Britain: Shoot-to Kill and the

The British government and the Metropolitan Police are now trying to sweep under the carpet the brutal execution of Jean Charles de Menezes on July 22. We must not allow this to happen. This young, innocent, Brazilian man - an electrician by trade, just 27 years of age - is the latest victim of the so-called “war on terror”, but also of the undermining of civil liberties and the strengthening of the powers of the capitalist state.

The brutal execution of Jean Charles de Menezes on July 22 cannot go unanswered. We must not allow this atrocity to be swept under the carpet. This is what the government and the Metropolitan Police are now trying to do. They must not be allowed to succeed. So far their attempts to cover up this outrage have been no less bungling, incompetent and criminal than the killing of Mr de Menezes itself. However this is about far more than just incompetence. This young, innocent, Brazilian man - an electrician by trade, just 27 years of age - is the latest victim of the so-called war on terror that now extends from Afghanistan and Iraq to Guantanamo and all points in between, including London. He is a victim of the undermining of civil liberties and the strengthening of the powers of the capitalist state, which hides behind the cover of that ‘war’, and which has accelerated dramatically since the appalling bombing of London on July 7th.

The immediate response of most people to the news of this shooting was a profound feeling of shock. Without any previous public discussion or parliamentary scrutiny, suddenly Britain’s police force was operating a shoot-to-kill policy. This is unprecedented.

Deaths in police custody or during police operations in Britain are not as rare as one might imagine. Scotsman Harry Stanley, for example, was killed by police after leaving a London pub in 1999. It was a particularly controversial case. The police had received reports that an "Irishman" with a suspicious package that looked very much like a wrapped-up sawn-off shotgun was on the loose. Mr Stanley was actually carrying a table leg. He was not black so he was demonised in a different way - portrayed as a feckless drunk, and worse still, ‘Irish-looking’.

It was reported that Stanley was facing an officer with his "gun" - they had no choice, it was them or him. The entry and exit wounds to Mr Stanley's head later suggested that this was unlikely.

In 2003 Mikey Powell, a man without a criminal record, died after police officers drove their car at him, sprayed him with CS gas and restrained him. Soon after, an article in a local paper said that the police had driven their car at him only because he pointed a gun at them. He was actually holding a belt. When the family complained to West Midlands police, they were told it had been a mistake made by a source close to the investigation. By then the damage had been done. In the public mind, Powell was a crazed gunman.

Few deaths at the hands of the police have been as clear-cut as that of Jean Charles de Menezes. None has been as high profile. The subsequent police distortion follows a familiar pattern, but the introduction of a shoot-to-kill policy marks a fundamental departure.

Many people in Ireland may well have responded to the news with a nod of recognition.

They will have recalled Sean Savage, an unarmed member of the Provisional IRA, shot 16 times at point-blank range by plain-clothes members of the SAS in Gibraltar in March 1998 after he had put his hands up in surrender. The SAS immediately claimed, and most of the media reported as fact, that they believed he had been about to trigger a bomb. Two other unarmed Provisional IRA members were gunned down on the same occasion. Although the European Court of Human Rights later found the killings unlawful, and despite widespread outrage, no action was ever taken against the killers.

Jean Charles de Menezes, however, was shot dead on a tube train, going about his normal everyday life. The inevitable conclusion drawn by many was ‘it could have been me.’

However the media coverage of the police account of events quickly acted to link the shooting with the atrocity of July 7th and the aborted bombing just one day before, on July 21st. We were encouraged by one expert after another to think that, as disturbing as this shooting was, nevertheless this is the only way to deal with a suicide bomber. Or, at least, a suspected suicide bomber. Very quickly this became  ‘perhaps not a suicide bomber, but a man acting suspiciously who ran from the police and had connections with the suicide bombers’. This soon became an ‘unfortunate but necessary evil’, and before long ‘a mistake, but an understandable one in these extreme circumstances.’

Since then each passing hour has produced new, more startling revelations exposing these fictions and lies. There is a general mood of unease in British society, particularly in and around London, which is palpable and has intensified since the appalling events of July 7th. This can only be compounded by the sense of shock arising from this shoot-to kill-policy, combined with the bungling incompetence of those charged with operating it, and the scandal of those in charge of it attempting to cover up their actions, their lies, their attempts to prevent an inquiry. Add to this volatile mix a government who continue to claim there is no link between terrorist attacks on London and the imperialist occupation of Iraq, and the result is profound instability.

