Victim Blaming and the Hillsborough Disaster

Okay, background first.

Rachael’s dad Chris came to visit us a month ago, and though the visit was short, it was good.  He recommended to us a documentary on Netflix about the Hillsborough disaster, an incident that happened back in 1989 at a soccer game in Sheffield, England where 96 people were crushed to death because of overcrowding in the stadium’s standing room section.  It was a horrific incident, and the fallout from it spurred major reforms in stadium design in England to eliminate standing room only sections.

In the documentary (which is part of the 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries; you can find this one as an episode in the collection on soccer; also, apparently, this film’s not available in Great Britain because the most recent inquest on the matter is still in progress) we get a walkthrough of events leading up to the incident and the fallout over the following decades.  The basic gist is that the police were poorly organized to manage this particular soccer game, and due to a series of bad decisions, the crush happened in the standing room sections; the emergency response was inadequate and many people who should have survived the incident didn’t because they were unable to receive appropriate emergency care in time.  In the aftermath of the disaster, the leadership of the local police force promoted a narrative suggesting that the crush happened because of drunkenness and ‘hooliganism.’

Essentially, the leadership screwed up, and they shifted the blame to the victims.

This whole saga is something that I’d honestly never heard of before watching the documentary, but it’s apparently been a hotly contested issue for the last two decades as the families of the victims have been trying to get public vindication in the face of regular denials that anyone but the fans were at fault for the crush.

Now, I bring all this stuff up because Chris explained that this documentary was heartbreaking; he’s a pretty big soccer fan, and I guess the tragedy and injustice of the situation just struck a nerve for him.  It’s understandable; there’s something imminently unseemly about trying to blame a person who’s died for an event that they had no control over.

What I find particularly remarkable about this incident, as an outsider who’s learning about it for the first time, is that the victim blaming that went on was nongendered and nonracial in nature.  I’m just an American who doesn’t know much of anything about the demographic makeup of England, so it looks to me like a bunch of white people blaming a bunch of other white people who suffered real harm for this disaster.  I suspect there’s an element of classism and subcultural prejudice (European soccer fans have a certain reputation for extreme fervor in regard to their preferred clubs) at play here, but that’s largely invisible to me.

I think the fact that the tribal distinctions that usually accompany victim blaming are invisible (again, to me, as an American who doesn’t have much of an opinion on sports in general, let alone soccer) in this incident make an excellent example of why the practice is unjust.  We tend to blame victims when they don’t fit into our group as part of the othering tactics that are so common in tribalist thinking.  Questions like, “What was she wearing?” and “Why was he running in the first place?” imply that victims share the responsibility for their own misfortune, and contribute to an internalized mindset that it is the vulnerable person’s responsibility to make themselves less vulnerable rather than the community’s responsibility to better protect one another from harm.

We know that the police were poorly organized to handle the crowd at Hillsborough, and we can see plainly that their leadership’s attempts to avoid responsibility by pointing the finger at rowdy soccer fans was an unjust thing.

I wish it would be more apparent how unjust it is to point the finger at the victim in all those other instances where we do it.


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