Tuesday, December 16, 2008

UK: When is murder not murder?

15 December 2008. A World to Win News Service. A jury considering the case of the police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in the London Underground in July 2005 has rejected the claim that the shooting was "lawful". Because the coroner, the official in charge of the jury, had instructed its members that they could not rule his death "unlawful", their only alternative to accepting the authorities’ story was to return an open verdict that did not declare the police innocent. The jury slapped the authorities in the face as hard as they could under the circumstances. But although the government did not get the stamp of approval on the killing it sought, the jury decision fixes no blame or penalty for the killing. The government is hoping that like the previous Independent Police Complaints Commission report, this verdict will not have any practical consequences, other than to bolster the false claim that justice has been done. The family says it hopes to pursue further legal action.

The police killed the 27-year-old de Menezes on 22 July 2005, the day after an apparent failed bombing attack on the London Tube system and two weeks after bombs murdered 52 people on the capital's trains and buses. The police claimed that they mistook de Menezes for a suspect, and that they shot him because they feared he might be carrying a bomb. After a three-month inquest, the jury concluded that the police were not telling the truth when they claimed that he had acted suspiciously as police followed him, that he had failed to respond to a warning (there was not a single word or gesture) and that at the last minute he moved toward armed officers in a threatening way that left them with no choice but to shoot him. Nothing de Menezes had done, the jury decided, merited alarm.

The bigger lies about de Menezes were not on trial. After he was killed, the head of the police, appointed by the government's Home Secretary, first claimed he was a terrorist, even though he knew almost immediately that the Brazilian was not the suspected man. When this lie collapsed, he argued that the killing was a tragic but justified accident, a decision to shoot that turned out to be wrong but was based on what the police believed to be true at the time. Officials falsely claiming that the dead man had been wearing a suspiciously heavy coat in the summer, with wires visibly sticking out from under it, that he had an expired visa and cocaine in his blood, that he ran away from the police following him and jumped the turnstile, that he fled onto a train before they could stop him, etc. It was not until someone delivered a package of CCTV footage to the media – surveillance camera film that the police had claimed didn't exist – that it came out that the lightly-dressed young man had calmly walked into the station, collected a newspaper, used his pass, walked normally onto the platform, boarded the train and sat down just like anyone else. This no longer deniable exposure is what made the coroner's inquest necessary if any pretence of justice was to be maintained.

Much of the media have blamed the killing on police incompetence. Now, after the jury verdict, this is the state's only feasible defence in the court of public opinion. Much has been made about the police story that a series of errors on their part kept them from stopping de Menezes on the many streets he travelled on foot and by bus before he got to the Clarkwell Tube station. But if incompetence explains what happened, why were the police officers and their leadership praised and rewarded instead of punished or even chastised? The shooters are back on duty, now protected by a rule that they cannot be prosecuted for killing people legally or illegally. The man in charge of the surveillance team that supposedly misidentified de Menezes and then failed to stop him was promoted to the rank of deputy assistant commissioner. Sir Ian Blair, head of Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police commissioner who publicly led the cover-up, was given a £400,000 "golden handshake" when he resigned. Cressida Dick, the senior commander in charge of the operation, who gave all the orders for everything that happened minute by minute, was also promoted and is now a leading candidate to replace him. The Labour government and the state as a whole have rendered their own verdict: these officials and employees did what they were supposed to do.

Although the facts have come out in the UK media, mainstream commentators are not looking at this incident very deeply or in context, and therefore even when outraged, have no real explanation. The killing and the cover-up are grounded in the UK's decision to join the U.S. in invading Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair "took the country into war on a false prospectus", as leaked official records later revealed. Blair tried to terrorise the public into backing the war that he and U.S. President George W. Bush had been secretly planning since mid-2002. He knowingly told a series of lies, including the infamous claim that Iraq was threatening the UK with rockets tipped with weapons of mass destruction that could hit London within 45 minutes. The war became hugely unpopular in the UK, sparking the biggest demonstrations the country had ever seen. When bombs carried by British-born Islamic fundamentalists killed London commuters in July 2005, many people saw it as "blowback" – the result of British aggression abroad (and oppression of immigrants at home), and they blamed Tony Blair for it. This was a critical moment for the British ruling class. Without exaggerating the situation, it can be said that no recent British government had been not only so hated by many millions but also so isolated from public opinion as a whole. And never before had such a harsh light been cast on the lie that in countries like the UK elections mean rule by the people and not dictatorship by the imperialist capitalist class.

The way the state limited the possible verdicts in this trial also stands as an exposure of the dictatorship behind the UK justice system, since the jury decision basically means that the police killed a man for no good reason and then lied about it, but that there's nothing that ordinary people can do about that. What was the point of holding a jury at all if it was only allowed to act within the limits set by the accused – the state? The UK electoral process acts within similar limits, which is why the opinion of the overwhelming majority of people has not been able to stop the war.

At the time of the 14 July 2005 bombings, Blair declared that anyone linking them with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was "giving support to the terrorists" and flirting with treason. Just as he had falsely claimed that the UK joined the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in its own self-defence, now he tried to reverse black and white and claim that the basic problem was not that Great Britain is an imperialist country currently helping the U.S. rampage through the Middle East, creating a just hatred that might be unjustly aimed at the British people, but that people in and from the Middle East and other immigrants are terrorising the UK, and that the population should allow the state to do whatever it claimed was in their defence, including a whole set of police state-like measures. "The rules of the game have changed," Blair decreed just before de Menezes was killed. Clearly this was meant as a very broad threat, and not just against suicide bombers and other reactionaries.

The coroner in charge of the jury, former high court judge Sir Michael Wright, defended his instructions to the jury forbidding them to call this a case of unlawful killing by arguing that no "reasonable person" could conclude that the state had deliberately set out to cut down de Menezes. But whether or not the government and the police deliberately set out to pump seven bullets into the head of this particular person is not really the issue.

In the political atmosphere of July 2005, the government (and not just the police) had every reason to create a climate of hysteria among the people and to demonstrate the strength and ruthless determination of the state. Their response was to stage a public execution. Even if they didn't set out to kill this particular unwhite immigrant, any reasonable person would ask: wasn't the government out for blood and did they really care whose?

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