“When you walk through a storm,
Hold your head up high.
And don’t be afraid, of the dark,
At the end of the storm.
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark…”
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, a show tune from the 1945 Roger and Hammerstein musical Carousel, rung out from the steps of an English courtroom on April 26th, 2016, as justice campaigners celebrated a 27 year fight to clear the names of the people killed in one of the worst stadium disasters in British football history. The tune was adopted by supporters of Liverpool Football Club in the 1960s as a pre-match rallying song but gained increased emotional significance following the disaster in the match involving Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. A crush on the terraces in the opening minutes of the 1989 English Football Association Cup semi-final resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans and left hundreds injured. At the time, after 10 years of sustained attacks on working-class communities, which Margaret Thatcher’s government described as ‘the enemy within’, compassion for the victims and the search for the truth were of little concern. To appreciate last week’s ruling, we should consider the grassroots campaign by the bereaved and their supporters that forced this process.
At the match on April 15th, 1989, Liverpool supporters were put into ‘pens’ in the stadium, with fences at the front to prevent any possible attempts by supporters to enter the field of play in a ‘pitch invasion’. At 2.50pm, ten minutes before the start of the match, the pens were full to capacity and a crush of people trying to get in began to develop outside the stadium. At 2.52pm, the police ordered an exit gate opened to alleviate this, and thousands more people entered the already full terraces. Six minutes after the start of the match, at 3.06pm, the police ordered that the match be stopped due to the developing crush. Minutes later the situation became a tragedy: a crush barrier collapsed, and as the crush intensified, some could not expand their chests to breathe in. They died of compression asphyxia.
What followed was one of the most extensive cover-ups and miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Minutes after the crush began, South Yorkshire Police had begun to concoct a version of events that would lay the blame fully with the supporters. Witnesses and relatives of the dead were interviewed as if they were criminals. The emerging narrative described the supporters as drunk, violent thugs who failed to comply with police orders to move back and form an orderly queue.
The coverup of the Hillsborough tragedy was part of a sustained attack on working-class communities and culture throughout the 1980s. The local police knew that their lies would prevail, because of their role in the government’s class war on working-class communities. They had become increasingly militarised during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and they and the Thatcher government had won a number of key battles.
The war on the working class extended to football– the working person’s game. Following a 1985 stadium fire in Bradford that led to the deaths of 56 supporters, an editorial in the Sunday Times called football “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people”. Such rhetoric also appeared after Hillsborough, most infamously in another Rupert Murdoch publication, The Sun, which emblazoned its front page with the claim, from unnamed police sources, of ‘THE TRUTH: Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PCs giving the kiss of life’.
The initial 1991 inquest into the disaster recognised some police failings, but it did not question the validity of police and witness statements. The inquest ruled that victims had died by accidental death, a verdict that the bereaved rejected, and many refused to collect death certificates. They argued that responsibility lay with the senior police officers on duty, whose actions amounted to criminal negligence. The British Establishment – across the political spectrum – refused to heed the calls of the bereaved to open a new inquiry. Following the election of the Labour Party in 1997, many hoped that a supposedly left leaning government would lead change direction. Instead, when the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, refused to re-open the public inquiry, the families denounced the Labour government. Following this, the bereaved families established the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to demand the reopening of the public enquiry into the disaster and to offer support to all affected. This grassroots campaign would be instrumental in securing the justice sought for the victims.
The consistent refusal of those in power to reconsider the verdict meant that the police version of events was accepted and regurgitated for almost 27 years. Outgoing London Mayor, Boris Johnson, wrote in 2004 that the city of Liverpool had a ‘victim status’ and had failed to acknowledge ‘even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans’. In 2013, Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, refused to apologise for a letter he wrote to a bereaved fan stating that Liverpool should ‘shut up”’ about Hillsborough and accept that the fans were to blame.
But the city of Liverpool refused to shut up and accept this version of events. The city remained united in their condemnation of South Yorkshire Police, the Government, and their allies in the press. Many across the city continued to boycott The Sun. The Justice campaign maintained a strong public presence.
At the 20th anniversary commemoration service in 2009, local Labour MP and Government Minister Andy Burnham was booed, heckled, and jeered whilst addressing the crowd. It became apparent that this community would not quietly go away. Following this very public shaming, Burnham became the champion of the Justice cause and demanded that confidential documents not available at the initial inquest be opened for consideration, leading to a new public inquest. It became the longest inquest in British history, lasting two years. The panel sat for 300 days and heard from nearly 1,000 witnesses. When it came to its conclusion, the campaigners and the city waited for the two answers that they had fought for 27 years to hear:
Judge: “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?”
Judge: “Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation?”
Cries of hallelujah, sobbing, and celebration broke out in the courtroom. One of the most sustained cover-ups and campaigns against a working-class community by the British Establishment had ended in justice for the smeared, the dead, the bereaved, and the city of Liverpool.
The Hillsborough story demonstrates that working-class solidarity can ultimately overcome government attacks supported and repeated by the police and the media. The significance of this victory cannot be understated. This rulingprovided immediate impetus to the campaign for a public inquiry into the “Battle of Orgreave” during the Miners’ Strike, when this same police force were accused of acting as an occupying army on behalf of the government and repeatedly attacked striking miners and their families.
The British Establishment during the 1980s, and beyond, used all of its power to tarnish and destroy working-class communities across the country in a campaign of violence and intimidation. The bereaved families of the Hillsborough victims demonstrated that this can be challenged and that solidarity can lead to victory. May it be a beginning, not an end, to success in the many fights for justice in dismantling the myths and lies propagated during this time.
Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy. He recently spoke with BBC Scotland about the Hillsborough verdict.