Justice for the 97

This week, Andrew Devine became the 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster to be unlawfully killed – but until there is real accountability for those responsible for covering up state crimes, there can never be justice.

Andrew Devine suffered life-changing injuries at Hillsborough and ultimately succumbed to them this week. (Credit: Devine family)

Andrew Devine was not expected to live until the end of 1989. Caught in the crush at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April that year, the former postal worker suffered serious damage to his brain that, according to a statement from Liverpool FC, left him with an estimated six months.

Despite that, he passed away on Tuesday this week, thirty-two years later, at the still too young age of fifty-five. The following day, coroner André Rebello ruled that the injuries he had sustained had led to his premature death, making him the 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster.

The story of what happened at Hillsborough—both the truth and the lie—is well-known. In an attempt to relieve overcrowding at the turnstiles leading to the Leppings Lane terrace of Hillsborough Stadium, police chief David Duckenfield ordered a gate opened which led to a fresh influx of people. Those at the front of the crowd were crushed against the barriers, their fellow fans behind unaware of the damage being inflicted. Within six minutes of the three o’clock kick-off the match was suspended; the barriers at the front of the terrace broke, and people spilled onto the pitch, pulling others to safety.

94 died on the day. With 765 injured, the death toll has risen three times since, the first time just a few days after; until Andrew Devine’s passing, the last death was that of Tony Bland in 1993.

This was not the narrative given by the police responsible for the failure of crowd control. Nor was it the one publicised by Murdoch’s press. Four days after the tragedy, the Sun printed its notorious front-page claiming to reveal ‘The Truth’: it painted a picture of drunk Liverpool fans looting the possessions of the dead, urinating on bodies and on the ‘brave cops’ trying to help, and attacking those engaged in lifesaving efforts.

The vicious characterisation of the victims, and the insincere contrition shown by then-editor Kelvin MacKenzie since that day, is the reason the Sun continues to be a particular pariah in progressive circles and in Liverpool itself: in 2012, MacKenzie offered his ‘profuse apologies’ for his choice of headline, but five years before he had stated plainly that he was ‘not sorry’ for what happened, and had only apologised previously because Rupert Murdoch told him to.

It was inevitable that the story would at some point fall apart, particularly with survivors and families pushing tirelessly for the real truth to be heard. On trial in 2019, Duckenfield admitted having lied about drunk fans forcing open the gates to the terrace. Gordon Sykes, another South Yorkshire police officer, also admitted during a 2016 testimony that the similar stories he had circulated were false – something his constabulary knew, but had made no effort to correct.

That 2016 inquest ruled that the 97—then 96—had been unlawfully killed as a result of gross negligence on the part of the police, and earlier this year, South Yorkshire and West Midlands police forces agreed to pay damages to 600 survivors and family members. But the route to proper accountability for those in charge that day—and for the blame that circulated in the days and weeks that followed—remains untrod: Duckenfield was acquitted of manslaughter, and earlier this year, the trial of two ex-police officers and an ex-solicitor accused of altering police statements to minimise blame collapsed after the judge ruled there was no case to answer.

This untouchability for actors of the state and the blame pressed upon the victims has long been the modus operandi of the British ruling class. Hillsborough was unprecedented, but its aftermath followed a familiar pattern: a political attempt to criminalise victims in order to keep the reputation of state actors clean; fortification by a crony press that saw lying about them as a nice opportunity to turn a profit; tacit acceptance by a broader political class with an unconcealed disdain for the working people that the neoliberal government of the day deemed worthy of, at best, ‘managed decline’.

The South Yorkshire constabulary involved in the events of 15 April was the same one that attacked striking miners at Orgreave five years before. This year, British police have again come under fire for lying to the press and the public, this time about injuries supposedly sustained during the aggressive policing of the Kill the Bill protests in Bristol.

Worse, politicians continue to blame working people for their own deaths at the hands of a state that treats them with contempt: three decades after Orgreave and Hillsborough, Jacob Rees-Mogg was on LBC criticising the 72 people who died in Grenfell Tower for lacking ‘common sense’.

Combined with the ongoing concentration of the press into the hands of a select few billionaires, the government’s legislative agendawhich includes formally granting police immunity from the law and preventing the rest of us from voicing dissent against their actionssuggests that this pattern is only set to get worse.

Andrew Devine’s death will have been painful news for all those affected by the disaster and constantly denied justice in the intervening years. It is also a moment in which we should consider how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same.

This situation—of a section of society with unrestrained power to both inflict pain on others, and to dictate that they are then blamed for their own suffering—is simply not sustainable. Unless something shifts, the number will continue to grow.