‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ banner wasn’t a criminal offence, say police
Firm believed to have flown the banner, Air Ads, is based at Blackpool Airport
The banner which was flown over the Etihad on Monday night. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/PA
Police have said no criminal offence took place when a banner reading “White Lives Matter Burnley” was towed past the stadium by an aircraft during Monday night’s Premier League game between Manchester City and Burnley.
The incident “caused offence to many people in Lancashire and beyond”, a senior officer said on Tuesday, as the stunt was blamed on individuals from a group of football hooligans connected with Burnley.
However, Lancashire police said that after assessing all the information available surrounding the incident, the force had concluded “that there are no criminal offences that have been disclosed at this time”.
“We will continue to work with our partners at the football club and within the local authority,” added Ch Supt Russ Procter.
The force said it had liaised with Greater Manchester police, the Aviation Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service over the course of the day.
The banner was trailed in the sky above the Etihad Stadium in Manchester moments after players and staff had taken a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Among those being blamed for the incident is a Burnley supporter associated with the former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson. The supporter claimed responsibility online before deleting his social media presence.
Another figure who has convictions for football-related violence was linked to a WhatsApp group where money was said to have been sought to pay for the plane.
Lancashire Constabulary had been in liaison with Greater Manchester Police, the Aviation Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service over the course of the day.
A company that employs a man who is reported to have claimed responsibility for the stunt told the Guardian it was investigating after being made aware of an incident involving one of its employees, adding that he was on furlough leave when the incident occurred.
Paradigm Precision Burnley, which makes aerospace components and is listed on Burnley football club’s website as a “connected member”, which allows it to secure discounted match tickets for its workers, added: “The matter is being taken very seriously and a full investigation is being carried out into the facts and potential breaches of a number of the company’s equality, diversity and social media policies. To be very clear, Paradigm does not condone racism in any form.”
The company that provided the plane is Air Ads, an aerial advertising and banner towing company based in the north of England, which uses a Cessna. The aircraft circled over Manchester City’s ground at about 8pm on Monday before returning to Blackpool airport at 8.30pm, according to flight tracking technology. It took off again at 8.45am on Tuesday morning and was last detected near Newport in south Wales.
Blackpool airport said it would stop operating banner flights following an emergency review. Stephen Smith, the airport manager, said: “Blackpool airport and Blackpool council are outraged by this incident. We stand against racism of any kind and absolutely do not condone the activity. The message was offensive and the action reprehensible.”
Smith said banners were not checked before take-off and that the content was at the operator’s discretion. He added: “Blackpool airport will suspend all banner-towing operations at the airport with immediate effect and we would suggest that other airports should also consider this approach in light of what has happened at Blackpool.”
Iffy Onuora, the equalities officer for the Professional Footballers’ Association, said on Tuesday he hoped the widespread condemnation of the banner would act as a catalyst for further conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The words themselves aren’t offensive, it’s just the context. It’s the rejection of the conversation we’re having at the moment. That’s what it represents,” Onoura told the BBC. “I guess people have the right to do it. For me it’s just proof again that these things can lead to positive things because all that’s been said in the 12 hours since the game finished has been, again, a catalyst, another conversation to have.”
Nick Lowles, the chief executive officer of the campaign organisation Hope not Hate, said the stunt was carried out by prominent members of Burnley’s so-called “Suicide Squad”, a hooligan gang, or “firm”, whose members include supporters of the club.
Burnley’s captain, Ben Mee, said he felt “ashamed and embarrassed” by the incident, while the club has said it will issue lifetime bans to those responsible for the stunt.
Burnley swiftly issued a statement apologising “unreservedly to the Premier League, to Manchester City and to all those helping to promote Black Lives Matter”.
After the game, which ended in a 5-0 victory for Manchester City, Mee said in an interview with Sky: “I’m ashamed and embarrassed that a small number of our fans have decided to put that around the stadium … It doesn’t represent what we’re about, what the club is about, what the players are about and what the majority of the fans are about. It’s a small minority of people and I’m really upset that it happened. As we were coming out we heard some whispers that it was going to happen. The club tried to stop it.” – Guardian