Five years ago police killed a 27 year old Brazilian electrician on a tube train in south London. Simon Basketter looks at what the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes reveals about the British state
It took 30 seconds for the police to kill Jean Charles de Menezes. The cover-up took a little longer. At 10.06am on 22 July 2005 Jean Charles sat down on a tube train in Stockwell, south London.
One police officer held him down while two others fired seven hollow tip bullets into his head and one into his neck. Three other bullets missed.
Jean Charles had left his block of flats in Tulse Hill that morning.
Surveillance officers, including some from military intelligence, were watching the flats, looking for alleged terrorists. They did not know which flat he had been in.
Officers followed Jean Charles onto two buses and down into Stockwell tube station. Other armed officers, who did not know whether Jean Charles was a suspect, brandished their weapons as they made their way down to the platform.
Rachel Wilson, who was sitting opposite Jean Charles, initially thought the plain clothes cops were lads “messing around”. She said, “Only when I saw blood, I realised it was not the case. Then I thought they were terrorists.”
Another witness, Anna Dunwoodie, was sitting two seats away from Jean Charles when he was shot. She says the police were in a “state of panic” and that “things felt like they were a bit out of control”.
She watched in horror as the men ran into the carriage with “lots of guns”.
She told the inquest into Jean Charles’ death, “I think it was the man, who I now know to be a surveillance officer, [who] really seemed to be frightened or hyped up when he was calling the other men.”
She added that she felt “pressured” into making a hurried statement to police afterwards.
The surveillance officers said they did not identify Jean Charles as a terror suspect before he was shot dead. The firearms officer who fired the shots, officer C12, said they did – and that he was prepared to tackle terrorists who were intent on “mass murder”.
He said Jean Charles’ behaviour had been “in keeping with a man acting suspiciously, with being a potential suicide bomber”.
This referred to the fact that Jean Charles “appeared agitated” – with good reason it turned out.
Jean Charles had briefly run on the platform to catch the train. Several bulky white men wearing, variously, a suit, jeans and a tracksuit, chased him, waving guns.
Within 15 minutes of his death, an explosives expert had confirmed that Jean Charles was not the “suicide bomber” the police had claimed he was. His wallet and mobile phone showed his true identity.
Dozens of other officers later admitted that they knew within hours that Jean Charles was innocent.
Yet the police in general – and Metropolitan police chief Ian Blair in particular – claimed for a further 24 hours that Jean Charles had been involved in a terror plot.
Blair, as head of the Met police, later explained that he had not lied but had been “almost totally uninformed”.
Cressida Dick was deputy assistant commissioner at the Met and the senior officer in charge of the operation that killed Jean Charles.
She insisted that none of the officers involved in the execution-style slaying had done anything wrong.
The killing took place the day after a failed bombing attempt in London and two weeks after the 7/7 bombings.
As the truth emerged, there was much talk of the “difficult atmosphere” in the run-up to the shooting.
That atmosphere doesn’t explain why, in the investigations and inquest that followed, police officers altered their evidence. Evidence was tampered with or removed. Photographs were altered to make Jean Charles look more like the suspected suicide bomber. Witnesses were intimidated.
There were four investigations into Jean Charles’ killing. Much was revealed – but much was not.
An inquest gave an open verdict over his killing. The Independent Police Complaints Commission produced two reports, one of which was kept secret for years.
The Metropolitan Police was fined £175,000 after a health and safety trial convicted it of “endangering the public” and having failed “to provide for the health, safety and welfare of Jean Charles de Menezes” – a disgusting understatement.
While malicious lies about Jean Charles appeared in the press, Ian Blair was busy attempting to block inquiries into the shooting.
Jean Charles’ real identity was known by 3pm. By 4.30pm, assistant commissioner Andy Hayman had told journalists that Jean Charles was not one of the 21 July bombers.
But at 5pm Hayman told a meeting of senior police officers that they should give the opposite impression.
He said, “There is press running that the person shot is not one of the four bombers. We need to present that he is believed to be.”
Rampaging police officers with the intent to kill gunned down an innocent man. Yet no officer at any level has been either disciplined or prosecuted for involvement in the slaying of Jean Charles. The opposite has happened.
