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26 April 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 2:50pm

The Hillsborough verdict isn’t about football – the disaster was a national disgrace

It wasn't about football in 1989, it isn't about football now. It is about the fact that dehumanising doesn't just happen in moments, but can lead to deaths in seconds, can lead to lies for years, can ruin lives for lifetimes.

By Neil Atkinson

It is important on days like today to remember that we can’t expect one correct response from the thousands of people touched by the national disgrace which is the Hillsborough Disaster but can only hope for many human ones. Since the 15th April 1989 so many people have responded differently to what the events of that day set in motion. The most we can ask of ourselves is to be human and to allow others to be human in their own way. This process has been so long running and has involved so many different aspects of society that all human life is here.

Even now there are no neat endings. Even now the process is on going. All we can say is there just needs to be humanity. Yet even in this inquest, it was in short supply from some, for example the South Yorkshire Police and Yorkshire Ambulance Service who fought tooth and nail to avoid adverse findings from the jury. Unlike them all we can attempt to do is be gentle and accept there are few right answers, just people doing their best.

For instance, it is important to remember that a very small number of the families aren’t even represented at the inquest. A number of the survivors would just wish to put it behind them. They just wanted to get on with their lives after the cataclysmic event. This is very human and a perfectly understandable response.

For some of the families and survivors today’s verdict is enough. It’s the end of the road, the wrong righted, the times of death confirmed. It is time to move on and get beyond this. This is very human and a perfectly understandable response.

For many others of the families and survivors today’s verdict is a step on the road. The pressure will now come onto the IPCC, Operation Resolve and the CPS to see charges handed down, to see the process through to its conclusion in a courtroom. This is very human and a perfectly understandable response.

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And for some, that event that will never be enough. Even that will never be enough for what happened twenty seven years ago and what went on to happen in the days, weeks and years that followed. For some there will be no respite from this, there will be no rest from the anger and the grief and the shame they were forced to feel. There will be no release. There will be no action which will ever bring peace, not after all the suppression and the sidelining of their truth, their truth which transpired to actually be The Truth. There is no end to this. This is what miscarriages of justice do. This too is very human and a perfectly understandable response.

Today, two incontrovertible facts have been made clear again: Firstly, that the 96 people were unlawfully killed. Secondly, that the behaviour of the Liverpool supporters did not cause the disaster. Further, what has become crystal clear through the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report, through this inquest, and what will become even clearer with the IPCC and Operation Resolve report expected by the end of the year, is the extent to which all these very human people were aggressively, endlessly dehumanised. Before, during and after the 15th April 1989.

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The preparation of the semi-final and the response to the disaster – the immediate disaster, was inhumane. This is what the unlawful killing verdict means. The response to the disaster – the days, weeks and years that followed the 15th April 1989, did nothing but dehumanise those who had suffered: dehumanised the families bereaved; dehumanised those in the Leppings Lane end who survived and saved others when those there to protect them wilfully failed to act; dehumanised a city trapped in collective grief. The dehumanising started and it simply didn’t stop, not for years, decades.

All this has become crystal clear.

It was pretty crystal clear all along if we can be honest with each other. But this is what dehumanising people does. What dehumanising people does is obscure what should be crystal clear and instead say that it doesn’t really matter, that they turned up late, that they turned up drunk. That they robbed the dead. And then that they have a chip on their shoulder. That they are a self-pity city. That they are always the victims. Always the victims. It is never their fault. They weren’t one of us. They were one of them.

Dehumanising people doesn’t just happen over night – it isn’t a cataclysmic event; it caused a cataclysmic event, it obscured a cataclysmic event but it isn’t one itself. It is an erosion and a corrosion and it needs the circumstances to work. The Enemy Within. Managed decline. Orgreave. An attitude hammered home day after day after day for a decade and beyond towards working class people and football supporters and a city allowed the dehumanising to occur.

There is this line around Hillsborough that is often uttered by those within Liverpool – “they picked on the wrong city”. It’s a good folk story to tell ourselves. Like many such lines it is both completely true and absolutely false. Liverpool can organise, yes. Liverpool will fight and this was a fight led by Liverpool’s women, Liverpool’s mothers who simply would not ever let the lies lie. They wouldn’t stand for it. For those who have campaigned aggressively today is another day of vindication, another day where their tenacity and bravery has to be applauded.

But they picked on the right city as well. The city was the softest target of a decade which had been set up to create and pick off soft targets. The dehumanisation happened and was allowed to happen to a city because those undertaking it knew so many nationwide would allow it to go on. To go on and on. This isn’t just about a right wing government and a corrupt police force back then. The past isn’t another country, let’s not kid ourselves. The targets remain soft in this country – they are just less visible.

Therefore let’s take today as another opportunity to be crystal clear and let’s keep being crystal clear: Hillsborough is a national disgrace. I’ve been asked to write this because I host a podcast around Liverpool and Liverpool Football Club, because I write about football. But Hillsborough isn’t about football, it just so happens that football is the thing that linked those 96 disparate lives, the thing that linked the thousands on the terraces – this thing of ours.

There are so many who should know better in this country, many who would subscribe then and now to a magazine such as this one, many who will have decided things can only get better in 1997,  who will have presumed things must have gone wrong somewhere involving the supporters. Who will have assumed Hillsborough is a football tragedy and can be left over there. Who stood by as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history took place. Because, well, “football supporters.” “Liverpool.” “Something a bit fishy but you know.” You know.

It wasn’t about football in 1989, it isn’t about football now. It is about the fact that dehumanising doesn’t just happen in moments, but can lead to deaths in seconds, can lead to lies for years, can ruin lives for lifetimes.

This is the essence of the national disgrace, of this verdict, of every single time Hillsborough comes clattering back into public view. Our nation did this to its own people. Not the odd bad apple of a police officer, not a rogue reporter or two, not individuals but instead institutionalised inhumanity.

Our nation.