaps the only thing that brings them together is the fact that both city’s names begin with the letter “B” and end with the letter “E”. Yet despite their differences, the two have been brought together, at least for the purposes of this post, due to . . .rioting. As many may know Baltimore was affected by two days of violent rioting following the death of Freddie Gray which gave way to calm on the night of Tuesday, April 28—no doubt due in most part to the presence of 2,000 National Guard troops and 1,000 additional police officers enforcing a 10:00pm-5:00am (22:00-05:00) curfew. It may seem harsh, but the widespread riots—shown on the map below—left authorities no choice.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/28/us/baltimore-riots/

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lynzybilling/here-are-the-most-powerful-photos-from-the-baltimore-riots#.sjbzL58DO

Sports, like many representations of “normal” life were not unaffected. Due to the curfew baseball’s Baltimore Orioles announced via Twitter that their Tuesday, April 28 game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards Stadium would be postponed and that Wednesday’s game would be played behind closed doors. While football fans may be used to games being closed to the public and played without fans, U.S. baseball fans are certainly not. This kind of thing is unprecedented in U.S. sports, but will most certainly happen in Belgrade next weekend. Now, lets look at Belgrade for a moment before returning to Baltimore.

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The Baltimore Orioles’ Announcement. Image Courtesy of: https://twitter.com/orioles/status/593124360963031040

 

On Saturday April 25 the “Eternal Derby” in Serbia between Belgrade rivals Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade lived up to its billing as one of the world’s most dangerous derbys—at least 50 people were injured and there were 40 arrests in the chaos. Graphic pictures and videos of the riot show supporters launching flares and hurling seats at police while many are left bloodied and stunned in the stands. One could look for a political motive in all of this; after all, many derbies in European football are characterized by deep-seated animosities between fan bases stemming from, among other things, ethnic differences, class differences, and political differences. In this case, however, there is not much of that.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3055654/Violent-scenes-derby-Red-Star-Belgrade-Partizan-Belgrade-delays-game-leaves-35-police-officers-injured.html#ixzz3YQqGcIgA

 

Red Star Belgrade were formed by members of the Serbian United Antifascist Youth League during World War Two. Although they inherited the stadium, offices, players, and colors of a team—SK Jugoslavija (disbanded after being labelled collaborators by communist leader Josip Broz Tito for playing matches in German occupied Serbia during the war)—the continuity between clubs is disputed.

Their rivals, Partizan Belgrade (whose stadium I learned upon visiting the city is just 1 kilometer away from Red Star’s, were founded as the club of the Yugoslav army and were initially managed by officers in the Yugoslav People’s Army. Indeed, the club was named in honor of the Yugoslav Partisans who fought against the communists in World War Two. The club’s initial crest even sported a five pointed red star as a symbol of communism—not too different from Red Star Belgrade’s emblem that features…a five pointed red star with a background of red, white, and blue, the national colors of Serbia.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FK_Partizan#Crest_and_colours AND http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Star_Belgrade#Crest_and_colors Respectively

The animosity stems mainly from the fact that both teams are the most supported in Serbia and are located in close proximity to one another in the capital city. It is bragging rights that are on the line, and one is born with an identity that is characterized by the support of one of the teams. In some ways, it is a feeling of a familial bond that connects the team to its supporters. In a Wall Street Journal article one Red Star fan was quoted describing the love he has for his team: “It’s the kind of love one feels for a country or a woman or a child.” On the flip side a fan of Partizan Belgrade was also quoted, explaining that he married a Red Star fan only on condition that they raise their children Partizan fans: “It was one of the things I insisted on when we got married. I said I could cope with anything except them being Red Star fans.” This sentiment isn’t too hard to understand. I encountered it while talking with fans at derbys in Stockholm and Thessaloniki and I have heard the almost romantic love football fans sing with while supporting their teams in Turkey. My own childhood friend in Turkey—herself a Besiktas fan—had to accept her husband’s request that their child be raised a Fenerbahce fan when she married. Even one of my childhood friends in America who recently got married remembers one of the first things he asked his now wife on their first date: “You’re not a Yankees fan, are you?” As a Boston Red Sox fan he had to clear all the deal-breakers out of the way first. Sports are something that can make seemingly rational people become irrational regardless of where they live. Sure, they are more passionate in Europe and South America but even then ugly incidents are, for the most part, confined to the stadium. The threat of possible bodily harm is kind of something you accept as collateral damage when entering the gates for a football match. But it isn’t something that consumes a city.

