For the past 28 years, Liverpool FC fans have supported the Hillsborough Justice Campaign in its efforts to get some legal accountability for the death of 96 supporters in the 1989 stadium crush in Sheffield.
Quietly, away from the media, many thought this day would never come. But last year, an inquest jury verdict found that the commanding officer on the day of the match, David Duckenfield, had a role in the unlawful killing of those fans.
On Wednesday, the Crown Prosecution Service charged six police officers for their alleged roles in managing the crowd at the Nottingham Forest v. Liverpool game that day, and their alleged plot to cover up the role of South Yorkshire Police officers in those deaths.
This ought to change how we think about Hillsborough. For the past three decades, it has been referred to as a “disaster,” as if it were an accident, and not really anyone’s fault. But the evidence shows it looks more like a manslaughter — particularly when you take together the awful police decision to alleviate crowding at the match by opening a set of doors that allowed more fans to enter the stadium; and a series of secret meetings afterward at which police officers agreed to not tell the truth about how they acted, destroy their notes, and instead publish a false story blaming the fans.
The truth about Hillsborough is far, far worse than even the most conspiracy-minded Reds fan ever thought it would be. It came out first in 2012, with a government inquiry that found the police officers responsible for the mishandling of the crowd later engaged in a conspiracy to cover-up their role in the deaths.
This is an extraordinary thing: The police took actions that led to the deaths of 96 people, and then tried to cover it up. Hillsborough wasn’t a horrible accident. It wasn’t caused by drunk fans without tickets forcing their way into the stadium. None of that happened. It was the result of negligence. And the Liverpool fans’ complaints about it aren’t the victim-status whining that others have made it out to be.
It was a manslaughter, and the police lied about it.
The Guardian has an excellent long-read on this conspiracy, and it’s worth quoting a couple of sections. The conspiracy started the night of the disaster, when police were drinking in their pub:
The story that the disaster should be blamed on the supporters was, meanwhile, being spread throughout that night by South Yorkshire police officers in their Niagara sports and social club, including the most lurid tales that would be published by the Sun, under the headline The Truth, during the week. It emerged at the inquests that one of the nastiest stories, that fans had picked the pockets of the dead, was not just untrue, but that the police had evidence that it was untrue from the beginning because they had made routine logs of all the cash and other property found on each person.
Sykes confirmed that in the Niagara he had seen a local Conservative MP, Irvine Patnick, and asked him if he wanted to know “the truth.” He then took Patnick to several officers who told him that some supporters were “p****d out of their minds,” and that they were “pissing on us” and kicking and punching police during the rescue operation.
“It was booze that did it,” Patnick, in a note, recorded Sykes telling him. “You speak up for us to tell them in parliament what happened.”
None of that was true.
Later, the police falsified their notes of the disaster:
The South Yorkshire police officers were ordered, contrary to all regular practice, to record their Hillsborough experiences not in their official pocketbooks but on plain paper. A series of officers acknowledged at the inquests that this was unprecedented: It was a disciplinary offence not to write in a pocketbook, which is a contemporaneous note, very difficult to amend without it being obvious, and therefore persuasive, credible evidence in a courtroom. Accounts on plain paper could be — and infamously were — amended before going to the official public inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor.
Separately, it’s worth noting just how different the real history of Hillsborough is compared to the fiction that the police generated at the time. Here are the front covers of the Sun from immediately after the disaster, and then again in 2012 when the truth first came out. The original reason The Sun published that notorious false headline was because the information it was based on came, originally, from a police officer:
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