Just over two weeks ago London, and arguably the UK as a whole, marked the 10th anniversary of the July 7th 2005 London bombings that targeted the British capital’s transport infrastructure, claimed the lives of 52 people, injured many more and also involved the deaths of the 4 suicide bombers who carried out the attack. Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes who was shot dead by the London Metropolitan Police (LMP) in a train carriage waiting at Stockwell Underground station. He was killed in the mistaken belief that he was one of the individuals that had attempted to carry out a second series of bombings the day before and that he was about to carry out a further attack.
I researched the practices of commemoration and memorialisation that have surrounded each of these events during my doctoral research but focussed more on de Menezes’ case given my interest in what, by playing on archaeological and psychoanalytical metaphors, I call ‘buried memories’ – those social memories that not only relate to subterranean urban settings, such as London’s Underground railway network, but which are simultaneously, or have been, obscured within the collective consciousness of their cities and these cities’ populations. A couple of months back, while travelling on the Underground, I overheard two fellow passengers talking. One of them was trying to explain what had happened to Menezes and was astounded to realise that the other had never heard the story even if his own recollections of it were also hazy and jumbled and he failed to recall Menezes’ name and the exact circumstances of events. I thought for a moment about interrupting them and filling in the gaps in their communicative recollections but I was tired, had just got off a plane and soon the pair disembarked so instead I made a mental note of the exchange as further evidence of the burying of Menezes’ memory in contrast to that of the July 7th bombings.
In this double length blog post I’d like to reflect a bit more on that hypothesis and on the past and recent practices of memorialisation that have surrounded these cases in order to suggest that, even as the memory flashpoints of these event’s 10th anniversaries facilitate the resurfacing of memories associated with them, the social remembrance of Menezes has been far less pronounced than that of the 7th July bombings, now colloquially referred to simply as 7/7, and their victims. In the most reductionist and pragmatic, if somewhat crude, register it is possible to suggest that some of these differences relate simply to the scale of human loss that both events represent – one of them directly affected far more people than the other. But their differences also arguably relate to the specifics of each case.
So well known are the events of 7/7 that I feel little need to recount them here, other than to summarise that at around 8.50 am on Thursday 7th July 2005 three suicide bombers detonated explosives on two Underground trains travelling on the Circle line (between the Liverpool Street and Aldgate stations and just outside Edgware Road station) and on one train on the Piccadilly line (between the King’s Cross St. Pancras and Russell Square stations), before a further bomb was detonated, one hour later, on a bus as it passed Tavistock Square. Following a public outpouring of grief exemplified by the spontaneous shrines that were created at each of the sites of the bombings, the first permanent memorial – a memorial garden – was unveiled sixty-one days after the event. On the event’s first anniversary, memorial plaques were unveiled at each of the locations of the bombs and three years later the national 7/7 memorial was inaugurated in Hyde Park. These memorials acted as foci for the commemorations associated with the 10th anniversary two weeks ago. On that day remembrance ceremonies were held at each of them and also in St Paul’s Cathedral. These services were attended not only by the families of the victims, survivors and members of the emergency services that attended to the immediate aftermath of the bombings, but also by high-profile politicians and members of the British royal family including David Cameron and Prince William.
I attended the public ceremony held in the afternoon at the Hyde Park memorial and in spite of the palpable sense of grief, but also anxiety, that I felt (the latter emotion triggered by the level of security surrounding the event) it was hard to escape the evidence that the survivors and victims, namely those within the security fences being watched by me and the rest of the public mass without security passes, were being politically instrumentalised via the rhetoric of the ‘war or terror’. A rhetoric, I should add, made all the more prevalent following the armed attack and killing of British tourists in Tunisia just a few days earlier. my general unease with the ceremony’s unfolding was added to by the distribution of flyers which suggested that many Londoners might unknowingly still be suffering from forms of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the attacks even though for certain individual case this was probably the case and therefore a necessary measure. Still, press articles on the day carried a similar message and quoted police estimates that up to 4000 people who had witnessed the attacks might still be be silently suffering their psychological consequences – the bombings’ invisible victims. At the same time other press coverage stressed that the risk of a terrorist attack is probably now greater than it was a decade ago. Although obviously an incredibly sensitive topic these appeals reminded me of Jeffrey C. Alexander’s work (2004) and his convincing arguments that cultural trauma is socially constructed in order to reinforce collective identities – collective identities, which in this case could strengthen the city and nation’s resolve against a new, and also conveniently invisible, threat – terrorism. Participating in the memorial service brought to the surface my own emphatic memories of a lost loved one – although not a victim of 7/7. Thinking of that person I was amazed and some how happy to realise that they only lived for 7 months in a post-7/7 Britain but my thoughts also made me question just how cathartic public memorial services could be. Placing myself in the position of the victim’s relatives and survivors, inside the security fences, I could not help but acknowledge that I would probably have left the service feeling, to some degree at least, re-traumatised. The only significant, and welcome, break in the pernicious rhetoric of vulnerable resilience came when the youngest survivor of the attacks addressed the congregated crowd and stated:
“Fact is, it may not have broken London, but it did break some of us. Sometime I feel that people are so hell bent on trying to make a point about terrorism not breaking us that they forget about all the people that got caught up in it.”