 

Now back to Baltimore. The reason that I bring up Belgrade is that I came across an article written by Derrick Clifton about the Baltimore riots. According to his byline he is “a Staff Writer at Mic covering identity, culture and social justice […and] master’s candidate at the Medill School of Journalism.” He says, rightly, “Usually, if a riot involves black people, it’s connected to intense episodes of where systemic racism is undoubtedly at work.” But what he goes on to explain is troubling, in my mind, and loses the point of what he wants to say:

“But when a mob of mostly white people take to the streets, vandalizing cars, storefronts and street signs in the process it usually means someone either won or lost a game. As Mic’s Zak Cheney-Rice noted in January, these rioters are usually called ‘revelers,’ ‘celebrants’ and ‘fans.’ They’re not even called ‘rioters’ in many cases. They’re not derided as ‘criminals,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘pigs’ or even ‘violent.’ Those descriptors, as events in Baltimore Monday night reveals yet again, are only reserved for black people. They’re the ones who need to be quelled by militarized police forces. They’re the ones who need to be off the streets, immediately. They’re diminishing the validity of their cause. Yet somehow, reckless behavior over a sports team, not a systemic matter of life and death, is viewed as a costly nuisance.”

Unfortunately it is the issue of “race” in the United States that reduces what should be important social discussion to its lowest common denominator, with the implication that somehow someone is being wronged due to his or her skin color and that is what is to blame. The events cited by Mr. Clifton include “riots” in the aftermath of sporting events as diverse as the San Francisco Giants 2014 baseball World Series win, the Vancouver Canucks 2011 hockey Stanley Cup Finals loss, and the 2015 Ohio State Buckeye’s college football championship in 2015. I would say that the common factor in all of these instances of violence and destruction was sports and alcohol…resulting in a “costly nuisance”, if you will. None of these instances involved plans on Twitter or the targeting of police officers: The Baltimore Police Department/Criminal Intelligence Unit announced that it “received credible information that members of various gangs including the Black Guerilla Family, Bloods, and Crips [had] entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.” None of the aforementioned events involved the widespread looting of stores either. And certainly none of them involved pathetic attempts to link Israeli intelligence to a domestic disturbance in the United States of America. Therefore, to me, Mr. Clifton’s comparison between “white riots” and the events in Baltimore, in order to find a racist motive, is moot.

 

I think that if we are to find a parallel between the rioting in Baltimore and sports-induced rioting it is helpful to get beyond the issue of race and look at the systemic problems in world society. For that, we can slowly move from Baltimore to Belgrade. Another article from the American left ran the headline “Councilman schools Fox News reporter on how to cover Baltimore uprisings”. If we ignore for a moment the needlessly hyperbolic anti-Fox News language used in the headline and listen to councilman Nick Mosby’s words we may get closer to the truth:

“What it is is [the] young folks of this community showing decades old anger, frustration, for a system that’s failed them. I mean, this is bigger than Freddie Gray. This is about the socio-economics of poor, urban America. These young guys are frustrated, they’re upset and unfortunately, their [sic] displaying it in a very destructive manner. When folks are under-educated, unfortunately, they don’t have the same intellectual voice to explain it the way other people are doing it and that’s what we see through the violence today.”

