MORE than 2000 football fans brought parts of Glasgow to a standstill yesterday, ignoring a police warning about possible arrests by staging an unauthorised march.
Some 3000 football fans who claim they are being criminalised by "disproportionate" measures to crack down on hate crime converged on Glasgow's George Square in a lunchtime protest rally.
The Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC) group that represents thousands of fans belonging to the Green Brigade, Celtic Trust, Celtic Supporters Association, Affiliation of Registered Celtic Supporters Clubs and Association of Irish Celtic Supporters Clubs held the rally to express concerns that legislation passed by MSPs more than a year ago has created problems for ordinary supporters.
The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act gives police and prosecutors new powers to tackle sectarian songs and abuse at and around football matches, as well as threats posted on the internet or through the mail.
The Act created two distinct offences, punishable through a range of penalties up to a maximum five years in prison and an unlimited fine. The fans' group complains it has led to "heavy-handed" policing. Glasgow City Council approved the rally between noon and 1.30pm but organisers were told they could not march.
Police expressed concern before the event that large numbers of people may leave the city centre after the rally to head to Celtic Park for the match against Hibernian, and warned that any "procession" would be illegal.
Chief Superintendent Andy Bates, divisional commander for Greater Glasgow, said: "There was no disorder and no arrests and I am delighted by the way in which those who took part conducted themselves.
"When planning for a day like today, we have to strike a balance between protecting people's right to peaceful protest whilst ensuring that the city continues to operate with the minimum of disruption to the people who live and work here. I believe we achieved just that."
The latest rally follows a Glasgow demonstration held by the Green Brigade group of Celtic fans in March, in the aftermath of which there were complaints about heavy-handed policing. Officers formed a cordon, a technique known as "kettling", near the Chrystal Bell pub at Gallowgate in the city.
Before yesterday's gathering Police Scotland had raised concerns about the dispersal at the end of the rally, and set up three routes towards Celtic Park.
But the vast majority of fans chose to converge on Cochrane Street, which was in gridlock as they marched in the middle of the road, waving placards and chanting "all Celtic fans against the bill".
The march continued across Ingram Street, Wilson Street, Bell Street and High Street, with fans spilling onto the road, and it was only at Gallowgate that police intervened more actively, sending in extra officers, some on horseback, to funnel the fans on to one side of the carriageway.
The "kettling" that occurred during last month's demonstration was not repeated and police preferred to escort demonstrating fans from the Gallowgate to Parkhead.
However, there was some criticism of police tactics, summed up by one passerby who said: "I'm not sure that it sets a good precedent."
Police Scotland, under pressure to get things right, said it was not classing the procession as a march and preferred to stress the good behaviour of the fans as they walked to Parkhead.
Earlier in George Square, one of the speakers at the rally, Glasgow University academic and Celtic Trust member Jeanette Findlay said: "You've shown them here today. If you try to beat us off the streets, we will keep coming back in bigger and bigger numbers, until you have not enough truncheons and horses and dogs to keep us down. And you don't have enough bodies to kettle and constrain us."
She added: "Most of you know that our request to the council and police to be allowed to leave here en masse and in good order and safety to Celtic Park today was turned down. Can I ask you all to make your way to the game, or wherever else you are going, with your head held up, in a peaceful and friendly manner for which we are known and welcomed all around the world. Except perhaps our own country.
"And remember this: supporting your team is not a crime."
Labour MSP Michael McMahon, another of the speakers, warned the crowd not to give the authorities the opportunity to portray football fans as "a rabble" to "deflect attention away from what really matters, returning football to the fans and getting politics out of football".
A Scottish Government spokesman, responding to a question surrounding the legislation and police tactics, said they protected fans from the tiny minority whose behaviour spoils the game.
The spokesman added: "An 87% charge rate and 83% conviction rate for people arrested under the legislation shows that it's working well.
"Tackling bigotry and hatred isn't just about legislation, but about wider action to help bring communities coming together."