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Arsenal liaising with police over antisemitic messages in Ashburton Army fan group | Arsenal

Arsenal are liaising with the police over antisemitic posts sent in the WhatsApp group of the Ashburton Army, a prominent fan organisation to which the club give assistance.

The messages on which a date is visible were sent in 2019 and are largely Holocaust-focused, though they also take in Israel-Palestine conspiracy theories, Jewish practice related to circumcision and Tottenham’s reputation as a Jewish club. The sentiments are communicated in words, songs, memes and cartoons.

The Guardian has seen dozens of harrowing messages, some targeting all Jews and others directed at one Jewish supporter who was part of the group but has since left. In none of those screenshots did an administrator delete the offending posts, remonstrate with the perpetrators or remove those responsible from the group.

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It is understood Arsenal were made aware of the messages around the time they were sent but, after asking their principal target for his thoughts and encouraging a formal complaint, they opted to honour his wishes by not taking any further action. Instead, they warned representatives of the group about its future conduct.

“We are aware of the historic messages on a private WhatsApp group,” Arsenal told the Guardian, “and we strongly condemn the abusive and discriminatory language being used. We are liaising with the police on the matter.

“Our ongoing action shows that abusive and discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated at Arsenal. We recently announced that 31 members and season-ticket holders have been banned for abusive and discriminatory behaviour since the start of the 2021-22 season. The bans are the result of behaviour online (18) and in the stadium (13). Five of the 31 sanctions are for antisemitism.”

The Metropolitan police said: “We are aware of antisemitic messages and can confirm that an investigation is ongoing. There have been no arrests. We do not tolerate any form of hate crime and will do everything in our power to identify offenders and bring them to justice.”

An Ashburton Army flag at the Emirates Stadium last month
An Ashburton Army flag at the Emirates Stadium last month. The club help store banners between matches. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

The Ashburton Army – named after the site on which the Emirates Stadium was built numbers about 200 and prospective members must show they are willing to be part not just of a supporter group but a social group. Those keen to join must prove their character by working on flags, banners and songs, attending meetings, walking from the pub to the ground en masse and participating in charitable activities, such as assisting in food banks.

Though it remains independent from the club, the Ashburton Army has forged strong links with them over the last year or so after Mikel Arteta instructed officials to do what they could to improve the Emirates Stadium atmosphere. To cement the connection, the group provided assurances that the violence, racism and criminality associated with the ultras culture in continental Europe would be absent.

Consequently, the club the agreed that before tickets go on sale for each home match, a section of 100 lower-tier seats behind the Clock End goal would be reserved for group members eligible to apply. The Ashburton Army hopes that, eventually, it will take over the entire block. The club have supported funding for two of its banners – partly to ensure they were made with sustainable materials – and help with storage between matches.

Relations have soured slightly in recent weeks, in part because Arsenal announced measures which mean each ticket must go to and be used by a particular member. That was among the reasons why the group boycotted part of last week’s game against Chelsea to protest on the concourse.

The change is a global one and not specific to the Ashburton Army. However, precise ticket allocation is viewed as a tool to root out antisemitism, touting and other antisocial behaviour, not just at the Emirates but also at away games.

A view outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium last month
Mikel Arteta has sought to improve the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Arsenal said of their equality, diversity and inclusion work: “Our inclusion programmes designed for our local community aim to support education on the topics of abuse and discrimination, while our global platforms will continue to give a voice and bring focus to matters of equality, diversity and inclusion. We will also continue to campaign alongside our supporters’ groups, including our new Jewish Gooners group and the Jewish community, to celebrate and champion our diverse family with the aim of ensuring everyone feels welcome at Arsenal.”

The Ashburton Army said: “We strongly condemn any form of racism and antisemitic talk as we are a group with many religions and races and have Jewish members. We will continue to educate members and work with the club throughout the investigation.”

The Jewish Gooners group is in dialogue with Arsenal and John Mann, the government’s antisemitism adviser, about what could be done to improve matters further.

“The WhatsApp messages are completely unacceptable and we understand it’s something the police and Arsenal are investigating,” it told the Guardian. It said the club had been “hugely supportive” and that they would work together to “celebrate the Jewish community” and support the “battle against antisemitism, abuse and discrimination”.

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