the fight to end Hillsborough’s abuse and tragic songs

Saturday is April 15th and therefore for Louise Brookes it will be a moment of poignant reflection. She will visit her local cemetery in Bromsgrove before returning home to light a candle and raise a glass, all in memory of her brother Andrew, one of the 97 people who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster exactly 34 years ago.

The anniversary has been like this for Brookes since Anfield stopped hosting an annual memorial service for those who never returned from Liverpool’s 1989 FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest and she prefers it as such as it means mourning in a more peaceful and intimate way in which a loved one has lost too soon. As Brookes says: “People should be able to remember those who have died however they want. And it’s nice to remember them as individuals, because that’s what they were: individual people.

That’s true and for Brookes, Andrew will forever be the music- and fashion-loving 26-year-old who was strict with her, but only because he cared. He was also the spitting image of Bruce Grobbelaar, and Brookes is able to talk about all of that with great warmth and humor. But as is the case with all members of the grieving family and survivors of the crush on Leppings Lane terrace, she too exists in a state of lifelong trauma, the events of that fateful day in Sheffield and everything that has come since, worth to say the grueling fight for justice and total lack of accountability for those responsible, leaving a scar in the heart that will never heal.

And it’s only deepened because of what journalist Tony Evans describes as Hillsborough’s “joking joke,” a growing trend being pushed by callous people under the guise of the football rivalry. And nowhere is it more prevalent and relentless than online. On various social media platforms, Twitter in particular, there is little escape from dastardly bile, something Brookes knows all too well. “Trolling has gotten progressively worse over the past 10 years or so and especially since the 2016 illegal kill verdicts,” she says. “There are some people who wanted to believe the lies about Hillsborough were true because of their hatred for the Liverpool fans and when they couldn’t do it anymore, they became even crueler.

“How dare these people get away with saying disgusting things about those who died in Hillsborough, like my brother. They did nothing wrong that day. Then you have survivors who are still traumatized by what happened, so seeing all this stuff online is a real danger to their mental well-being. Some survivors have taken their own lives because of the evil comments they saw online. If someone takes their own life because of a troll, that troll should be tried for manslaughter.”

Fueled by anger so deep and driven by defiance that it played its part in the collective search for the truth about Hillsborough, Brookes faced those who scoff at the disaster, and through her efforts two men were prosecuted in court; one in July 2016 for wearing an offensive T-shirt regarding Hillsborough, a photograph of which appeared on social media and for which he was fined £600, and another in October 2021 in relation to a social media post linking Hillsborough to chaos at Wembley ahead of the Euro 2020 final, for which he was fined £400 and forced to pay £125 in costs.

On Thursday, another man – homeless Zakir Hussain, 28 – appeared in Thames Magistrates’ Court accused of sending malicious messages to Brookes via Twitter, including one containing a threat to deface Andrew’s grave. Hussain pleaded not guilty to one of the five charges against him and was released on bail. A trial is scheduled for June 22 at Stratford Magistrates’ Court.

Brookes is proud of her position in the fight against trolls, but there is also despair at the toll it has taken. “I argued with these people from first thing in the morning until last thing at night and it wears you out,” she says. “As a result, my mental health deteriorated, especially with regards to depression and anxiety. I had panic attacks and got to a stage where I wanted to take my own life. I don’t say this easily, but I started dreading waking up every morning because I didn’t know what I was going to see online. I had enough.

Thankfully Brookes is in a better place than before. Yet her experiences underscore the serious impact of social media abuse and for Kevin Sampson, a Hillsborough survivor and highly regarded writer on the subject, there is little chance that things will improve any time soon. “I have the deepest respect for Lou and for all those who scold these people, but my impression is that the perpetrators only perform contrition when they are discovered,” he says. “Hillsborough is a target for trolls who revel in the anger and pain they cause.”

Sampson is equally pessimistic about the issue of rival supporters engaging in chanting about Hillsborough. It has always been there, but it has become more widespread. In January 2022 two Shrewsbury Town fans were banned by their club for a total of eight years for singing about the disaster during an FA Cup third round match at Anfield and there have been incidents involving fans of a host of others since then clubs including, perhaps most shockingly, Forest.