It is true, the roots of the problems in Baltimore stem from poverty and a lack of opportunity for many. What is important to note, however, is that this lack of opportunity is not only confined to minorities. There are plenty of white Americans facing the same unemployment problems and the same struggles with poverty and rising costs of living. To lower everything to the simple level of racial inequality cheapens the debate and only provides excuses and an easy way out. It is similar to that old (and hugely incorrect) mantra with which the West viewed (again) Belgrade during the Bosnia crisis: “The Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims have been fighting since the beginning of time. They could never live together, so what can we do?”—“White American cops are racist so this is what happens”. When we make broad statements with little or no thought to back them up nothing is gained. The problems in Baltimore are not very different from the problems affecting many other metropolises the world over: There is a growing wage gap which is drawing more and more urban people—black, white, purple, and green—into a feeling of hopelessness that can also manifest itself in violence. That is why many have posted articles that “explain” why riots occur in order to justify the actions of some (its kind of a no-brainer, but you can make your own analyses by sifting through the leftist rhetoric). Now we come full circle to Belgrade.

 

The Wall Street Journal article cited earlier in this post was titled “Soccer Violence Escalates in Europe”. The reason, according to the article, is that fans have been “driven by Europe’s economic struggles and what’s seen as an accompanying rise in nationalism and racism”. It isn’t a shocking conclusion and the figures don’t lie, at least those cited in the article: “The U.K.-based group Kick It Out counted 71 discriminatory incidents in Britain this season compared with 43 at this point last year,” and “In Germany, officials reported 7,863 soccer-related offenses last season, up from 4,576 in 2005-06. Italy saw 1,515 last year, up from 1,161.” Meanwhile in Spain, “penalties for sports-related offenses jumped by 22% last season from the previous year”.

The article’s author Naftali Bendavid notes that in the years following the Balkan wars of the 1990s “Serbian paramilitaries recruited from fan groups for the Balkan wars, as soccer hooligans became warriors and vice versa”. Indeed, some of this may be true. An article detailing the Grobari group, Partizan Belgrade’s Ultras, explains that:

“A defiance of authority since the tormented 1990s has intoxicated political and social spheres and reared its ugly head in football too. Many ultras took part in the armed conflicts and carry their scars today, translating the tribal nature of the Yugoslav wars to their clubs and ultras groups.”

Certainly Serbia’s continued exclusion from mainstream European society (the European Union)—and ongoing economic stagnation—is sure to have an effect on its young, male, job seeking population (incidentally, the core demographic of most football supporters). It is normal. That said I am not here to make an inquest into any Ultra group or football supporters in general, since I am first and foremost a football fan. I’ll leave that to the media; it seems that they are the champions at demonizing groups. What I am here to say is that economic disparities are becoming more and more pronounced, whether in Baltimore or Belgrade or anywhere else. And to paint over those real economic problems with the label of “White vs. Black racism” and other ideological (or political) slogans really does nothing to solve human problems that are very real. People feel forgotten by the systems they live in, making less and less money, while gentrification pushes up rents in low income neighborhoods. This frustration then drives some to extremes that can become violent. That is the challenge for governments all over the world at the beginning of the 21st century: To win back the citizens they are losing every day as a result of a world society unable to produce stable and ongoing economic benefits for all citizens.

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Stadion Crevna Zvezda/Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia – Red Star Belgrade

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The Red Star Stadium is as intimidating as the name sounds. Unfortunately, this post is not about a match, but I hope to attend one here soon, since the Belgrade derby between Red Star and Partizan is one of European football’s most storied derbies. It was being renovated during my visit in 2008, and it now boasts a capacity of 55,538. One can only imagine what the atmosphere would be during a sell out. The stadium was completed in 1963, and from 1964 to 1998 the capacity was an amazing 110,000. Now, with under soil heating and a new pitch, it is slowly entering the category of a truly modern stadium.

It is a fitting stadium for the most successful Serbian club, as Red Star remain the only Eastern European side to lift the European Cup (It happened in 1991). Below is a write up of my visit to the stadium when I acquired the team’s shirt, an excerpt from a larger piece of travel writing. As you read the write up and peruse the pictures, feel free to take in Serbian folk Singer Boban Zdrakovic’s “Marakano”, a cult song amongst Red Star fans.

