The barrister Peter Herbert sees himself as a civil rights campaigner in the tradition of Martin Luther King and he wants Britain’s black footballers to stand alongside him in the struggle. Go to his website (“D Peter Herbert OBE: Barrister at Law”) and you will find “fan” photographs of him alongside the likes of Jesse Jackson and the Rev Al Sharpton.
He once played Paul Robeson, the American actor and civil rights activist, in a theatre production that was favourably reviewed in The Guardian and is writing his own play about a civil rights case in Liverpool.
Herbert has established a platform as chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers and has worked closely for years with the Black Police Association. Now he has turned his attentions to the beautiful game, wading into the latest football race row by calling on Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg to be suspended while he is investigated over alleged racist comments made to Chelsea’s Nigerian star John Obi Mikel. He has also ignited his own controversy by dubbing Tottenham Hotspur supporters “casual racists” for their embrace of the term Yid Army as a mechanism for combating anti-Semitic abuse from rival supporters. Now he wants footballers to create something similar to the Society of Black Lawyers – the Black Footballers Association, if you will.
“We are trying to show them the potential of black self-organisation,” said Herbert. “There are 60 million people of colour in Europe and the best known and wealthiest of them are footballers. The potential for leadership and excellence and role models is stunning.”
He admits this battle will not be easy, noting that it is “early days” for the project. Footballers “have not been empowered” through university educations to comprehend the role they can have in social change. “We are going to engage and hopefully persuade by using examples from other jurisdictions,” he said.
If he is going to persuade football stars to join his cause, he needs to establish that black British footballers are treated differently from white ones. Which helps explain Herbert’s high profile this week, putting forward a radical 10-point plan for tackling racism in the game. Among the more radical proposals is giving referees the power to call off matches when they hear racist abuse from the crowd. Herbert, 55, has been compared to the campaigning black American lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who represented not just OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson but black sports stars including boxer Riddick Bowe and American footballer Jim Brown. The Newcastle-born barrister, who notes that baseball star Jackie Robinson was a big supporter of Dr King in the 1960s, is a close follower of the racial politics of American sport. He likes the “Rooney Rule”, named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who used affirmative action to give African-American coaches more opportunities in the National Football League. English football has only four black managers. Rooney is now US ambassador to Ireland and Herbert wants to visit him.
He will hope for a warmer reception than he has received this week from British football. His Spurs campaign, particularly his threat of referring the matter to the Metropolitan Police, went down badly at White Hart Lane on Thursday night where the crowd delighted in chanting “Yid Army”. Supporter Tim Framp, of the We Are N17 campaign, said the “positive” use of the term was not deemed offensive by Tottenham’s sizeable Jewish following. “The only way to make it lose its sting is to reclaim it.”
But battle-hardened Herbert, a veteran of 30 years of campaigning, says the non-Jewish majority at Spurs has no right to “reclaim” such a term of abuse and that a criminal offence is committed under section 5 of the Public Order Act if a single television viewer is offended. He might have to “have a word” with the local borough commander.
Piara Powar, former head of Kick It Out – which works with the football authorities – and now executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, said: “I think Peter Herbert and the Society of Black Lawyers are naive. They perhaps don’t know football.”
No doubt Powar would argue the game has made vast progress in combating racism in the past 30 years. But some black players, including Rio Ferdinand, were critical of Kick It Out’s handling of the recent John Terry race case.
Herbert – who today was off to see the multi-ethnic teenage side Leicester Nirvana FC, victims of alleged monkey chants from spectators during a recent under-15s game –sniffed an opportunity.
Some accuse him of simply being opportunist and flash (witness him posing with a Mercedes registered P400 LAW). But he is not naive. Don’t be surprised to see him with a new “fan” picture, hanging out with Rio.