On the same day I also participated in the event’s remembrance online through social media use, where the Walk Together initiative and its associated hashtag #walktogether was widely adopted and acclaimed. Supported by various London faith groups representing the wide array of religions practiced by 7/7’s victims (a fact also reflected in the secular nature of the many of the commemorative services), the initiative encouraged Londoners to walk the last stop of their commute in order to remember the bombings’ victims and recreate the togetherness felt when commuters were forced to walk home following the closure of the transport network in response to the attacks. The initiative might be criticised as an expression of a fabricated resilient and idealised multi-cultural London community, the likes of which, arguably originate with the government’s creation of the British ‘Blitz Spirit’ and were continued in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 attacks by the Mayor’s Office’s ‘7 Million Londoners, 1 London’ and ‘We are Londoners, We are One’ media campaigns. But despite this possible critique it was arguably as poignant a memorial as any given that it allowed people to privately remember through individual acts, which contributed to an aggregated mnemonic performance. This collective performance has left a trace, at least a digital one, insofar as it is recorded in the big data archive of social media platforms like Twitter, connected through a hashtag and characterised by numerous photographs of feet. As one element of my digital ethnography that day I decided to highlight the newly acquired commemorative function of ‘feeties’ – photographic self-portraits of feet – by retweeting every example I encountered (for those of you with enough patience you can scour my Twitter account to find that during the rush hours of the anniversary my feed was full of feet). In trending and spreading beyond the British capital both nationally and internationally the Walk Together initiative became, for a short time at least, a rather literal example of what Astrid Erll calls ‘travelling memory’ (2011).
The 10th anniversary commemorations of Menezes’ death yesterday received far less mainstream press coverage and left a far more subtle social media footprint. Few, if none, have picked up on the poignant connection between the Walk Together initiative and Menezes’ death. Shortly before he was killed he had also been walking, not in a group, but alone. The first press reports of Menezes’ shooting however reported that he had jumped a ticket barrier and run towards a train carriage full of passengers. These details were eventually revealed to be among many elements of misinformation that entered the mainstream press in the twenty-four hours after his death. In the eyes of the press and the authorities such details initially established De Menezes’ guilt and helped identify him as a would-be suicide bomber. When evidence proved De Menezes’ innocence a day later, his death was quickly reframed by discourses of mistaken identity and regrettable necessity, in order, some claim, to preserve the British government’s new forms of border politics and hyper-militarism, as exemplified by the shoot-to-kill policy of the London Metropolitan Police (LMP) (see McCulloch & Sentas 2006; Vaughan-Williams 2007; O’Driscoll 2008). Occasionally Menezes was also framed as the 53rd innocent victim of 7/7 in ways that did little to relieve the official construction of his killing as a form of collateral damage but instead conveniently shifted responsibility for his death away from the UK government and towards its adversaries.
But Menezes was less easily aggregated into the imagined multi-cultural community of the capital that had been successfully invoked by the cultural, national and religious diversity of the 7/7’s 52 victims. In part this was because, as was revealed after his death, he had been living and working in London without a valid British visa. This contributed to his ‘outsider’ status in ways that were perversely similar to those that rendered the 7/7 bombers as somehow ‘foreign’ in spite of their British citizenship. His outsider status was heightened by later allegations that posthumously continued De Menezes’ criminalisation as a racialised ‘other’ and even though these allegations were later cleared they contributed to a position within wider landscapes of public sympathy and sentiment that was all the more precarious than that of 7/7’s victims. Meanwhile his family’s campaign for justice and desire to change the LMP’s shoot-to-kill policy, supported by London’s Brazilian diaspora, placed his memory and this community in opposition to and outside the dominant political impulses that called for and oversaw a reduction of civil liberties in the face of so-called ‘terrorist’ threats. A further side effect of Menezes’ death was, thus, to briefly bring the London Brazilian community to the forefront of the media and expose “societal unease about the presence and activity of irregular immigrants” in Britain (Evans et al 2007, 4).
