The conviction of Stephen Lawrence’s killers Dobson and Norris was bitter sweet for me, as it probably was for an entire generation of black parents across Britain and beyond. I know I was not alone in weeping uncontrollably with relief at the verdict.
The obvious pent-up anguish and disappointment with the fact that it has taken almost two decades to achieve these convictions was evident in the voice and words of his mother, Doreen Lawrence after the verdict was announced. She bravely, yet again, faced the cameras on the courthouse steps to share her dismay that justice had taken so long to come and of course that this would not bring back her beloved Stephen. The phenomenal courage of the Lawrences, both Doreen and Neville, who unflinchingly fought for justice for their son has been moving and awe-inspiring. Furthermore they have made history by changing the landscape of the British legal system by being instrumental in the overturning the 800 year old double jeopardy laws to enable Dobson to be prosecuted twice for the murder.
The fact that it had taken 18 years to get these convictions beggars belief, and certainly highlights widely held concerns in the black community about historical institutional racism by the police. The 1998 the Macpherson public enquiry reported in its findings that the police delivered far less justice if the victim of a major crime was black. Indeed this prejudice has led to a catastrophic list of failures that meant that the original investigation into the murder was not properly conducted, thereby hampering any chance to secure a conviction of anyone for the crime for 18 years. Indeed it was only thanks to a newly conducted cold case review years later, using modern DNA technology with a different team of investigators, that today’s convictions were secured.
In the meantime the agonising struggle for justice by the Lawrences as a result of repeated failings by the criminal justice system, quite simply turned the outrage of their son’s murder into a horrific spectacle that shames and humbles many of the key institutions of this society. It was also an implicit and chilling indictment of institutional attitudes toward black families.
And after all this - the key questions on our all of lips are: are we any further along 18 years later and could the same thing happen again?
Stephen’s father Neville Lawrence was interviewed on the evening news following the verdict and was asked this question. Poignantly he highlighted the fact that knife attacks have not stopped taking the lives of young people – of all shades in the UK. “We still have families losing their loved ones – these youngsters need to know the damage that they do to families when they carry knives and kill someone. “ He also goes on to point out that kids that go out and kill another kid for the colour of his skin would have learnt this hate from their parents.
Shadow of Fear
Living in fear for the safety of our young ones is sadly a shadow that many families – of all shades -live under. However the spectre of race hatred creates added anxiety for many black parents.
The ideal is to be able live without being blighted by fear but then what about the reality of the too frequent news reports about violent attacks or lives lost? Frankly individual crimes may or may not be racially motivated, but the anxiety remains in a climate where racist murderers can literally “get away with it” for 18 years - and that is before we take into account the fact that other gang members reported to have been involved in Stephen Lawrence’s killing are still free and at large.
I think one of the most devastating factors that has come out of the whole thing was not only that the police and criminal justice system were indifferent to the unjust death of this young man, on the eve of his life, and with so much potential, but more chillingly, the obvious fact that it could happen and go unpunished in a society with a reputation for tolerance and fair play.
White Middle Class Understanding
Along with many black parents, I felt a mixture of unswerving respect for the quiet dignity of the Lawrences in the face of such devastating and inhumane circumstances played out in public, together with a real and deep discomfort at press reports that praised this control because it enabled the “white middle classes to understand” the pain of the Lawrences.
In other words, had the Lawrence’s openly expressed rage and understandable strong emotions, that would have damaged their case, alienated white people and fed into stereotypes about out of control black people rather than the desperate grief of parents whose suffering must frankly be beyond words. To put it another way, the outrageous butchery of an innocent young boy, who, but for the colour of his skin, could have been anyone’s son, would not be immediately comprehensible to the white middle classes because he was black and they needed the Lawrences to be calm and dignified to help them to see!
As this story unfolded over the past decade an interesting shift has happened with the increasing realisation that the Lawrence family – like many black families - are indeed like many white families. Hard working, studious and law abiding people with “middle class” values around teaching their kids right from wrong, getting an education, going to church, fitting in to the society’s moral and social norms by becoming a boy scout, studying for “A” levels to get a profession – in other words – just getting on with life. Racist media stereotypes about non-white immigrants who are criminal, drug taking, benefit scroungers who come to the UK to abuse the system and take council housing was held up to the spotlight by this case – and found to be an empty and vicious stereotype. Imagine for a moment that it was this same stereotyping that led the police at the scene of Stephen’s death to fail to properly investigate what had happened or to administer first aid to the dying youth. Instead they assumed Stephen and his friend Dwayne Brookes, had had what was coming to them because they were involved in criminality and not the victims of a hideous crime.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Interestingly following the verdict, The Economist magazine talks about the “contrast… of the thuggish backgrounds of the young white men suspected of killing Stephen Lawrence, and their family connections to local gangsters. Police surveillance tapes, later made public at the Macpherson inquiry, recorded the men expressing violently racist beliefs and fantasies… public opinion jumped past race. Britons saw the Lawrence family as exemplars of traditional values of faith, work and ambition, under assault from an ugly face of modern society that was “vulgar, violent and vicious”. It hardly mattered that the ugly face was white.”
The irony is that 18 years after Stephen’s death we can still read stereotypical attitudes about black families and young black people in the media that universally vilifies and condemns – think about the vitriol of politicians and newspaper headlines that greeted the riots of the summer of 2011. It was not just a minority of people looting and engaging in criminal behaviour – there was wider talk of whole communities and much emphasis and graphic descriptions of the non-white racial identity of many of the youth involved.
“No man is above the law and no man below it”
The Lawrence victory has indeed made history for race relations in the UK which proved in the words of US president, Theodore Roosevelt, at the turn of the 20th century that: “No man is above the law and no man below it”. In a civilised society indeed we should be able to expect equal rights under the law of the land – but we still have a way to go.
Dr Richard Stone who sat on the Macpherson Report Panel echoes these sentiments and highlights that whilst police are slapping themselves on the back for eventually putting together a case that finally got Dobson and Norris convicted after 18 years, police attitudes to stopping and searching young black people tell a different story. In the original report, it was found that the police were institutionally racist following Stephen Lawrence’s murder and highlighted that racist assumptions led to high levels of stop and search of black people. Sadly these assumptions still hold currency today because black people are still disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched by police. In fact he highlights that stop and search rates amongst black people have doubled since Stephen Lawrence’s murder. In 1999 black people were 4 to 5 times more likely to be stopped and searched whilst in 2011 they are 8 to 9 times more likely to be stopped.
It begs the question how much further along are we?
The Economist, Jan 7th 2012 , A murder that changed Britain
A country with a race problem has learned from a racist killing written by Bagehot
Theodore Roosevelt Association, In his Own Words, Life of Theodore Roosevelt - Third Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1903
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