No justice, no peace
Why is it so hard for working class people to get justice?
by Frieda Park
We are 2 years on from the Grenfell Tower fire. It was an avoidable tragedy in which 72 people died, victims of a system which put austerity and greed before people. The enquiry into the fire drags on but we do not need to await its results to know that it was caused by cuts to services, reductions in building standards and the lack of accountability of the outsourced Tenant Management Organisation in Kensington and Chelsea. All this was done legally; all this was designed to serve the interests of profit not people. In the year following the fire the profits of Rydon, one of the main contractors responsible for installing the cladding, went up by 50%. Meanwhile thousands of people still live in unsafe flats with the same cladding that Grenfell had. There are still survivors living in unsuitable temporary accommodation.
This is also the 35th anniversary of Orgreave, where striking miners were brutally attacked and many wrongfully arrested by the police. The court case against the miners collapsed due to falsification of police evidence and alleged perjury. Despite the clear injustice done to the miners who were trying to defend their jobs and communities, the Tories continue to resist the call by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign for an enquiry. No doubt this is because the police were acting at the behest of the then Tory government under Margaret Thatcher in a concerted conspiracy against the miners and their union. In short, the British state has no interest in pursuing justice for the victims of its own crimes.
The war against the miners was waged openly and secretly with MI5 spying on the workers and acting against them through dirty tricks and smears. A vivid account of this is set out in Seumas Milne’s 1994 book The Enemy Within (Verso). However, Tories were not the only villains of the piece. Labour leaders too conspired with the state to defeat the NUM. Robert Maxwell, who is infamous for stealing the pensions of his workers in the Mirror Group, was one of those. He had links to intelligence agencies, including MI6, the KGB and Mossad. Maxwell bought the Mirror Group, owner of the Daily Mirror, four months into the miners strike. It was widely read by miners and was Labour supporting. Maxwell himself had at one time been a Labour MP. Who better then to lead the charge against the NUM and its leadership and in what better newspaper? At the time the political editor of the Mirror was Alistair Campbell, now expelled from the Labour Party for voting for the austerity-heavy, Tory-light Lib Dems. Campbell personally penned an article claiming that a large donation received by the NUM from Soviet miners was unaccounted for. This was followed immediately by further false allegations that the NUM was being funded by Colonel Gaddafi.
THE (IN)JUSTICE SYSTEM
Wrongful arrests and imprisonment are described as miscarriages of justice, as though this were a minor blip in an otherwise impartial and well-functioning system, but this obscures the biases in laws and how they are enacted, and the establishment cover-ups to protect their own. The justice system can be stacked against working class people at a number of levels.
1) The law itself. Some laws overtly favour property, the rich and the powerful. Anti-trade unions laws are designed to prevent working class people from challenging injustice at work, wining a greater share of the wealth they produce and even just being able to organise themselves. Housing policy and the reduction in building standards disadvantage working class communities and were the root cause of the deaths at Grenfell.
2) Access to the law. Legal Aid was first set up in 1949 as one of the reforms which established the Welfare State. People were to have not only health services, education etc, they were also, for the first time, entitled to assistance to access justice. Like every other part of the welfare system legal aid has been subject to huge cuts. Originally around 80% of the population were covered by the scheme. By 2008 this had reduced to 29% and since the recession and austerity there has been further 80% cut to the budget. Certain types of cases have been particularly badly hit including family cases, benefits claims and asylum cases. There has been a reduction in social welfare cases of 99%, housing 50% and family cases 60%. The number of parents forced to represent themselves before the family courts jumped by 20,000 in 2013–14 to 58% of the total with many of them being mothers from poor backgrounds.
It was recently reported that relatives of the victims of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack applying for legal aid to be represented at the inquest, have been required to declare whether they have any assets worth more than £500 which could be sold to help cover the costs.
It is not only a lack of resources which can deter people from seeking and getting justice. Any such battle may require courage, time and energy to pursue your case, things not always available to those with hard lives and who may already be traumatised by their experiences.
In these ways the state openly stacks the legal odds against the poor and the vulnerable in accessing justice.
