Political book of the year: Hillsborough Voices: The Real Story Told by the People Themselves

by Hamja Ahsan

At a recent public talk for a Muslim campaign group, Gareth Peirce, the legendary British human rights lawyer, compared the survivors of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 to the story of David versus Goliath. Starting her address with words of admiration for the stamina of her client Shaker Aamer through 14 years of his Guantanamo ordeal, she went on to express admiration for how “through solidarity, and strength and collectivety and allies” the Hillsborough survivors finally brought the truth to light after every institution of the state failed them.

The death of 96 Liverpool football fans crushed at the FA Cup semi-final in Yorkshire, with a further 766 injuries, and countless thousands of friends and families traumatised, stands as the worst police cover-up in British history. After 27 years of campaigning, the families graced the newspaper front pages this year again after winning a landmark legal victory bringing the truth to light at a second inquest. The story of victims treated as second-class citizens – systematically demonised, dismissed and defamed by Government and media – resonates with many of us today as people of colour and diasporic subjects in Britain and as state-sanctioned victims of anti-blackness and Islamophobia.

51d2brd6kxl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Kevin Sampson’s book, Hillsborough Voices: The Real Story Told by the People Themselves, recognizes the Hillsborough campaign as part of a jigsaw that runs from the Miners Strike to the Birmingham Six Irish community to Stephen Lawrence as part of that wider struggle for equality. The voices of the participants are equally raw, painful and inspirational. In a mediascape of Slavoj Zizek’s hipster irony and Milo Yiannopoulos “alt-right” provocations, the straightforward plainness and sincerity of the voices of the participants in this oral history are refreshing. Indeed, they are far more insightful into the way the nexus of the powerful operates than any academic analysis could ever be, speaking straight into our hearts.

The burning sense of the perseverance of Anne Williams battling for justice for her dead son Kevin will move you to tears. Sampson uses his skills as a novelist and music journalist to craft together the tapestry of voices that move you to mobilisation, whilst making his own authorial presence invisible. The voices drowned out by the Murdoch media are given full space to breathe, whilst Sampson shows an exemplary sensitivity and compassion in his editorial process. There are also curious new details of the international dimension of the campaign such as the peace garden of 96 trees in Jerusalem initiated by Liverpool’s Jewish community. We feel the trauma of the state crime, how the injustice never leaves you and the human frailty of vulnerability of the families breaking down.

Sampson’s latest is part of the fresh wave of books published after the inquest, which also include an updated version of criminology professor Phil Scaton’s Hillsborough: The Truth, sports journalist Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain and Mike Nicholson’s The Hillsborough Disaster: In Their Own Words, published with the Hillsborough Families Support group. Following this positive redress, Norman Bettison, the mendacious chief of South Yorkshire Police, released an additional book Hillsborough Untold: Aftermath of a Disaster repeating discredited narratives whitewashing his own complicity – causing much grievance and hurt to the families and their supporters. The callousness of the establishment to continue to contest the narrative remains a key reason we should all continue to show our full solidarity with the campaigners. Bettison continues to shape anti-terror policy, stating we need to champion the toxic brand of Prevent surveillance “policing approach so that it reaches deeper into communities.”

Reflecting on her struggle, Anne Williams states in Sampson’s book: “When I look back I find it quite frightening: I find it quite frightening the extremes they’ve gone to, to cover stuff up”, fearing her family home to be under surveillance. How these words haunt us in the age of Prevent, the snoopers charter and investigatory powers bill. Theresa May’s current draconian approach to leglisation leaves us reason to remain vigilant. Communities Thatcher deemed the “enemy within” passed onto generations excluded from May’s world of “British Values”.

pp-hillsborough-sun-frontIn Sampson’s book we hear how the battle of class-prejudice, surveillance and dehumanisation of the “whingeing scouser” as a subspecies of humanity, of working-class football supporters treated as guilty before proven innocent. Aided by the entire system of the British media and Establishment – a conspiracy of power that continues to fabricate against political struggles to this day – a false narrative was set blaming the victims for their own deaths. The most prominent example was Kelvin Mackenzie, who as editor of the Sun was responsible for the notorious “The Truth” front page demonising families and printing outright lies of pick-pocketing hooligans “urinating on the brave cops”, who this year made an assault on Muslim journalist Fatima Manji. Again, the courts failed to protect her against the media abuse.