Thus, unlike the families of the 7/7 victims, memorialized both in London’s transport network and one of its central landscapes of memory, Menezes’ family had to fight to have him memorialised. The grassroots memorial shrine that grew at Stockwell station to remember him was at first used primarily as the backdrop for the family’s Justice4Jean campaign. But as their attempts to gain justice and force reforms in LMP’s shoot-to-kill policy faltered their claims for a permanent memorial strengthened in a compensatory manner. Five days before the first anniversary of Menezes death, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced no police officer would be charged for his death and that instead the Office of the Commissioner of the Metropolis would be prosecuted for breaching the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act (The LMP was eventually forced to pay £175,000 in damages and £385,000 in costs). Then in December 2006 two different internal inquires by the Independent Police Complaints Commission were concluded and in late 2008 the concluding public inquest into the shooting took place. During the latter the coroner controversially forbade the jury from returning an unlawful killing verdict. Thus, the jury returned an open verdict but they did exonerate Menezes from claims that he had acted suspiciously on the day of his shooting, thereby contributing to his own death – he walked to the train, alone. Whilst the inquest confirmed Menezes’ innocence it failed to deliver the individual forms of justice originally sought by the Justice4Jean campaign.
Throughout these legal procedures Menezes family and friends, many of which either did not live in the UK or were not permanent British citizens, came to rely on a small group of local volunteers who maintained the shrine. Although they, along with civil rights campaigners and members of the London Brazilian community, regularly held annual memorial services at the shrine on the anniversary of Menezes’ death their ambiguous position within the local community (a community that Menezes himself had not been a member of) created further reasons to seek the installation of a permanent memorial. Although the family had been in discussions with Transport for London (TfL) about the possibility of erecting a memorial at the station since the first anniversary progress towards this goal only really started to be made from the fourth anniversary onwards. It was then that campaign members revealed a new memorial mosaic and from then on they turned greater attention to their protracted negotiations with TfL to have it installed. These actions signaled a shift in the campaign’s objectives from those that hoped to secure legal justice for Menezes to those that partly settled for the consolation of securing representation for him within the social memory of the network and the city. TfL finally allowed the mosaic’s installation but only after litigation between the Menezes family and LMP seemed to have been concluded with the family’s acceptance of an undisclosed compensatory package.
Besides waiting for the resolution of legal proceedings TfL’s delayed decision to grant permission for the memorial can also be connected to the transport authority’s reluctance to allow the station to become a place of remembrance and the belief that it was only down to happenstance that Menezes had been killed on its tracks. However, for the members of Menezes’ family and the broader Justice4Jean campaign, the authentic location of the shooting held not just personal mnemonic significance but was also somehow implicated in the cause of the tragedy. Such connections were reflected by the public inquiry’s investigation as to whether the 7/7 attacks on the Underground had been a causal factor in Menezes’ shooting (on this question, however, the inquiry’s jury were unable to reach a decision) and were further echoed in the symbolism of the Justice4Jean campaign logo. On being granted permission to erect the memorial Menezes’ cousin and one of the campaign’s most prominent representatives stated,
“the pain of never achieving justice for Jean’s killing continues to haunt us every day, but knowing his memory will be kept alive in the local community through this memorial is a tribute we could not have dreamed of.”
The family’s fight for justice, however, was resurrected last month when they challenged the CPS’s decision not to prosecute any individual for Menezes’ death in the European Court of Human Rights. The case has lent extra resonance to the 10th anniversary especially as it is one of a number cases that is believed to have a bearing on the UK government’s decision regarding its membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case has also helped foreground the issues of police accountability in the UK and the inequality and injustice that some claim blight its current systems. Despite 10 separate verdicts of unlawful police killings since 1990 none have yet led to a successful prosecution and that 25-year period has also seen 995 deaths in police custody or following contact with the police and 55 fatal shootings by police officers. Yesterday morning the Justice4Jean hashtag returned to twitter (even though the Justice4Jean twitter account has been inactive since 2008) and once again Stockwell station was briefly at the centre of these debates. Again members of Menezes, family and the Justice4Jean campaign congregated outside the station, just as they have done every year over the last decade, to observe a minute’s silence. This year they were joined by dozens of onlookers and more media than usual in part thanks to a Facebook event started roughly two weeks earlier by a local community monitoring group. Given the date of the event’s creation – 7th July – it is hard to ignore the possibility that this effort to rally Londoners to remember Menezes was not at least partly a reaction to the prevalent national remembrance of 7/7.
Given the ongoing legal debates and the disparate governmental responses to the two events it is now near untenable to conceive of De Menezes as 7/7’s 53rd victim. His memory resurfaced yesterday but it is ultimately a memory that the current UK government and its predecessors have preferred to see buried while they continue to emphasise that of 7/7 – a further 7/7 memorial is planned for the Tavistock Square Gardens. We might speculate that today’s government, in favoring a political line that may take the UK out of the European Human Rights Convention and along the draconian route of even more powerful anti-terrorist laws and the further reduction of civil liberties, can sadly only expect to face more such incompatible memories in the future. These future memories may also eventually create echoes in the archives of social media but these will likely be drowned out by those digital memories that better serve the objectives of national governments. This last point is poignantly communicated by the fact that yesterday Menezes’ memory and its associated hashtags somehow competed with another country’s 7/7 – the 4th anniversary of Norway’s Utøya massacre, which trended on social media throughout the day – but that is another case surrounded by its own issues.