More often than not, the “always the victims” chant is at the center of the abuse and the perpetrators insist it has nothing to do with Hillsborough. It is a defense that defies credibility. As Evans puts it: “Everyone denies it’s a Hillsborough insult, but it’s the clearest dog whistle in the history of high-pitched wails.”

There are several reasons why this is getting worse. A growing polarization of society, exacerbated and reflected by social media, is clearly one. Then there is, as Brookes implies, the long-standing hatred of scousers, and Liverpool Football Club in particular, which has become more pronounced online and in the stands during the club’s recent period of success. Jealousy and resentment can do that for some people.

For Ian Byrne, also a Hillsborough survivor and MP for Liverpool West Derby, there is only one solution: education. Hence his oversight of the creation of the Real Truth Legacy Project, an “out-of-the-box” online access tool that can be used to teach children and adults about the disaster, and which Byrne is using as a driving force to make education about Hillsborough part of the national curriculum, which he believes is realistic and necessary.

“It’s hard for me, a 50-year-old man who was in Hillsborough, to look the other way and see another 50-year-old man or woman singing songs about it despite knowing what happened, which is why education it’s important,” Byrne says. “If that happens and that person has their daughter or son with them and they turn around and say, ‘Wait, we just found out at school’…there can’t be a more powerful weapon.

“An idea for the educational program could be for children to come from Manchester to Anfield, see the memorial, learn about Hillsborough, the cover-up and the fight for justice. It’s basically about targeting the next generation and spreading a message that unites us instead of dividing us; that Hillsborough, and more recently Paris, could have happened to any set of supporters. We simply have to do this if we are to break this cycle of inhumanity.”

Byrne wrote to Premier League chief executive Richard Masters in October asking for assistance in launching The Real Truth Legacy Project and doing more of the singing about Hillsborough. He was encouraged by the response and especially by the creation of a steering group involving the Premier League working alongside the Football Association, Football League, Football Supporters’ Association and other individuals and bodies, including Byrne, to quell the tragedy by singing broadly .

A distraught Liverpool fan sits with his head in his hands just after Hillsborough

A distraught Liverpool fan sits with his head in his hands just after Hillsborough. Photograph: John Giles/PA

The group consulted the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to discuss what legislation could be used to prosecute the convictions. Existing legislation makes it difficult for the police to prosecute anyone involved because the chanting of the tragedy is not considered discriminatory. The FA appear particularly keen to address such chants having on more than one occasion in recent months described them as “repugnant”.

Liverpool have established a more forceful approach to dealing with Hillsborough chanting which includes giving stewards clear instructions on what to do when they hear it at Anfield. He played a role in the sending off of 16 Chelsea fans in January after they were warned by stewards not to repeat the chants and continued regardless. Furthermore, the club regularly issues statements condemning such chanting, as was the case after Chelsea fans re-engaged during Liverpool’s visit this month.

So the fight continues and, as it has been since April 1989, those most directly affected by Hillsborough are at the forefront of prosecution. This month Charlotte Hennessy, who was six when her father, Jimmy, died in the disaster, launched a petition calling on the government to turn the tragedy chanting into a hate crime after the widespread use of the ‘victims’ chant by part of Manchester City fans during Liverpool’s recent trip to the Etihad Stadium. City fans also chanted about Hillsborough during their team’s match at Anfield in October and vandalized the concourse in the away section with graffiti of a similar nature. City and Chelsea have issued statements apologizing for the behavior of their supporters.

“Hillsborough, Heysel, Munich, Istanbul are not fair game,” Hennessy wrote on Twitter when publicizing his petition, which at the time of writing has more than 15,000 signatures. “The suffering of families and survivors is not ‘football jokes’. They are our lives. Our suffering. Our trauma. It has to end.

This is a message Brookes upholds as she continues to honor those lost in Hillsborough, as well as those forever impacted by what happened there and in the decades since. And on Saturday, as always, there will be one person in particular to guide her thoughts: Andrea.

“He was a very quiet person, very calm,” Brookes says. “She doesn’t argue or fight with people and I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about anyone, ever. She was just a really lovely human being. I miss him.”

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