Last week, former chief superintendent in the South Yorkshire Police David Duckenfield was acquitted of gross negligence manslaughter for his role in the Hillsborough disaster. Duckenfield was match commander at the FA cup semi final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough stadium on 15 April 1989.
It was his decision to open the gates into the Leppings Lane end of the stadium to relieve overcrowding outside of the ground. What followed was the fatal crush on the terraces in which 96 people were killed and hundreds injured. As one witness claimed during the trial, David Duckenfield also ‘reported that the fans had entered the ground by forcing the gates open’. But this was not the case. Indeed, it has been alleged that this originated the lies about drunken ticketless fans being to blame for the disaster.
The terrible pain and loss suffered by the loved ones of those killed at Hillsborough has been turned into a thirty year ordeal. Outrageously, in the days following the disaster, the Sun newspaper reported that fans had not only caused the crush, but had pickpocketed the dead bodies and assaulted and urinated on police and paramedics attending to the injured. Such falsehoods were disgusting even by the low standards of the right-wing media.
These lies became part of the demonisation of working-class people in Liverpool – the stereotype of the criminal Scouser. Liverpool fans to this day are regularly taunted by chants of “murderers”. The disaster and subsequent long battle for justice have become key parts of Liverpool’s history and identity, both for the city and the football club.
With the result of a coroner’s inquest in 2016 finally clearing the names of the victims and confirming that the 96 were unlawfully killed by the gross negligence of the police, hopes were high that the ensuing prosecutions would provide justice. This has not happened.
The judge in the case instructed the jury to disregard as “irrelevant” the findings of the inquiry which exonerated the fans and put the blame squarely on the police. The defense was allowed to dredge up claims about the fans supposedly drunken and violent behaviour. Duckenfield was allowed to give different testimony to that which he gave at the inquest, in which he admitted that he lied about ordering the gates opened, by claiming he honestly thought at the time that the gate was forced. The jury were told that Duckenfield’s emotionless reaction to the testimony of the victims was possibly due to PTSD.
It is not the first failed prosecution relating to the disaster. The CPS dropped charges against Sir Norman Bettison (former chief constable of West Yorkshire Police) in 2018 due to the deaths of two of the planned witnesses and contradictions in the testimony of others. Hardly surprising complications when it has taken nearly thirty years to prosecute suspects.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see the British establishment refuse to properly hold itself accountable. All branches of the capitalist class and the state are culpable in the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent smears, coverups and miscarriages of justice. The police, Thatcher’s government, the media, the courts, the FA and the multi-millionaire owners of football clubs and their stadiums all bear a share of the blame.
Capitalism’s complete disregard for the lives and welfare of working-class people has been tragically brought to light by this case. Successful prosecutions of police officers and others responsible would potentially be a huge blow to the legitimacy of one of the most crucial institutions of capitalism in Britain. That is why after thirty years there is still no justice for Hillsborough. This is why the capitalists and their political representatives will fight tooth and nail to prevent genuine accountability for other disasters, such as the Grenfell tragedy.
For this reason, as well as many others, we need to fight tooth and nail to get rid of the exploitative system of capitalism, which puts profits before people’s safety, which all too often stereotypes working-class people as criminals and thugs, and which defends itself with a largely unaccountable police force and a rigged justice system.