3) Justice frustrated by cover-ups. More sinister have been the organised cover-ups where the state and/or the rich and powerful have committed crimes and the system has conspired to drag its heels or actively frustrate the process of justice. The judiciary, civil servants, the police, army, politicians and the press have lied, stalled, vilified victims and done everything to protect their friends and the integrity of the state.
Hillsborough is a case study of how the state pulled together to prevent the truth about what happened on 15th April 1989 from emerging. The campaign of the families of the 96 killed for that truth to be revealed also stands as a tribute to working class solidarity. The police and management of the football ground at Hillsborough blamed fans for the problems which arose. This was reported by the press, particularly the Sun newspaper, which printed outrageous smears against the Liverpool fans and blamed them for what had happened. Such is the anger in the city about its coverage that today, 30 years on, it is still difficult to buy a copy of the Sun there. Initially the deaths were ruled to have been “accidental” and the judiciary blocked subsequent attempts to get enquiries or to have the cases re-opened. The police continued to put blame on the fans. It took till 2016 to have the deaths ruled as manslaughter due to gross negligence. Into the 2000s police officers, civil servants and politicians continued to peddle the lie that the disaster was at least in part caused by drunken fans, this includes Prime Minister Boris Johnson who in 2004 also accused Liverpool of “wallowing in its victim status”.
In Ireland, injustices perpetrated by the British army against the republican community in the North are legion with undercover activities of dubious legality and collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries. None was more notorious than Bloody Sunday. On Sunday 30th January 1972 the army opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry. 13 people died on the day with a 14th dying later. Immediate investigations by the British government cleared the army of blame. Bloody Sunday has had two enquiries but it was not until 2010 that the 12-year long Saville enquiry reported and at last admitted that the demonstrators were peaceful, represented no threat and contrary to the lies of the army no bombs were thrown.
Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday provide two examples of a concerted conspiracy by state actors to cover up illegal killings and of the tenacious and dignified struggle of communities for justice.
4) Corruption in high places. Whilst Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday gave rise to their share of perjury and conspiracy, corruption within the state is also something which its agents act to cover up and of itself can lead to denial of justice. The murder of Stephen Lawrence, the failure to investigate it properly and pursue prosecutions at the time was in part a result of racism, but the role of corrupt police officers who had links to criminals, including the father of one of the killers, also played its part.
Though Jeffery Epstein will not now stand trial for the sexual exploitation of women and girls due to his apparent and convenient suicide in prison, revelations continue about his links to the rich and powerful. Those in his circle included Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Prince Andrew. Virginia Roberts Giuffre who alleges that she was coerced into having sex with Prince Andrew also says that she was originally recruited by Epstein at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort when she was a child. Epstein’s accomplice in his cruel business was Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the newspaper magnet and enemy of the miners, Robert Maxwell. But will Epstein’s demise spell the end of the search for justice? If the truth were to emerge, the consequences could be devastating for the establishment where rich and powerful people feel able to exploit others with impunity.
JUSTICE AND CLASS
Wealth, power and the interests of capitalism exert a fantastic amount of influence over the justice system from the formation of laws to how the system operates. This is used to systematically prevent both working-class organisation and individuals and groups from accessing justice. Through formal and informal connections state actors and wealthy individuals operate to suppress the truth and disadvantage the powerless. Sometimes this is overtly political as with the miners strike and Bloody Sunday and sometimes it is simply a disregard for the lives of working class people as with Grenfell. Sometimes it is to protect the corrupt.
The outcomes of campaigns have seen (sometimes) individuals face charges for what they have done, but it is the system that is to blame. The individual soldiers at Bloody Sunday pulled the triggers that killed innocent people, but the chain of command, the culture they operated in and their very presence on the streets of Derry were the ultimate reasons the massacre happened.
This is not about rooting out the bad apples. While the wealthy and corporations have preferential treatment and access to justice and the state conspires to support them, then we will continue to see terrible injustices done to working class communities and individuals. Whilst campaigns and individuals have been represented by committed lawyers determined to achieve justice, critical to the ability of working class people to right wrongs has also been their capacity to organise and fight through their trade unions and community organisations. These have been battles in which much has been learned about the true nature of the state and the interests it represents.