At first we were inundated with reports that a man, followed from an address thought to be linked with the suicide bombers, was chased onto the underground where he hurdled a barrier, running from the police, exposing wires hanging out of his padded jacket. One does not have to be a genius to draw conclusions from this account. The problem is that it is false from beginning to end. It has since emerged that Mr de Menezes walked normally into Stockwell tube station in south London, passed normally through a ticket barrier, and stopped normally to pick up a free paper. He then ran a few short steps on hearing his train pull in. All quite normal. The events that followed, however, were not.

Mr de Menezes’ everyday behaviour was apparently recorded by the now omnipresent CCTV cameras. The recording however is missing! The initial witness statements described a man wearing a padded jacket vaulting a barrier chased by the police. It later emerged that the man being described was in fact one of the police officers giving chase.

The new police guidelines called Operation Kratos (after the mythical enforcer of Zeus in Greek legend), recommend "shooting to kill to protect" suspected suicide bombers by firing at their heads so that the bullets will not accidentally detonate explosives strapped around their bodies.

However in this case, a surveillance officer has revealed that he grabbed Mr de Menezes and was holding him before he was shot. "I heard shouting which included the word 'police' and turned to face the male in the denim jacket. He [de Menezes] immediately stood up and advanced towards me and the CO19 officers," said the surveillance officer's leaked statement.

"I grabbed the male in the denim jacket by wrapping both my arms around his torso, pinning his arms to his side. I then pushed him back on to the seat where he had been previously sitting ... I then heard a gun shot very close to my left ear and was dragged away on to the floor of the carriage."

A soldier staking out Mr de Menezes’ block of flats had identified him as he left his home as IC1 - police terminology for ethnic white. Yet the suspected bomber had already been captured on CCTV and was known not to be white. Why was a man, looking nothing like any of the suspects, who was clearly not carrying a bomb, had not run from the police, and had been physically restrained, still shot eight times?

Mr de Menezes ‘crime’, for which he has paid the ultimate price, was to live in the same block of flats as a man thought to be connected with one of the suspects in the failed bomb attack of July 21st.

Now the man the police thought they were following has spoken out. Abdi Omar, a Somali-born bus driver, was one of two men detectives were looking for when they began following Mr de Menezes. Mr Omar knows one of the four suspects, Hussain Osman, and rents a flat above the apartment where Mr de Menezes was living.

"It could have been me who got shot that day," Mr Omar said. "I don't know what to make of all this. I don't know what I should do."

Police had been watching the block where both men lived, in Scotia Road, Tulse Hill, because they had discovered Mr Omar's gym membership card in a rucksack holding the bomb intended to blow up a tube train in Shepherd's Bush, west London.

However, Mr Omar says he had lent his membership card to Hussain Osman, a suspect since arrested in Rome and facing extradition to Britain.

He said he was friendly with Osman, an Ethiopian-born British citizen: "I knew him from the gym, although not well, not 100% … I lent him my card. But I have no idea why it was in the rucksack."

According to members of Mr Omar's family, his mother-in-law was manhandled by armed police when they raided the home of his estranged wife a few hours after the death of Mr de Menezes. The family said three plain-clothes officers with submachine guns surrounded his wife, Aziza Hassan, the couple's 12-year-old son, and her 74-year-old mother as they emerged from their home off Harrow Road, west London. "She suffered a heart attack, and although she is now out of hospital, she needed heart surgery," said Mr Omar.

Questioning Ms Hassan, detectives realised her husband had left the country five days before the bombing, after telling relatives that he was making a short trip to Somalia. Apparently, this heightened their suspicions. Mr Omar denies going to Somalia but says he was abroad on July 21. "I knew nothing about what was happening until I came back."

He says he went to see the police when he returned to London two weeks ago. "They questioned me like they weren't interested. They asked me: 'Why do you think we are suspecting you?' I said: 'I don't know'. By this time they knew all about the gym card, and they told my lawyer later that they were not interested in me.”

From the beginning, the most senior police officers and government ministers, including the Prime Minister, claimed the death of Jean Charles was an unfortunate incident occurring in the context of an entirely legitimate, justifiable, lawful and necessary policy.

There is an attempt now to present the killing of Mr de Menezes as a tragic accident arising from a lack of communication. This is no doubt the direction being pursued by the current inquiry. To whatever degree criminal incompetence contributed to these events it cannot explain the subsequent concerted attempt to cover up the facts. This is done in order to protect a policy.

Basic civil liberties and democratic rights in Britain, won through many years of hard struggles, have faced a sustained attack for a period of years. This process has accelerated during the Blair government and taken on a full head of steam behind the cover of the ‘war on terror’.

Naturally Mr de Menezes’ family are demanding the resignation of Metropolitan police chief Sir Ian Blair. They also demand a public inquiry, and they are right not to trust the ‘Independent’ Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) who are now conducting an ‘investigation’. At first the Met tried to prevent even this semi-internal inquiry.

