The night of 20 July 2005 was a normal evening for Jean Charles de Menezes. He and his cousin Vivian, who shared a flat in Tulse Hill, had a chilli for dinner and talked about a girl Jean Charles liked.
Just days later, the Brazilian electrician’s name would be on the front page of every British newspaper. The morning of 22 July, he had left his flat to fit a fire alarm on the other side of London and was mistaken for a different resident of the building, who the police suspected of being a terrorist. He was followed by to Stockwell tube station, before armed police stormed the train he boarded. He was pinned down and shot seven times in the head.
There were a number of failures by the police that day that led to Jean Charles’ death, including not providing high-quality photographs of the real suspect, officers being absent from their posts, and a failure to offer any warnings before opening fire. They also classified the decision to change buses and tube station as ‘suspicious’ behaviour without verifying it – in fact, it was as a result of station closures in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks.
In the 16 years since, no individual has been prosecuted for Jean Charles’ death. And while his case made headline news at the time, in the years that followed, it has slipped from the minds of many people in the capital and across the country.
At the time of the shooting, writer and campaigner Yasmin Khan lived in Stockwell, and went to a protest outside the station the next day where she met friends of Jean. ‘At that point the family were being held by the police in a hotel in Richmond; they hadn’t been given access to a lawyer, and their phone lines had been cut off in the hotel they were in,’ she explains. The drive to get the family legal support given that situation is what helped form the Jean Charles De Menezes Family Campaign, for which Khan became one of the spokespeople.
‘I think my main takeaway from the many years of campaigning alongside the Menezes family for justice is this constant sense of being gaslighted by the police and the state – the constant misinformation and lies put forward about Jean,’ she explains. ‘It was just this ongoing attempt to somehow justify the police’s ineptitude that led to the killing of an innocent man.’
In the aftermath of the shooting, police officers asserted (and newspapers repeated) that Jean had walked towards officers and ignored calls of ‘armed police’ – claims which were rejected by a jury. Initial reports after the killing suggested he had jumped the ticket barrier at Stockwell Station and was wearing suspicious clothing, which also proved to be false.
To this day, though, Khan tells me she has to correct members of the public who still believe those stories. The family even received calls from a detective in 2006 saying that a rape allegation against Jean Charles would appear in the Sunday Mirror, even though the charges were false and later disproven with DNA evidence. The family believed the allegations were leaked to the press by the police.
The striking similarities between the police’s conduct after Jean Charles’ death and after other events prove that this was not an aberration. After the aggressive policing of protestors at Kingsnorth power station in 2008, it was claimed that 70 officers had been injured in the course of their duties; Freedom of Information data later revealed the injuries included wasp bites and heatstroke, rather than anything sustained in clashes with demonstrators. In the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, police officers leaked false claims that fans had urinated on victims and attacked officers to the Sun.
And years after the killing of Jean Charles, the family and the justice campaign were victims of the ‘Spy Cops’ scandal. Evidence from Metropolitan Police whistleblowers and public inquiries have found that undercover police officers infiltrated and spied on over 1,000 political groups in UK, including at least 20 family justice campaigns like that of Jean Charles. The full details of how they and other groups were surveilled have not yet been made public.
‘It really added insult to injury to hear these allegations that the family campaign were being spied upon,’ explains Khan. ‘You can only assume police were doing that to collect evidence or information to somehow discredit the campaign.’
In another echo of current conversations around the police, the officer in charge that day was Cressida Dick, the current Metropolitan Police commissioner. Dick, who has also been criticised for her handling of the Sarah Everard Vigil in March, has just been made a dame for services to policing.
‘I find it absolutely incredible that the fact that a senior police officer who was involved in a botched police operation that led to the killing of an innocent man would then be rewarded afterwards,’ Khan adds. ‘[It is] really disgraceful in my eyes.’
Dick’s honours, despite the death of Jean Charles, prove the calm with which endemic problems in British policing are accepted. No officer has been held accountable for de Menezes’ death – in fact, almost no officers involved in any type of death in police custody or following police contact have been convicted since 1990, despite at least 1,789 cases occurring in that time.
And Jean Charles’ killing can’t be separated from wider problems with racism in the police. Khan cites the fact that officers mistook him for terrorism suspect Osman Hussain because of his ‘Mongolian eyes’, according to official testimony. As she puts it: ‘There’s a racism you can’t take out of it when a brown-skinned man gets wrongly identified as a terrorist.’
Since 2020, conversations around police corruption, racism, brutality, and the points at which all those things intersect have become increasingly present in the mainstream discourse – but the anniversary of Jean Charles’ death is a reminder that it’s taken years of grassroots action to get us this far. It’s also a reminder that, given the current legislative agenda, things could be set to get much worse: the Spy Cops Bill, passed with royal assent in March this year, makes it easier for the police to commit crimes without facing repercussions, and the Policing Bill, which mobilised thousands in the spring’s ‘Kill the Bill’ movement, will likely make it harder for the rest of us to protest those crimes – including demanding justice for people like Jean Charles.
As Khan puts it: ‘What it speaks to is a police force operating in a way that feels like they can act above the law – that they aren’t tied down by the same rules that the rest of us are.’