It is a strange experience to realise you are living through history that will one day be read by people who are not even born yet. We are living through one such period at the moment, as the revelations of rule-breaking at Downing Street dominate the news cycle and mesmerise the world. Those of us who lived in London in July 2005 went through a similarly unforgettable period.
The tragic events back then were very different in tone from the tawdry farce of Boris Johnson’s premiership. In one respect, though, the two episodes are directly connected.
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It started on a massive high. On July 6, the International Olympic Committee announced it was awarding the 2012 Games to London. Since Paris had been the clear favourite, the reaction was euphoric. Hundreds of people gathered that night to celebrate in Trafalgar Square.
But the mood was shattered the next morning with four suicide attacks on the capital’s transport system. Fifty-two people were killed – all London residents, of 18 nationalities – and more than 700 were injured. It was the worst terrorist assault in the United Kingdom since Flight 103 was downed over Lockerbie in 1988.
Everyone had a story from that day, even if it was mundane: having to trudge 16km (10 miles) home from work because all transport was suspended. Random choices – missing a train by 30 seconds, picking a particular route – became life-or-death decisions. All too many people never came home at all, or were permanently maimed.
Two weeks later, on July 21, attackers struck at four more points on the transport network. This time the bombs failed to go off properly, with only one very minor injury. But the four bombers escaped.
Since they had not expected to survive, they did not cover their faces during the attack. A massive manhunt was launched, with security camera images of the suspects – all of Somali, Eritrean or Ethiopian appearance – everywhere you looked.
One of the attackers left a gym membership card in one of the unexploded bags, bearing an address in Tulse Hill, south London. The building, a three-storey block with multiple flats sharing the same street entrance, was put under surveillance.
When Jean Charles de Menezes emerged from this communal front door at 9.30 the next morning, it should have been obvious he was not one of the bombers. A 27-year-old Brazilian electrician making his way to a call-out in Kilburn, on the other side of London, he looked nothing like the suspects.
Despite that, an officer on duty decided he warranted further attention. Reporting to headquarters, he was instructed to follow the quarry and not let him get on the tube. Several plain-clothes officers now joined the surveillance on the short bus ride to Brixton, the terminus through which south London commuters stream onto the tube network every day.
With the transport system still in chaos, the station was closed so Jean Charles, unaware he was being followed, set out to walk the three-quarters of a mile to Stockwell, the next station up the line.
He got there at about 10am. He picked up a free newspaper to read on the train, used his Oyster card to get through the automatic barriers, then descended the escalator. A northbound train was arriving as he neared the bottom so he sped onto the platform, got on board and found a seat. Seconds later, three armed officers followed him into the carriage and shot him seven times in the head.
You read that right. Seven times. In the head.
By mid-afternoon, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair was telling journalists that the shooting was “directly linked to the ongoing and expanding anti-terrorist operation” and that de Menezes had been challenged but “refused to obey”. That last part was not true: there was no challenge. By the next day, the police were also forced to admit that the dead man was not carrying a bomb or anything suspicious. He had nothing to do with the failed bombings.
Nevertheless, disinformation was pumped out via the media: he had been acting suspiciously because he vaulted the barrier (not true) and he was wearing a bulky coat (potentially covering a suicide vest) in hot weather (also a lie).
The truth was, the incident had been a horror show, with woefully incompetent surveillance, shoddy communications and then false briefings as the Met continued to defame the innocent man its officers had gunned down.
While Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke initially said the police were to be “congratulated”, there was no hiding the scandal. Public revulsion led to memorial vigils and a demonstration. Prime Minister Tony Blair had to make a formal apology to Brazil.
No individual officer was ever charged with the shooting. Sir Ian Blair was prosecuted in his official capacity as Met commissioner under health and safety laws. Even then, the force continued to play dirty, falsely suggesting de Menezes was high on drugs and had behaved in an aggressive and threatening way. In addition, they issued a picture purporting to show that he did resemble one of the suspects. The image was revealed to have been crudely doctored.
The commissioner was found guilty and his office was fined 175,000 pounds ($236,250 at present). The bad smell clung to Ian Blair and he was eventually forced to resign. That did not prevent his elevation to the House of Lords: Lord Blair of Boughton is now an unelected legislator for life.
What about the person who gave the orders to follow and kill a man who looked nothing like the suspects? Surely they suffered the consequences?
Actually, no. Commander Cressida Dick, in charge of the Scotland Yard control room throughout the operation, was promoted – first to deputy assistant commissioner, then to assistant commissioner. After an interlude at the Foreign Office, she returned to the Met as commissioner in 2017, becoming the UK’s top police officer.
As if that were not stomach-churning enough, she was also awarded the Queen’s Police Medal, made a commander of the British Empire, and then given the DBE, so she is now Dame Cressida Dick. Only in the UK can you fail upwards in quite such spectacular style.
And now she is back in the news. She is the woman whose officers handed out penalties to common Londoners sitting on park benches during lockdown, dragged women forcibly from a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard, who had been abducted and murdered by a serving police officer, then compounded the insult by referring to that murderer, with grotesque understatement, as a “bad ’un”.
Dame Cressida has different standards when it comes to the powers-that-be. When stories of rule-breaking at Downing Street emerged, the Met made the preposterous claim that it did not investigate crimes committed in the past, then said there was no evidence of law-breaking. When confronted with suitcase-loads of that evidence, it ordered the suppression of a key report that would reveal the truth beyond doubt.
As I write this, a damning new report has emerged of Met officers joking about hitting and raping women amid a culture of appalling racism, misogyny and homophobia at a police station in the heart of London. The news has fuelled calls for Dick’s resignation: she must have known how prevalent these attitudes were, even as she gave high-minded speeches about the high standards of conduct within her force.
To anyone who remembers the events of July 2005, poor judgement and terrible behaviour from an institution run by Cressida Dick are sickening but no surprise. This incompetent wrecker of havoc, rewarded at every turn, is a symbol of all that is rotten in our country.
We will be honouring the memory of Jean Charles de Menezes if we finally show her the door.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.