Memorial to paranoia

Conspiracy theorists and opportunists gather at the shrine to Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics UK

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Judging by the shrine outside Stockwell Tube station in south London, Jean Charles de Menezes is fast becoming a martyr to a cause.

The Brazilian electrician’s face beams out from newspaper clippings, a picture of innocence. The story is of a good, hard-working man mown down by the brutal British state. ‘England is the Terror. Jean is an example of honesty from the cradle’, read one banner. A handwritten note judged that he was just ‘another victim of the fascist pig’. The killing is seen as part of a policy of persecution, stretching from Stockwell to Baghdad. ‘Cowards, racists, terrorists, killers, hypocrites’, listed one offering. ‘They say they will continue to kill innocent people. Blair is fighting for petrol not peace.’

De Menezes’ death was certainly a tragedy. ‘He was always smiling, always working. He didn’t like violence’, recalled 20-year-old Sadine, who shared a house with him a year ago. But was he really ‘another victim of the fascist pig’? On the contrary, this death stands out as extraordinary: it was the result of police ineptitude and panic, in the charged climate following the 21 July attempted bombings. That a highly trained marksman reportedly missed de Menezes three times from close range indicates the police’s state of mind.

The story of martyrdom owes little to the facts of the case; instead, it’s an interpretation projected from outside. A range of disgruntlements and fears are being expressed under the banner of ‘Justice for Jean’.

Much of this is paranoia. Some feel that any one of us could be gunned down at any moment. ‘They are killing us, brother – here, not just in Iraq’, read one note at the shrine; another claimed ‘even the police start to shoot us randomly’, and was signed, ‘Sardinia cry for all the victims of terrorism’. The killing becomes an allegory for the state of the world. Twenty-five-year-old Yetbarek from Ethiopia told me that he had stopped running for buses, fearing that he might be gunned down: ‘Now I don’t believe anyone. I’m really scared. I’m living in a foreign country.’ An Italian, 30-year-old Francesco Zimei, said: ‘It makes us feel abandoned. It could happen to me. I’m not from this country.’

The authorities are suspected of plotting against us. A middle-aged Asian man wondered what was going on in that ‘dark, secretive bureaucracy’, and called on Met chief Sir Ian Blair to ‘come out and say exactly what happened’. Conspiracy theories abound. ‘The CCTV tapes disappeared. Why?’, asked Francesco. ‘Of course there was a cover-up’, judged Yetbarek. Apparently, a callous regime murdered de Menezes, then rubbed salt in his family’s wounds. One diatribe at the shrine claims that the Met ‘compounded the grieving family’s raw pain by allowing misinformation to fester for these three excruciating weeks. ALL LIES’. Another note demanded: ‘Ian Blair you must stand down. Liar.’

This is exactly the same stuff that came out over Iraq. Then, too, there were cries of ‘Bliar’, calls to resign, accusations of a cover-up, campaigns in the name of an innocent victim of the system. Indeed, many of those who campaigned over Iraq have latched on to this case. George Galloway, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and critic of the war, called for the resignation of home secretary Charles Clarke over the Stockwell killing (1). Two spokespeople for the Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign, whose mobile numbers are given on publicity material, have links with the antiwar movement – one, Asad Rehman, is an adviser to Galloway. Though they may have political points to make, they advance under the cover of the de Menezes family. Spokesperson Yasmin Khan told me that ‘My role is not to comment – I’m just helping out the family, facilitating justice’. She said that the killing ‘could be more sinister; maybe it was a cover-up’, but attributed these views to ‘the family’.

Of course we should be very critical of the police, and very suspicious about moves to give them more powers. But paranoid wanderings lead us nowhere. There is no use imagining plots where none exists, and wallowing in a sense of victimhood.

De Menezes’ death has led to an outpouring about everything that’s wrong in the world. ‘Tony Blair shit, George Bush shit. Make bad planet’, shouted one Brazilian woman in broken English, gesturing at the shrine – as if Bush had something to do with the killing. Personal disgruntlements get loaded in, too. ‘Good boy, he worked hard. Not like people in London – my neighbour gets money, doesn’t go to work’, the woman continued. The policewoman on guard outside the station rolled her eyes. ‘She was shouting at me about the telephone boxes earlier. We’re not BT.’ A number of the notes at the shrine are written in classic crank style. They have the capital letters (‘ALL LIES’); the yellow highlighter to mark out key points; the numbered lists of suspicious facts.

This isn’t just about a paranoid public, though. Paranoia today comes from the top. Some people left newspapers at the shrine – the Guardian reporting the revelation that de Menezes hadn’t been running or wearing a bulky jacket; the London Evening Standard reporting that the CCTV cameras in the station had actually been working. Conspiracy theories have been fuelled by the media, and by leaks from within the police. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, a Met representative suggested that the leaks came from ‘people who had been passed over for promotion’ or had other personal axes to grind.

Indeed, some passers-by in Stockwell had a more level-headed view than the mainstream media. Sadine, the friend of de Menezes, judged that the killing was a ‘terrible misunderstanding. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time’. Though she was upset, she wasn’t calling for Ian Blair’s head: ‘Resigning won’t bring him back.’ She didn’t even know that the death had fuelled a campaign, asking ‘What campaign?’. Another passing Brazilian woman judged it ‘an accident, a mistake. The police weren’t prepared. They didn’t do it on purpose’. Meanwhile, a young Australian pointed out that ‘it wouldn’t have happened if suicide bombers hadn’t bombed London’.

By recognising that de Menezes’ death was a freak mistake, we can deal with the reality of politics today – rather than worrying about whether we could be next, or wondering what the Met is hiding from us. If we have arguments to make in defence of civil liberties, or criticising new police powers, we should make them. It’s gutless to put them in speech bubbles coming out of Jean Charles’ or his family’s mouth.

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Topics Politics UK


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