Stephen Lawrence verdict: ‘no cause for celebration’

‘Despite these verdicts, today is not a cause for celebration...How can I celebrate when I know that this day could have come 18 years ago if the police who were meant to find my son’s killers had not failed so miserably to do so...The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country and the police should not use my son’s name to say that we can move on.’ Doreen Lawrence

On 3 January 2012, two white men were convicted of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in southeast London nearly 19 years ago. The convictions of Gary Dobson and David Norris are, however, only a partial victory for all those, most notably Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, who campaigned so long for justice for their son. In doing so, they exposed entrenched police racism, culminating in the McPherson Report of 1999. Given the complete shambles of the original police investigation, marred from the very start by racist prejudice, corruption and sheer incompetence, it is extraordinary that there have been any convictions at all; the jailing of two of Stephen’s killers was made possible only by forensic advances since 1993 which allowed microscopic samples of blood, hair and fibres to link the two men to the scene of the crime and a 2003 change to the law that allowed Dobson, in the light of this new ‘compelling’ evidence, to be prosecuted again, having been cleared of the murder in 1996.

Racism and incompetence

But there is little cause for celebration. At least three other men involved in Stephen’s murder – James and Neil Acourt and Luke Knight, whose vicious racist fantasies were revealed on undercover video in 1994 – still walk free. That travesty is a direct result of the original, botched police investigation. From the moment police left Stephen lying in a pool of blood at an Eltham bus stop without attempting resuscitation – they were too busy asking his traumatised friend Duwayne Brooks if he and Stephen had provoked the attack – they had little interest in finding the suspects. Within 48 hours, nine different sources, including two police informants, had named five white suspects, a local gang of well-known racists with a record of violence. Four had been seen the night of the murder washing blood off themselves. A surveillance team failed to record the removal of bags potentially containing evidence from the suspects’ homes. Meanwhile, the police treated the Lawrence family as if it was they who were under suspicion. No arrests were made for two weeks until the Lawrences met Nelson Mandela on 6 May and he stated that, as in apartheid South Africa, ‘black lives are cheap’. By then it was too late. By July, the CPS had decided that there was not enough evidence to charge any of the men. An internal police inquiry in December 1993 concluded that the ‘investigation has been progressed satisfactorily and all lines of inquiry correctly pursued’.

But the campaign for justice, led by Stephen’s parents, had tremendous resonance, and over the years anger was growing that no-one had been convicted. At the inquest into his death in 1997 jurors took the unusual step of concluding that the black teenager was unlawfully killed ‘in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths’. That verdict emboldened the Daily Mail, of all papers, to publish the following day its iconic ‘Murderers!’ front page, naming the five suspects with the challenge: ‘If we are wrong, let them sue us’. Within months, the McPherson Inquiry into the failures surrounding the investigation into Stephen’s death was set up. At its first sessions in Elephant & Castle, south London in 1998, Doreen Lawrence stated that ‘no black person should ever trust the police’ – a point borne out when the Met used CS spray against the massive crowd of mainly black people who had thronged to the hearing. Over a year of investigation that included travelling around the country to ask people about their experience of the police, the Inquiry team concluded not only that the original police investigation had been deeply flawed, but that the police, as well as other areas such as housing and education, were deeply riven by ‘institutional racism’. The Inquiry made 70 recommendations for change.

But nothing changed

Nearly 13 years on, following the Dobson and Norris convictions, the police and government commented smugly that ‘institutional racism’ had been rooted out. But the anger that exploded on the streets of England in August 2011 gives the lie to their complacency. Young people cited police harassment and racism, and particularly the use of stop-and-search, as the main fuse for their frustration. In 1999-2000, a black person was five times more likely to be stopped than a white person; now the figure is seven times, and black people are four times more likely to have their DNA stored on the police database. Alongside this has gone a massive stepping up of harassment of Asian communities since 2001, under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’. 300 black people have died in police custody since 2000 – no police officer has ever faced any charges for these deaths. Around 96 racist murders have taken place since that of Stephen Lawrence; in at least 15 unsolved cases, family and friends blame police racism and indifference. These include the cases of Surjit Singh Chhokkar, stabbed to death in Scotland in 1998; Kamal Raza Butt, racially abused and called ‘Taliban’ before being beaten to death by a gang of youths in July 2005, and Lahkvinder ‘Ricky’ Reel, whose body was found in the Thames after he was racially abused in 1997.

The legacy of the Stephen Lawrence case must be, not McPherson’s well-meaning findings, but the lesson of Stephen Lawrence’s family that the only way to oppose and expose police racism is to organise, to fight back and to never give up.

Cat Alison

See also: ‘Stephen Lawrence inquiry: Police racism exposed’, FRFI 143, June/July 1998

'The murder of Stephen Lawrence - A stinking shambles of police racism and corruption', FRFI 144 August/September 1998

British police – racist as ever and with more power’, FRFI 208, April/May 2009.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 225 February/March 2012


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