Cressida Dick was promoted. Andy Hayman was awarded a CBE. Ian Blair became a Sir in 2008 and is now in the House of Lords.
Blair himself has admitted that police could kill again. “It’s still happening out there,” he said. “There are still officers having to make those calls as we speak. Somebody else could be shot.”
Members of military intelligence from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) carried out the flawed surveillance of Jean Charles de Menezes.
The SRR ran death squads in Iraq, targeting supporters of the resistance to the US-British occupation of that country.
When the SRR was formed in 2005 it incorporated a secret unit of the British army that had supplied names, addresses and photographs of Catholic targets to Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.
This led to the murder of at least 30 Catholics.
On the afternoon of the shooting, Evening Standard newsboards announced that a “bomber” had been shot dead on London’s tube.
Met police chief Ian Blair said, “As I understand the situation the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions.”
In fact the police released “incorrect information”, as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) politely put it.
The media used this “information” to run stories saying that Jean Charles was a so-called illegal immigrant – which, as well as being completely irrelevant, was a lie.
Newspapers claimed that he was wearing a bulky jacket, apparently leading police to think he was concealing a bomb. It was a lie.
They said there were wires visible from his jacket – a lie. It was claimed he had jumped over the ticket barrier – again, a lie.
The Independent newspaper wrote that Jean Charles was “the author of his own misfortune”. The Guardian newspaper was concerned about the impact of the killing on the public, rather than Jean Charles.
“The biggest mistake was not to properly prepare the public for the sustained campaign of violence facing the country,” it said.
“Even when Mr Menezes was thought to be a bomber, witnesses were shocked by the ferocity with which he was killed. More should have been done to prepare the public for the forceful response needed to protect them.”
The smears were endless. The Sun newspaper said that Jean Charles had raped a woman. His body was exhumed, against the wishes of his family, and his DNA showed that he had not.On 15 July 2005, seven days before the killing of Jean Charles, the government announced that “armed police officers could be given more aggressive shoot to kill orders, telling them to fire at the heads of suicide bombers.”
After the 7/7 bombings in London, and as the “war on terror” dragged on, the state created an atmosphere that facilitated the slaying of John Charles.
Prior to 7/7, the government brought in the Israeli secret service to train firearms officers. They developed Operation Kratos – which advised that suspected suicide bombers must be shot in the head.
The police said this was necessary to stop hand movement. But John Charles was on the ground pinned down by police when he was shot, so unable to move his hands.
According to one of the officers who shot him, “Everything I have ever trained for – threat assessment, seeing threats, perceiving threats and acting on threats – proved wrong.”
Yet the killing didn’t reflect a failure of the system, but a success.
Jean Charles’ death is told as story of a regrettable but unavoidable incident. The official tale is one of “confusion” and “chaos”, with police doing their best to prevent a terrorist outrage in difficult circumstances.
According to this account, tense situations produce regrettable consequences. But to view the death of Jean Charles this way is to is to concede that there is something fundamentally right with the police and the justice system.
The problem for our rulers in admitting to “miscarriages of justice” – whether that is people wrongly convicted or those who die at the hands of the police – is that it shines a light on the nature of the state.
Institutional racism can help us to understand much of this, but it is worth noting that you don’t have to be black, Muslim or even Irish (or a Geordie bouncer) to have a massive wrong inflicted on you by the state.
The institutions of the state are there to protect the rich and the state wants a monopoly on arms. The state can bomb and invade abroad and, as a last resort to exercise its power, it needs the same force at home.
The Labour Party, even those on the Labour left, failed to condemn the killing of Jean Charles. Ken Livingstone, then mayor of London, blamed the 7/7 bombers instead of the police.
“The police acted to do what they believed necessary to protect the lives of the public,” he said. “This tragedy has added another victim to the toll of deaths for which the terrorists bear responsibility.”
There is a bloody line that runs through the carnage of imperial adventures in the Middle East to the carriage of a tube train in south London. If push comes to shove, the British state has a shoot to kill policy to defend the system. This is not a “mistake”, nor is it defensible.
Lack of professionalism wasn’t the problem for the officers who shot Jean Charles. They did what they were meant to do – execute to protect the state. The problem is that they are meant to do it at all.