It’s more than 30 years since the strike at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire was carried out by more than 6,000 police officers. On June 18, 1984, 123 people were injured when Margaret Thatcher’s mobilization of state repression reached its peak, choreographed specifically to smash the miners’ strike at one of its most important points. On Monday the U.K.’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, announced that there would be no inquiry into events at the plant and the subsequent police cover up.
The riot at Orgreave occurred at a point when, behind closed doors, the U.K. Government was having to confront the prospect that the miners’ strike would cause existential damage to the country’s capitalism. It was a premeditated assault, led by the South Yorkshire Constabulary with support from officers bussed in from other forces. The more than five thousand miners they attacked were also bussed in, from mining communities across the U.K., with the intention of shutting down a center of the U.K.’s coal production.
It is widely accepted that the conduct of the police at the event had nothing to do with policing. The intention was to use manpower to brutalize an opposition, “the enemy within” as Thatcher herself called the miners. The government wanted, unambiguously, to demonstrate the futility of protest to communities across the country and the personal costs of insolence to those on the picket lines.
Its men did so with chilling efficacy. After forcing picketers to the bottom of a field near the plant and surrounding them, they ran charges of police horses into the crowd, driving miners into lines of riot police who beat all – unarmed and onlookers — within reach of their batons. In the end some ninety-five miners were charged with riot, but trials collapsed in what Michael Mansfield QC, a lawyer for the defense, called “the biggest frame up ever.”
In many police forces a period as dark as the Battle of Orgreave and its subsequent trials would be an especially painful reminder to today’s officers about the dangers of policing in a climate of excess and government cronyism. In South Yorkshire there was another episode, even more abject than Orgreave. In 1989 an FA Cup Semifinal football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was held at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium, not 10 miles from the Orgreave plant. Ninety-six fans were killed and over 750 injured, crushed to death in a stadium which was unsafe and managed with astonishingly poor judgment by senior police officers. The horror spilled onto the pitch with fans using advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers in the absence of ambulance support.
For 25 years the police and The Sun newspaper maintained that the behavior of the crowd was directly responsible for the deaths of fans. Drunken Northern louts, the story went, and it found willing ears in the corridors of Westminster for decades after. Only this year, after a two-year inquest into the events at Hillsborough, was the real truth – known to many but never by governments – uncovered. South Yorkshire Police’s handling of match security was not only woefully unprepared, but the actions of its officers directly caused the deaths of almost 100 people. This was also the judgment of the Hillsborough Panel, set up in 2012 to investigate new evidence including boxes of forged police notebooks with corrections – or really, perjury directives – signed off by senior officers.
Families in Liverpool had to spend decades fighting to prove that their loved ones were people who died without reason, instead of football hooligans whose deaths were to some extent their own fault. They fought with successive governments that resolutely refused to address the issue, before evidence came to light that South Yorkshire Police had deliberately rewritten statements which were contrary to the narrative they wanted to push, and which the government of the day – still Thatcher’s – was happy to accept.
The events at both Hillsborough and Orgreave resulted in official action. The Taylor inquiry into the Hillsborough tragedy was published in 1990 and called for changes to stadium design, the regulation of alcohol sales at matches and other recommendations besides. It also recognized that the main factor behind the tragedy was the police’s poor handling of the situation. Its findings were not subject to greater scrutiny, even those about the poverty of senior officers’ evidence to the panel, and the questioning of their assertions that the crowd was effectively a drunken army they struggled to control.
The collapse of the Orgreave trials, a bold preview of police subterfuge in the years before Hillsborough, again went unchecked. There have never been charges leveled against senior officers, nor anyone else involved in the policing which contributed to the deaths and injury of hundreds of people. Again and again the message is clear – only when there is mass, incontrovertible evidence found that the police’s story was not just false but deliberately orchestrated, can you expect an inquiry. And even then you shouldn’t hold your breath while waiting for those officers responsible to be charged.
Deciding which issues merit inquiries and which do not is, admittedly, a minefield for governments – although one they sew willingly in the hope that victims and their families will simply give up navigating. Inevitably the cost of inquiries is high, and some events simply don’t make the cut. Some truths are already understood without needing to be understood. There’s the truth, then the truth. Inquiries into events like Hillsborough and Orgreave, one in which the government became an enthusiastic purveyor of police lies, another in which they outsourced brutality to the police, will undoubtedly demonstrate systemic failings. More to the point, they so artfully demonstrate the guileless way in which governments behave toward people they manifestly regard as worthless impediments to their own agendas.
Theresa May, as Home Secretary, indicated her willingness to consider new evidence into the assault on Orgreave and the police’s actions afterward. On Monday, her Home Secretary made clear, unexpectedly, that there would be no inquiry into the police cover up. Once again communities across the country will realize that the government’s commitment never to publicly question police authority in any threatening way will outlast even the members of that government. Evidence of wrongdoing at Orgreave goes beyond the TV film, photographs and picketers’ accounts. Former police officers at the scene have told of the expectation that they would arrest picketers, drop them off at a station and immediately return to the plant to arrest or beat others. At the end of their shift they would be given statements, written by other officers, to sign.
If only bureaucracy moved so swiftly for victims of state power.