Twenty five years ago thousands of Liverpool football fans were caught in a crush at a match at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. Some 96 died as a result and hundreds more were injured.
In the years following the disaster, lies were told about Liverpool fans. Such was the vitriol that relatives of the dead still have to ask that they aren’t denigrated as “hooligans”.
Fresh inquests into the deaths began last month. The coroner leading them, Lord Goldring, explained how the police officer in charge on the day claimed that Liverpool fans had forced open a gate.
Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield had in fact ordered the gate to be opened himself. “There is no question,” said Goldring, “of gate C having being forced at 2.52pm, when the main group of fans came in.
“Chief Superintendent Duckenfield ordered that it be opened.”
Yet Goldring explained that Duckenfield’s claim “resulted in some seriously inaccurate reporting of events”.
Survivors, families of the dead and others fought the political establishment to get truth and justice for the victims. They are still fighting today.
But the strength of their campaign has helped to bring about the fresh inquests. It is a reminder to ordinary people everywhere that it is worth fighting back.
Sheila Coleman is part of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC). She said that she believed that Hillsborough was linked to class and talked about how football supporters were perceived.
“Football was historically seen as a working class game,” she told Socialist Worker.”
“And Hillsborough was viewed through the lens of hooliganism and of Liverpool being a militant city.
“It took 23 years for the establishment to acknowledge errors. David Cameron apologised in 2012 for the disaster and the subsequent cover-up.”
Cameron said survivors and relatives had faced an “indefensible wait to get to the truth”.
It was this slowness that sparked many to campaign in the first place.
A number of bereaved families, survivors and supporters set up the Hillsborough Justice Campaign nine years after the disaster.
Sheila explained, “There was incredible frustration that nothing was happening. Our families had great concerns that survivors were being ignored.
“For a campaign to be formed so long after the event and to persist for so many years shows the strength of feeling that Hillsborough evoked in people.”
How people campaigned mattered too. “Right from the start HJC said we wouldn’t shy away from the political arena,” said Sheila. “Because for us Hillsborough was political. We were determined to be proactive, to overtly campaign and be visible.
“We responded to fans who wanted stickers and posters. We attended social justice rallies and marches and basically put Hillsborough firmly into the arena as a social justice issue.”
Nonetheless the impact of Hillsborough was felt by many people for years.
“The toll Hillsborough took on people was tremendous,” said Sheila.
“There have been a number of survivor suicides over the years. Others neglected their physical health to fight for justice for their children. They were fighters for justice and they paid the ultimate price. It’s very sad.”
For those who survived, the strain of campaigning year in, year out has been tough.
“Being involved in a campaign over such a length of time is not for those who are weak of spirit,” said Sheila.
“It is difficult—I wouldn’t romanticise it at all. There are many dark moments. And in the case of Hillsborough there were many dark years.”
For Sheila, the backing and solidarity shown by ordinary people made a real difference.
“Throughout those dark years there would always be something or someone that made it a little bit brighter,” she said.
“A random word of support from a stranger or somebody from another country reaching out to you. We had a lot of international support—from across Ireland, the US, Asian and Scandinavian countries.”
“Keeping control of a campaign is crucial,” she said. “It is a fine balance between gaining wider support and remaining focused on the original goal.
“It is a strange phenomena when those you have challenged for so many years start being nice to you,” she said.
The ongoing inquest restricts reporting of many aspects of the disaster. For all that, Hillsborough laid bare the brutal reality of class rule.
Many of those campaigning felt that powerful interests were organising against them.
Sheila said, “Anyone beginning to organise a campaign has to realise it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to pace yourself.
“When any organisation challenges the establishment they have to know what they are up against.
“As people fight their own corner, so the establishment will fight to preserve the status quo.”
Will inquest finally get to the truth?
New inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans who died as a result of the Hillsborough disaster began last month.
Coroner Lord Justice Goldring said the High Court set aside the conclusions of earlier inquests “following a campaign by the bereaved families”.