Bombed Out in Beograd:

My father had been right—Belgrade is not a pretty city. The grey façades of communist era architecture were drab as ever, even in the gentle light of dawn. Their paint was pealing, neglected after communism’s unceremonious fall. The streets were empty, as I wandered looking for lodging. After doing a loop around the city—and having found all hotels full—I ended up back near the train station settling on the drab Hotel Astoria—I wasn’t about to shell out for the luxuries of Hotel Moskva. After leaving my passport at the reception desk so that it could be registered with Serbian police—old habits die hard apparently—I headed up to my small room. It seemed that whoever had given the hotel three stars must have been here at least twenty years ago. The rotary telephone in the dreary little room, which had the stupendous view of the backside of an apartment block, was proof of it.

I fell onto the bed for a little rest since it was only eight in the morning and I had already been walking for a few hours. Lying on my pillow, I had a vague feeling that something wasn’t right—I just couldn’t relax and drift away into dreams. After a few minutes I sat up to look around and confirm that everything was alright. Obviously, it wasn’t. On my pillow, next to where my head had been lying, there was a small worm. I don’t know how it got there, but I jumped up and ran my fingers through my hair madly, making sure that there was no insect infestation. Luckily, there were no more worms but this was too much for me this early into my stay in Beograd. I decided to leave the bed and go outside on a search for the Red Star Belgrade stadium, the Marakana. After receiving directions from the lobby I set out, ignoring the receptionist’s warning that it was a forty-minute walk. After all, walking is healthy!

In the streets the signs were not transliterated from Cyrllic. I conjured up all my memories from previous jersey hunting experiences in Macedonia, where Cyrillic is also the official alphabet. Walking uphill from the hotel the bombed out remnants of the former Yugoslav interior ministry, destroyed by NATO in the bombing campaigns 0f 1999, met my eyes. I assumed that it had been kept in its half-destroyed state as a reminder of America’s aggressions against civilian Belgraders. As I took pictures, I wondered what would happen if someone should find out I was an American? Later, in a café by the train station before leaving, I read that the building would soon be built into a luxury hotel by an Israeli company—another move to erase the memories of Yugoslavia and inch toward the EU.

Walking away from the destroyed building I followed the road up to the Slavija square, home of the first McDonald’s in Eastern Europe as well as mass protests after the United State’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence in February of 2008. I headed up a typically communist tree lined boulevard—like so many, it was beautiful in its own special way. I opted against riding one of the ubiquitous trams, deciding that walking was a better way to take in the city. Soon I was on the side of a highway, the only pedestrian in sight. The loneliness was strangely nerve-wracking, with the fresh memories of bombed out buildings in my head.

Continuing up the road for another ten minutes, cars buzzing by me at high speeds under the summer sun, I found a clearing in the development, and across it was the gigantic Marakana stadium. I headed to the walls of the stadium. All over the walls graffiti was scribbled, imparting a number of different things—some I couldn’t understand, and others I understood immediately. “North Storm” and “Chemical Boys RS” were cryptic at best, while graffiti scrawled in blood red paint read “Kosovo Srbija”. A reminder to all that Red Star Belgrade fans—and I’m sure many others—will not forgive the loss of their cultural homeland of Kosovo, ripped away by a West led by the United States.

I took a deep breath and continued along the curved outer wall of the stadium. It was a continuous curve, and as such I couldn’t see more than three feet ahead of me at any time. My paranoia was such that I expected someone to jump out at anytime and ask me what I was doing snooping around a stadium in the middle of July, with no games being played. I played out the scenario—I would be asked why I was there, and where I was from, and somehow they would learn that I was American and then . . . well, it wasn’t worth thinking about because it wasn’t going to happen! Finally, I made it around to the front of the stadium. Ahead of me was graffiti depicting a knife wedged in something. I couldn’t understand it, but I took it as a warning of some sort all the same.

