SUNDAY 22nd April marked the 25th anniversary of the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south east London. Stephen and his friend Duwayne Brooks were attacked whilst waiting for a bus by a gang of at least five youths for no other reason than that they were black.
The long and bitter fight put up by Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, for justice for their son is now part of British history. At first police made little effort. They assumed the stabbing was due to a fight between two black boys over drugs. They could not conceive that black youths out at night were not criminals — even when local residents and Doreen Lawrence came to them with evidence and a list of names of five local white youths notorious as racist thugs who had been seen about on that night of 22nd April 1993.
Only when Nelson Mandela, visiting Britain, met the Lawrences and expressed support for their cause were the five young thugs arrested — long after they had had time to destroy evidence. They were released again almost immediately for lack of evidence.
Throughout the whole long saga, including a failed attempt to bring a private prosecution, the message of the police and the state towards the Lawrences was: “You can’t win. Go home and forget about it.”
In 1999 the New Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw instigated a public inquiry into the police handling of the case and the racist attitudes of the police, their reluctance to take the case seriously was made public. And so was the link between one of the police officers and the father of one of the suspects.
For thousands of British people, it was a shocking eye-opener to the realities of our police force. Apologies and changes were demanded. The McPherson report had a huge impact.
The force was forced to admit its failings and to make an effort to root out racism. It was now not possible for police to be openly racist and an effort was made to recruit more black police officers. Other public services and arms of the state were also forced to take stock themselves and root out racist bias in their delivery of service. On the whole these efforts had more success where there was a strong trade union presence amongst the workforce.
But it did not take long for things to slip back within the police force. Many young police officers regarded ‘race awareness’ as just a tick box on their career path. They paid lip service and then forgot about it. Liaison workers from the Greenwich Commission for Racial Equality (GCRE) would work hard with local police to introduce them to the local ethnic communities, only to find those officers posted elsewhere and to have to start over again with a new squad. The GCRE has since fallen to the cuts like many other similar local authority funded groups throughout the country.
The 11th September attacks in the USA and the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich have fuelled a rise in Islamophobia, and the gains in anti-racism within the police are being eroded. Just ask any of the growing ‘family and friends’ campaigns of those who have family members killed in police custody or prison.
It is a fight that needs to be sustained constantly. Racists and fascists are always drawn to join the force, where they can wear a uniform and bully members of the public. And they have learned the right words to say to escape detection. The police force is a coercive arm of the state and deeply ingrained prejudice against certain groups is its default position. But at least now they can no longer be overtly racist.
And now, after two of the suspects have been jailed for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, there are still unanswered questions about the other suspects and about police corruption. Prime Minister Theresa May and Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick appear on TV praising Doreen Lawrence for her courage and determination in her fight for justice. But the message from them is still: “You have done all you can; now go home and forget about it.”But perhaps the biggest legacy of the Lawrence case is the change in attitude amongst the black and minority ethnic communities. They are no longer cowed and intimidated. They will challenge racism wherever they see it, loudly and proudly. There are hundreds of black and minority ethnic people taking up the struggle for justice and ready to fight on