Goldring detailed some of the topics that jurors may want to consider during the inquests.
These included the layout of the ground and turnstiles and steps taken to control the crowd.
When gates were opened at the Leppings Lane end, jurors could consider, “should anything, or anything more, have been done to avoid the risk of a dangerous situation developing in pens three and four?”
Jurors could also consider the emergency response of the police, ambulance and other services, and if the conduct of the fans played “any part in the disaster”.
But Goldring added, “I do not believe that anyone will suggest that the conduct of those who died in any way contributed to their deaths”.
The jury was told that the crush that developed in pens three and four was “intolerable”.
The pressure broke one metal crush barrier in pen three and others in pen four were bent.
Goldring described how several police officers said they didn’t initially realise the seriousness of the crush. Some officers opened small gates at the front of the pens to let some fans out.
Goldring said those in the police control room “appear to have thought they were seeing a deliberate pitch invasion by Liverpool fans”.
He told the jury, “You may have to consider how and why they formed that view and did not realise what was actually happening”.
The jury heard about how the dead and their families were dealt with in the immediate aftermath.
Goldring explained how requests to hold or touch a dead victim “were often refused”.
“Many of the bereaved remain distressed and angry to this day about the way in which they and the bodies of their loved ones were treated on that evening,” he said.
The jury was told how the then coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, ordered blood samples from the dead to test for blood alcohol levels.
“It is not normal to test the victims of a disaster for alcohol,” said Goldring.
He added, “Over half of the victims of the disaster had either no alcohol in their blood or an amount which was entirely negligible.
“Most of the others had levels which was consistent with only modest social drinking before a sporting event.”
Officers wrote accounts of the day on pieces of paper instead of in their notebooks or on formal witness statement forms. Goldring said this was “decided at the highest level”.
The jury heard how “a large number of statements were amended”. Some had comments criticising the police leadership removed. Others had comments criticising the fans at the match removed.
Goldring told jurors, “You will have to give some consideration to the amendments which were made to some of the statements. Why was the amendment made? Was it made innocently and for perfectly understandable reasons?
“Or was it part of a policy of blaming fans in order to deflect criticism from the police?”
Portraits of the dead
Relatives and friends have been giving “pen portraits” of the dead to the inquest.
Kathleen Thompson spoke about her late husband Patrick John Thompson, who died at Hillsborough aged 35. “Hillsborough has robbed my children of their father,” she said.
“The thing that hurts the most is the fact that the children have limited memories of their father.
“All they want is justice for their father. Please listen to the evidence and let my children know that their dad was not a hooligan, but a hardworking family man who just happened to love football.”
Sara Williams read a statement for her brother Kevin Williams, who died aged 15. Her mother, Anne Williams, died of cancer last year.
Sara said that Anne “fought hard over the years to get the truth uncovered about what happened at Hillsborough”.
Jennifer Birtle spoke about her son David, who died aged 22. She was abroad on the day of the match when she heard that David was dead.
She said, “I had to listen to two expats reading the local paper and saying, ‘Oh, the police say it was hooligans,’ as if that was okay then, that it was their own fault.”
Louise Brookes spoke about her brother Andrew. “Andrew was brought up to respect the police and my parents always told us that if ever we were in trouble, they were always there to help us,” she told the jury.
“When my brother most needed their help, they literally turned their backs on him.”
Sarah Brown read a statement for Steven Brown, her late husband, who died aged 25. “He desperately wanted to start a family so he could be a daddy,” she said.
“He wanted a little girl and thought that his world would be complete. He had even picked a name, which was Samantha.
“So for Steven to have passed away when I was six months pregnant and he never got a chance to meet and greet his new little baby, well, there is no words to describe that void.
“I gave birth to a healthy little bundle of loveliness on 29 July 1989, who I named Samantha Sarah Brown. Since that day, I have tried my best to shower her with her daddy’s love.
“She has listened to stories of him and how we met and how much we were in love and how desperately he wanted a little girl and to be the best daddy ever.”