Sir Ian Blair wrote to John Gieve, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, on July 22, the morning Jean Charles de Menezes was shot. The commissioner argued for an internal inquiry into the killing on the grounds that the ongoing anti-terrorist investigation took precedence over any independent look into his death.

According to senior police and Whitehall sources, Sir Ian was concerned that an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission could impact on national security and intelligence. He was also understood to be worried that an outside investigation would damage the morale of CO19, the elite firearms section. Of course, the morale of the family of the man they shot dead in cold blood at point blank range is of no concern to them!

A statement from the Met has since revealed that despite the agreement to allow in independent investigators, the IPCC was kept away from Stockwell tube in south London, the scene of the shooting, for a further three days. This runs counter to usual practice, where the IPCC would expect to be at the scene within hours.

According to one witness giving evidence to the inquiry, the armed police officers fired at Jean Charles de Menezes for over 30 seconds. The witness says the shots were fired at intervals of three seconds and that she ran for her life fearing terrorists had opened fire on commuters.

"I would say there was 10 or 11 shots fired. The shots were... evenly spaced out (timewise)."

She says two IPCC investigators who interviewed her were equipped with a map of Stockwell tube which had key features in the wrong place. This initially led them wrongly to challenge her account. In an email of complaint to the IPCC she wrote: "If the people investigating such a serious matter... can't even get the plan of the station correct for interviewees to point out where they were, then what chance does the rest of the case have?"

The labour movement must back the family’s demand for a public inquiry with action. Even then we would have to demand that a public inquiry was not simply the usual board of ex-judges and police chiefs, but comprised community organisations and trade unions, people the man’s family and the rest of us could trust. Neither an inquiry that drags on for years, nor one that scapegoats this or that individual is enough. The task must be to expose the individuals and the policy to blame for the killing of an innocent man.

The labour movement, and for that matter all those who wish to defend democratic rights, must go further. The latest assault on civil liberties has already killed one innocent man. Shoot to kill must stop now! The shadowy bodies and covert operations linked to Operation Kratos must be disbanded.

Many of the policies now undermining our civil liberties are knee jerk reactions by a government desperate to be seen to be doing something. At the same time we must see them in the context of the long-term process of strengthening the state machinery which exists to protect the capitalist system and the ruling class, not to combat terrorism.

The government has already conceded that Identity Cards will not contribute to combating the threat of terrorist attacks. After all, they did nothing to prevent the atrocious bombing of Madrid. Yet they insist on pursuing this costly measure. Why? Make no mistake all the policies pushed through now under the guise of fighting terrorism will be used against the labour movement, against socialists in the future.

If anyone is in any doubt about how widespread the use of this legislation may become, look at the first person to be excluded from entering the country on grounds of fomenting violence and intolerance. Not an Islamic fundamentalist preacher but an American professor who speaks for the Animal Liberation Front.

Steven Best, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, had intended to travel to the UK to take part in an event to celebrate the closure of a farm breeding guinea pigs for research. We are not defending Dr Best’s views or campaigns, but warning that the law being used against him can be turned on the labour movement at any time.

The new law keeping Dr Best out refers to people who "foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence in furtherance of particular beliefs; seek to provoke others to terrorist acts; [or] foment other serious criminal activity or seek to provoke others to serious criminal acts."

In July Dr Best spoke at an international animal rights conference in England. At that conference, he was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying: "We are not terrorists, but we are a threat. We are a threat both economically and philosophically. Our power is not in the right to vote but the power to stop production. We will break the law and destroy property until we win." According to the newspaper, he added that activists did not want to "reform" vivisectionists but to "wipe them off the face of the earth". The Home Office cited these words in a letter to Dr Best last week banning him from entering the UK.

Trials without juries, the right to hold suspects indefinitely, the imposition of identity cards on the entire population, and the right to shoot to kill, none of this will halt terrorism nor make any of us safer. On the contrary. The combination of demonising a section of the population with the attacks of new legislation and the continued occupation of Iraq will only serve as recruitment agents for the terrorists. The suspect captured in Rome has revealed that he was not lectured on the need for holy war, but shown videos of atrocities taking place in Iraq. According to La Repubblica, Osman said, “More than praying we discussed work, politics, the war in Iraq. We always had films about the war in Iraq… in which you could see Iraqi women and children who had been killed by US and UK soldiers.”

