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Our minds tend towards the creation of categories. The capacity to classify and order is the engine of learning and enquiry. When permitted to go unexamined, it may also be the source of prejudice and injustice.
As the horrors of what happened at Hillsborough in 1989 are revisited, the scale of the injustice done when categories become stereotypes has been laid bare. Liverpool has long been held in contempt by certain elements of the establishment and under Margaret Thatcher, the city was earmarked for “managed decline”. 'Scousers', with their distinctive, sometimes truculent and frequently cheeky culture are often held up for mockery and vilification. The accent – which I once heard described by an individual evidently born with a silver plated foot in his mouth – as “the Dublin slums out of the great unwashed of Lancashire” has become a lazy aural shorthand for the 'Scally' of popular culture and Middle England nightmare.
Some football fans have – perhaps with greater reason – been part of this divisive narrative. The violence of the decades which preceded and included that in which the Hillsborough disaster took place, left a scar of fear and revulsion on the national consciousness. It was the combination of this fear with the Liverpudlian stereotype which played such a malign part in the reactions of authority in attempting to cover up its many failings on that terrible day.
The lies disseminated by some elements of the media and the truly horrifying response of the South Yorkshire police were only possible because the stereotypes were sufficiently well established to mute incredulity. It seems almost beyond belief today that the bodies of young children were tested to ascertain whether they had taken alcohol and that the police searched for evidence of criminal records in order to smear the dead. The reports of fans urinating on bodies and picking their pockets may have aroused widespread horror, but were little questioned beyond Merseyside for over twenty years.
There is a redemptive aspect to this long injustice. The dignity of the families of the 96 who died at Hillsborough, and their determination to seek justice, was driven by love. Their love and courage was met and supported by the independent panel who have put the establishment to shame.
The history of the twentieth century has shown what may happen when power vilifies and ostracises a segment of the population. Hillsborough reminds us that we cannot afford to be complacent about this in our own time. The bereaved families and Bishop James Jones' panel have indeed spoken truth to power.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet