Stephen Lawrence: Murder that shook UK's racial dynamics

April 22, 1993, killing of black man by five white youths laid bare Met Police incompetence, corruption and racism.

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    From the "Keep Britain White" mobs who went "n**ger hunting" during the Notting Hill riots in 1958, through to the recent deportation of the children of the Windrush generation, the marginalisation of black Britons is an ancient British tale of a nation anxious of creeping multiculturalism and "dark strangers".

    Following post-war Commonwealth migration, racism, that ugly word that brings with it entire histories and generations of trauma, was relegated to the archives of Britain's imperial past.

    But the murder of one black man, in particular, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence, permanently altered the social, political and cultural landscape of the entire nation.

    Lawrence was stabbed to death in Eltham, in southeast London, on April 22, 1993, in a racially motivated attack by five white youths.

    It took 18 long years marred by incompetence in the Metropolitan Police, corruption and racism in all its new unconscious forms, before Stephen's parents Neville and Doreen Lawrence, could bring two of his five killers to justice.

    The face of Stephen Lawrence smiling gently on newspapers and televisions across the country burned his face into British consciousness, revealing an irrefutable and unavoidable truth: Racism was a British problem.

    For Duwayne Brooks, a stop-and-search consultant and independent mayoral candidate for Lewisham, his life has become inseparable from the murder of his friend.

    He was only 18 when he witnessed Stephen's murder and risked his own safety by standing in court to give evidence against Stephen's smug-faced attackers.

    Street fighter

    Speaking to Al Jazeera about his memories of Stephen [or Steve as he called him], he said: "We would spend a lot of time playing video games like Street Fighter.

    "I was always Ryu in the white suit, and Steve was always the tall, bald guy, Dhalsim.

    "Naturally we would talk about girls. We weren't in any gangs and we didn't go clubbing.

    "We were just two teenagers."

    Weeks after the murder, the Metropolitan Police had received sufficient hearsay evidence from members of the community to investigate the five white young men who were later accused of his murder.

    Yet they were obstinate in their refusal to treat the murder as a racial attack.

    Caught in the crossfire of the investigation, Duwayne and Stephen himself were implicated by the police under the assumption that the murder was a drug-related dispute between "two black boys".

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    "The police kept questioning me about what Steve might have had when he was murdered or what he might have done," recalled Duwayne.

    "They said they found gloves in his bag, and so they asked me whether or not he had done any burglaries.

    "There was also a belief maybe that I inflicted the injuries, and I was trying to blame it on a group of boys.

    "They suggested when we were at McDonald's earlier that night, he might have interfered with some white girls outside and the attackers may have been her brothers.

    "They were questioning Steve's integrity and questioning mine, so I knew they weren't out to do anything positive."

    It was not until Nelson Mandela met the Lawrence family the same year that arrests were finally made.

    After the charges were dropped because of the supposedly unreliable nature of Duwayne's evidence, it was the sheer persistence and indomitable will of Stephen's parents and a group of campaigners that led to the launch of the first private murder prosecution case in almost 150 years.

    But all hope seemed lost after the Metropolitan Police were exonerated of any wrongdoing, and three of the murderers - Neil Acourt, Luke Knight, and Gary Dobson - were acquitted when Duwayne's witness testimony was ruled inadmissible in September 1994.

    After Jack Straw, the then home secretary, announced a public inquiry, it was the landmark publication of the Macpherson Report in 1999 that was to radically transform race relations in Britain.

    It turned the spotlight squarely on racism within the Metropolitan Police and diagnosed what black Britons had been calling out for decades with a single phrase: institutional racism.

    Report recommendations 

    The report made 70 recommendations that would bring public institutions under the umbrella of race relations legislation.

    Among some of the tangible results, the Macpherson Report discarded "double jeopardy", which allowed Stephen's killers to be tried again for the same crime in 2011, when Gary Dobson and Neil Acourt were found guilty.

    It also led to the creation of the Independent Police Complaints Commissions (IPCC) among numerous other changes.

    But 25 years on, since Stephen's murder, the initial zeal for endemic change is waning.

    "Xenophobia legitimised by Brexit discussions has gathered such a pace, that there's a feeling, not a great deal has changed even though in reality quite a bit has", says Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote.

    "There was a big push for every institution to have a race equality strategy. But the tragedy is after 9/11 and 7/7, the focus switched from tackling race and inequality to tackling the enemies within.

    "This week we've seen the debacle of immigration policy demonising and hounding the Windrush generation.

    "Worryingly, in recent years we've had ramped up stop and search. The rise of young black men dying on the streets is symptomatic of a society that doesn't afford literally tens of thousands of young people equality of opportunity."

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    For Zubaida Haque, a research associate and consultant at race equality think-tank Runnymede Trust, evidence pointing to the continued marginalising and criminalising of black men is proof that institutional racism persists.

    "If you look at the police at the moment, black boys are visible to them when it comes to policing but invisible when it comes to protecting," she said.

    "Stop and search still disproportionally impacts on BME people, particularly black people."

    According to the government's disparity unit, black men are six to eight times more likely than white men to be stopped.

    The differential arrest figures from the Lammy Review found that young black men are three times more likely to be arrested compare with their white peers.

    "When we look at deaths in police custody, black people are more likely to have disproportionate excessive force used against them," Haque said.

    "It was only last year that we had the death of Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa, yet not a single police officer has been convicted."

    Racialised narrative

    The racialised narrative surrounding the recent surge in youth violence is of particular concern to Haque. 

    "When you look at knife crime I find it extraordinary how the police talk about black men without actually saying 'black men'. They've deliberately been trying to 'other' them in terms of gangs and crime," she said.

    "It says that black men are criminal but nothing about how the police have stopped protecting them, how they're vulnerable or living in disproportionately high-crime areas where they feel they have to protect themselves because the police certainly aren't.

    "There aren't other safety nets to look after young men.

    "So they're doing things to protect themselves, which includes carrying a knife.

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    "The irony is that's exactly what happened during Stephen Lawrence's racist murder.

    "They initially questioned his role in his own murder."

    For Duwayne, the new surge in youth violence is the symptom of an acute mental-health crisis.

    "As an eighteen-year-old, I didn't have anyone to speak to about the impact of Steve's murder, the court process, my experience with the criminal justice system, the private prosecution, the stop-and-search, the behaviour of the police," he said.

    "All of those experiences were traumatic. Black people and young people per se aren't accessing mental health services, trauma counselling or victim support.

    "Untreated trauma is very dangerous, and we're seeing it on the streets with people who have extreme anger management problems.

    "Many of these perpetrators are repeat victims whose issues have never been resolved, their trauma has never been spoken about."

    A quarter of a century on, Duwayne's suspicion of the police remains, and understandably so.

    After testifying against the Metropolitan Police for the Macpherson Report and filing to sue for racism, his car has inexplicably been broken into on numerous occasions, and he has been stopped by police, and, on one occasion, arrested for always resulting in acquittals.

    Insipid fruits of racism

    A Home Office-commissioned inquiry in 2014 reported that an undercover police officer was commanded to spy on the Lawrence family campaign and on Duwayne, to collect intelligence that might help "smear" the Lawrence family and undermine public sympathy.

    It took the murder of Stephen Lawrence for Britain to hold up a mirror to itself and face the bitter truth that far from being a utopian multicultural society, the insipid fruits of racism and institutional racism had fastened its iron grip not only on individuals but within public institutions as well.

    The British racial landscape has been altered irrevocably. But for Stephen's family and friends and for Duwayne, a victim himself in one of the most profound miscarriages of justice in British history, the loss of Stephen will forever be inconsolable.

    "We move on every day as we learn and gain more experience. But what happened to Steve, that experience will always be there. That's never going to change."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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