Walking through the gates, I looked down into the stadium, where the word “Delije” was written into the seats behind the goal, white seats making out the letters among the sea of red seats. This was the name of the hard-core group of supporters who, in this stadium, were recruited as a paramilitary group to terrorize the minorities of Yugoslavia during its bloody downfall[1]. In the end though, as the final chapters of Yugoslavia were being written, it was Red Star supporters who led the “revolution” against the fanatical Serb president Slobodan Milosevic and took the initiative to attempt and steer Serbia away from its isolation[2].

Finding the fan shop and, after asking the lady at the counter who their best player was, I purchased a number thirteen Tutoric shirt. When I arrived back in Turkey I learned that he had followed me back, transferred to a mid-level side in the Turkish Super League.

That night I wandered the streets of Belgrade, looking for an underground bar written up in my guidebook. Apparently, it had been a place for dissidents during the Milosevic years. While getting lost in the Belgrade night I stumbled upon Shaharazad Hookah café, off of a main street in a dark alley. It seemed inviting and I decided to take a chance and recreate the feel of Istanbul. I walked in and was immediately bombarded by the Middle Eastern décor and advertisements for Efes Pilsen—Turkey’s famous brew.

I took a seat and ordered a hookah—mint as usual, smoking it as the lights dimmed and Serbian girls dressed in belly dancing outfits came out. As the girls moved their hips seductively—looking customers in the eyes and encouraging them to buy more drinks—the irony of Serbian girls dressed in Turkish dress didn’t escape me. After a while, I caught a glimpse of the men one seat over drinking arak, the Arab version of the anise-flavored Turkish Raki. I think one of them realized I had been looking at him, so he initiated conversation

“So, where are you from,” started the heavy-set Arab man next to me.

“Istanbul,” I answered, not wanting to let off the whole truth in a sensitive part of the world, figuring that here there would be no ill feelings towards Turks in this “Oriental” establishment.

“Ahh, Istanbul is a beautiful city,” He told me in thick accented English, looking into the distance, playing the movie reel of his past in his head.

“You’ve been there?” I asked, and he nodded in affirmation.

“Many times.” He ordered me some Arak and I asked him what he was doing here. He explained that his son owned the place, and that he came here with his Arab friends. I asked him where he was from, expecting to hear Cairo.

“I am from Baghdad,” he said. I was surprised, to say the least.

He could read my emotions and continued, “I was the ambassador to this country, but after the Americans invaded my country . . .” he trailed off, assuming that I got the picture, not wanting to go into too much more detail.

I sat back, dumb-founded, as a beautiful Serbian girl in front of me motioned with her hands at a bald Englishmen to our left, dancing. I was relieved to have dodged a bullet—who knows how he would have reacted to me as an American. The fact that he was drinking alcohol proved that he was of Saddam’s mold, that is to say secular, and a far cry from the Islamists vying for the tattered country’s heart. We continued watching the girls belly dance over another glass of the firewater—we got great service once the waiters saw whom I was talking to. After finishing my drink, I shook hands with the former ambassador and stumbled out into the warm Belgrade night, with both head and heart heavy. My guidebook told me that there were good clubs on the shores of the Danube, where the vodka flowed.


[1] Foer, Franklin. How Soccer Explains The World. Harper Perennial, New York: 2005, 21.

[2] Ibid., 29.

The Bombed Buildings of Belgrade Bring the Past to Life:

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The Modern is Destroyed, but the Past Remains Alive and Well:

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And the Modern Side of Beograd:

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Approaching the Marakana:

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I Don’t Need a Dictionary For This–Perhaps a History Book Instead:

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The Ultras Have Left Their Mark(s):

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Belgrade Sprawled Out In The Distance:

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I can Understand “Serbia” and “Kosovo”:

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The New Pitch Being Installed:

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The “Delije” Section:

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Now, One of These Shirts Hangs In My Closet:

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