The pictures of death, destruction and mayhem in Iraq that appear daily on Western television screens create revulsion in a large and growing section of the public. Many ordinary people ask themselves why their governments are supporting an occupation that is causing such havoc and suffering. Some of the young Muslims are impelled by this to seek more direct ways of expressing their opposition. Tragically, some of them will drift into the embraces of the fanatics and fundamentalists and become potential suicide bombers.

Marxists have always opposed individual terrorism, not for sentimental reasons but because it is useless and counterproductive. Despite the fear it engenders, terrorism is really an expression of weakness, not strength. It can never inflict a decisive defeat on imperialism, and in fact inevitably plays into the hands of the latter. Sooner or later, the imperialists will have to withdraw from Iraq. But when they do, it will not be as a result of bombing trains in London, but because of the insurgency of the Iraqi people and the anti-war movement in Britain, the USA and the rest of the world.

Such acts of individual terrorism only provide a fig leaf behind which new assaults on democratic rights in general, and laws that can be used against the labour movement in particular, are introduced. In the USA, the Patriot Act introduced after September 11th has been widely used against anti-war protesters. Of the 700 arrested under new laws only 17 have been convicted of any offence, and only three have been convicted of offences relating to terrorism. In Britain, the use of counter-terrorism stop and search powers has increased sevenfold since the July 7 attacks, with Asian people bearing the brunt of the increase. People of Asian appearance were five times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, according to the latest figures compiled by British Transport police. None of these stops have resulted in a terrorism charge. According to Home Office statistics only 1% of those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were subsequently convicted of any crime.

If the government were serious about minimising the risk of future attacks, surely they would start by supporting the railway workers' union (RMT)'s demands for increasing the number of staff at stations and reintroducing conductors.

Instead, the government is strengthening repression. It is not just Muslims who will be affected. Democratic rights, like the right to organise and demonstrate, are being eroded. The Terrorism Act of 2000 has already been used against anti-war campaigners, including in relation to protests at military bases at Fairford and Welford. Blair also threatened to use it to put protesters at the Gleneagles G8 summit under house arrest.

Tony Blair demands the right to expel anyone who holds ‘extreme views’ not in line with the traditional British ‘culture of tolerance.’ To talk of tolerance in this context is an insult. In any case the history of British imperialism, up to their present actions in Iraq, demonstrates quite the opposite.

In case the meaning of this threat is too subtle, The Daily Telegraph helpfully published a list of "10 core values of the British identity" whose adoption, it argued, would help to prevent another terrorist attack. These were not values we might choose to embrace, but "non-negotiable components of our identity". Among them were "the sovereignty of the crown in parliament" ("the Lords, the Commons and the monarch constitute the supreme authority in the land"), "private property", "the family", "history" ("British children inherit ... a stupendous series of national achievements") and "the English-speaking world" ("the atrocities of September 11, 2001 were not simply an attack on a foreign nation; they were an attack on the Anglosphere"). These values can be readily shortened to their more common name – capitalism.

There has been a great deal written in the press in recent weeks, even by supposedly liberal-minded journalists, about the need for a ‘new patriotism’. Just who are the British, and what are their values? The ‘patriotism’ they propose consists of defending what they see as ‘the British way of life’ by which they mean the capitalist system. Just who are the British whose values must be upheld? Evidently they do not mean British Muslims, but at the same time they do not only mean white people. In truth, they are not too keen on most young people; they do not like workers who go on strike; most of them are not overly fond of northerners, the Welsh, or anyone other than a core of white middle and upper class people based in the south east of England. This is not a matter of ‘patriotism’, but a class question. Whose values do they mean? Not ours, clearly. After all most of us oppose the war in Iraq, are against privatisation, and do not want this horrendous killing covered up.

It is Blair and his government by their slavish support of US imperialism that has placed the people of Britain in the line of fire of terrorist attacks like the one that claimed so many lives on July 7th. The first step to removing that threat is not to allow our right to protest, to organise, to fight for a better society to be undermined. It is to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who claim to be fighting for democracy abroad seem only too keen to destroy our hard won democratic rights at home. It now falls to the labour movement to fight to defend our civil liberties, just as we must fight for our jobs and our wages and our conditions. None of these are safe in the hands of capitalism.

This system can no longer afford reforms. Everyday they are clawing back with the right hand what they were forced, by the struggle of ordinary working people, to give with the left hand in the past. This is the case with healthcare and education. It is the same with pensions. They have attacked our trade union rights, and now they are gunning for our civil liberties and the limited democratic rights the British working class conquered through generations of struggle. They must not succeed.


We must protest at the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.
Build the September 24 demonstration!
No Shoot to kill! Disband covert operations!
Defend democratic rights! No to ID cards and judge-only trials!
Oppose all attacks on our civil liberties!
End the imperialist occupation of Iraq!