The Steven Lawrence Victory
For every police murder of a person of color or racist street killing in the United States, there are mirror cases of death by bigoted cops and street thugs in other places. Nowhere is this truer than in the United Kingdom.
In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of people of color who have died in police custody as well as have died from the hands of racists and neo-fascists. In too many of these cases, the police have done little and guilty parties walked away scot free.
Fortunately, in the case of the killing of Stephen Lawrence, persistence did not let the case die, and an important victory against racism was won. After more that five years of determined organization and mass mobilization by activists and community leaders, the British government has finally conceded that the 1993 murder of Lawrence was racially-motivated, mishandled by police and state authorities, and that racism is pervasive and institutional.
Coming home on the night of April 22, 1993, black teenager Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks were attempting to catch a bus. When Lawrence stepped down the road to see if the bus was coming, he came across a group of 5 or 6 whites youths who called him a nigger, and then physically attacked him. Lawrence was stabbed twice in the chest and arm, and after running more than 100 yards, died on the street. This horrible death shocked a nation where homicide still remains rare. Many believed that the sheer notoriety of the case would force authorities to expend every effort possible to catch the perpetrators of this crime.
From that point on, however, every phase of the investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) was botched by either incompetent or uncaring neglect. At the base of this fiasco was a nagging and disturbing racism that simple did not care that a black youth had been brutally murdered by a gang of racist brutes. Neither the police nor the Conservative Party that was in power at the time thought that the case merited serious attention or further investigation.
Although 5 suspects who reportedly boasted to their friends about the killing were quickly identified by witnesses and people in the neighborhood, no arrests were made by the police. Somehow, the police investigations turned up no witnesses other than Brooks even though press reports at the time identified a number of people who said they saw what happened. There was also no real physical evidence collected from the scene.
Lawrences parents and others continue to press their case, however. At one point, in 1996, three of the suspects were brought to trial in a private prosecution. However, due to lack of firm evidence and no assistance from the police, the suspects were acquitted and, most unfortunately, can never be tried again in regards to this case. Two other suspects were never even brought to trial.
Despite these setbacks, the case continue to gain momentum and symbolized for many black Britons a pervasive lack of injustice, discrimination, and rising racism against people of color. The case was kept alive due to the unwillingness of the black community to let it go. They were soon joined by activists throughout the country and the case became a cause celebre for anti-racists. Pressure was put on the Labor Party and candidate Tony Blair was forced, during his run for Prime Minister, to commit to establishing a commission of inquiry if he was elected. He was and, in 1997, setup a high-level commission. After many months of testimony and investigation, the commission released its report in late February and concluded, to a somewhat stunned nation, that Stephen Lawrence was unlawfully killed in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths.
The inquiry produced a 459-page report with more than 12,000 pages of transcripts from 88 witnesses. It is further estimated that there are more than 100,000 pages of supporting reports, statements, and other documentation. The release of the report received massive media coverage for days. Despite all of these documents and the publicity, the report made it clear that the five known suspects will not be brought to trial.
Yet, the explosive expose of institutional racism rocked all of England from top to bottom. In an unprecedented move, Blair went on the floor of the House of Commons and denounced the racism that still exists in our society. Sir Paul Condon, head of Scotland Yard, also declared that institutional racism exists in his department and that a sense of shame had grown among police officers due to their failure to appropriately handle the Lawrence investigation.
Regrettably, while those who committed the Lawrence homicide will not be formally punished, anti-racist activists feel that they have won a tremendous victory anyway. The case brought together and mobilized the greatest number of people ever around the issue of racist violence and institutional police racism.
This is significant because many other cases involving people of color and racist or police violence still remain. There is the case of Michael Menson who was set on fire by four white youths in North London in January 1997. As has happened on at least nine other instances, on January 18, 1999, Roger Sylvester was killed while in police custody under questionable circumstances. It should also be noted that there are a number of cases of police frame-ups of black activists such as that of Michael Singh who has been in jail for 10 years although it has now been documented that evidence was destroyed and suppressed in his case. If the Lawrence case and struggle inspires activists to embrace these and other cases of blatant discrimination, then perhaps great tragedy can be turned into great progress.