Amnesty International has recognised the power of the family testimonies and used them as part of a recent attempt to save the human rights act, a legal victory made possible using the currently threatened legislation. Mira Hammad, as part of the legal team working on the inquest, representing Anne Williams’ family and 22 others, explains: “the state has a lot of power, it has virtually unlimited resources. And it can use that power against citizens and particular citizens who are part of a minority, who are disadvantaged, and we’ve seen that historically, there’s been massive examples of that. And even, for example, the Hillsborough case, we’ve seen that a certain view of people from a certain place in the country can affect the way the state deals with us. It’s incredibly important for everybody and especially for people who come from a minority or disadvantaged backgroud and anybody who can find themselves in a situation where they need the human rights act.” The Hillsborough families were inspired by the demands for accountability by Bloody Sunday families. In turn the legacy of the “Long Walk of Hillsborough Truth” can provide inspiration for all other campaigns in their own long walk towards building a more accountable British state.

Andy Burnham MP, one of the voices in the book, identifies that the importance of Hillsborough goes beyond a sporting tragedy because it “tells us how we were governed and policed in the second half of the twentieth century.” And, I would add, continue to be policed and governed. The demand for police accountability is even more pressing with the #BlackLivesMatter movement sparking public mobilisation into the UK. Whilst such transnational, transatlantic solidarity is important, the voices in this remarkable book are also important for the goal of public accountability and how we look at national and localised frame works and the trajectory of injustice.

At the closing remark of her Ramadan address, Gareth Peirce expressed hope that we would live in a world where our children wouldn’t need to fight Goliath – identifying the PREVENT policy as the current Goliath we need to fight. Becky Shah, as child of Inger Shah, one of the women who was killed at the stadium, continues the fight. Speaking at the annual United Friend and Families march this year she said: “We are here today to say never give up fighting, never stop because if we can do it, all of you can do it. And all of you, all of these families that I see here, all these individual tragedies are just as deserving, just as equally deserving as we are of Truth and Justice. And that is my message to Theresa May. We may have got our injustice but you need to look around the rest of the country. It’s not good enough. Our fight is not over”. Let these words point the way forward.

The 18 interweaving first-hand testimonies gathered in Hillsborough Voices tell us a grass-roots story of how a public narrative can be reversed. The book has lessons for a younger generation of black and brown activists that we encounter in recent films such as Generation Revolution and Riots Reframed.

Speaking about the Liverpool chapter of worldwide #BlackLiveMatter demos this year, leading organiser Ayo Akinrele indentified a key thread in the quest for British justice: “From the miner’s strike, to the Toxeth L8 riots, Hillsborough and #BlackLives matter, Liverpool has shown every time that in this City injustice does not go unchallenged”, connecting the city centre march to the vigil for the recent death of black youth Meze Muhammand at police hands.

mono-print-007Kevin Sampson has written extensively on the Toxeth riots of 1981, recognising it as “the spark that ignited the simmering resentment that had brewing in Granby, and which developed into the most prolonged and destructive riots ever witnessed on the UK mainland. Toxteth 81 was not so much a race riot as an uprising against longstanding police malpractice.” The unrest of Toxeth forms the basis of his novel Stars are Stars – documenting how Thatcher’s withdrawal of public funding is the catalyst for central character Danny’s slide into self-destruction, echoing the current effect of austerity on the mental health crisis.

In sum, the volume gathers together an oral history of: “Ordinary men and women who have taken on the carapace of warriors, the precise language of lawyers and the cynicism of those who have come to know so much disappointment that basic human hope is all but extinguished.” The persistence and longevity of the campaign, through periods of waning interest and demoralisation, should remain a source of inspiration and hope for all of us. Documenting the survival and resilience of these voices through dark times pushes us onward.

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Hamja Ahsan is an activist, artist and curator. He co-founded the DIY Cultures festival and the Other Asias collective. He was shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights award for the Free Talha Ahsan campaign. His book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Introvert Militant (Bookworks) is due out in 2017.

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3 replies

  1. It is really important how the author identified the common thread that connects all these events. It illustrates how policing, hasn’t changed much

    Liked by 1 person

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