A crowd of precious individuals

Twenty-three and a half years ago.
My goodness. I was just a naive teenager.
Dad was listening to the game on the radio. He called upstairs, to tell me "something's happened".
I shooed him away. I wanted to watch the game on Match of the Day later that night without knowing the score.
How antiquated that time seems now, a bygone age.
Soon after, he told me the game had been abandoned.
Hours later, on the evening news, I learnt that over 50 fans had died.

I remember the bewilderment. 50 dead? What? How?
It was only a football match.
By Monday over 90 were listed dead, and through the shock the slander started.
Bloody hooligans! No tickets! They rushed the gates! Drunken scum!
I remembered Heysel; and to my eternal regret, my sorrow was poisoned with shame.
Months later, watching a television documentary, I learned what really happened.
How 95 people could die at a football match. Horribly, as it turns out.
And I wept.

The more I learnt, the more I raged at the inhumanity of the police.
How they saw us as a problem to be managed, not citizens to safeguard.
How they saw football fans, their fellow countrymen, as a chaotic mob.
As a rabble to be caged, rather than thousands of fragile, precious individuals.

Individually, we are so small. We trust the law will give us justice.
But our system of justice was rotten.
Granting impunity to the incompetent, whilst treating the victims with contempt.
A slander, an injustice, that has persisted for 23 years.

Today - at last - an independent commission published its long awaited report, finally nailing the wretched lies and revealing the truth.

The commission reported that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the South Yorkshire police and emergency services made 'strenuous attempts' to deflect blame for the crush onto the victims. That the police took blood from every victim, including children, testing for the presence of alcohol in an attempt to 'impugn their reputations'. That 116 of 164 police statements were 'amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to South Yorkshire police'. When the prime minister announced this in parliament, the chamber collectively gasped.

Put simply, not only have hundreds of families suffered the loss of a loved one, but they've been victims of an institutionalised cover-up. Remember those who died were not part of a reckless mob, they were ordinary folk just like you and me. And they walked unwittingly to their deaths. Yet those in authority decided their own reputations were worth far more than the truth, a truth that might help bring some closure to the grieving, a truth that one day, might save your life.

The truth matters because the truth keeps us safe.

Before Hillsborough, I'd experienced standing in heaving crowds, in shitty football grounds, being lifted and carried by ominous waves of surging people. Looking back, those memories make me shiver.

Crush disasters don't happen because of drunken crowds, or ticket-less fans trying to sneak in for free. They happen because crowds are poorly managed, when those in authority forget their fundamental duty of care, and start treating individuals like ball bearings, to be pushed down pipes.

Brian Reade memorably wrote of the 96: "Never forget that for English football's bright tomorrow, they gave their todays".

Never forget their sacrifice; the lessons bought with their blood keep you safe when you join a throng of thousands on the way to match or a concert, or stand in a crowd 10-deep on a packed subterranean tube platform.

From today, the truth can be told: that on April 15th, 1989, a crowd of precious individuals gathered to watch a football match, that their custodians failed them utterly, and then besmirched and blamed them, and perpetuated a disgraceful lie that has lasted for 23 years.

And understanding why is more than putting the record straight, it's about the kind of society we want to live in, one where the powerful protect the weak, and there's truth and justice for all.



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