Thoughts on the Stephen Lawrence verdict
|Chris Ofili: No Woman No Cry|
Although I can't claim any ownership of this tragedy, I feel as if I have lived closely with Stephen's death this past eighteen years. I was close in age to Stephen Lawrence and to his killers. I moved to Southeast London in 1991, I think, just months after Rolan Adams was stabbed by a racist gang in Thamesmead, just months before Rohit Duggal was killed in Eltham, Ruhullah Aramesh in Thornton Heath and Sher Singh Sagoo in even closer to home Deptford. I went on marches, memorials and vigils in Eltham, Welling and Thamesmead, and was active against the BNP in other parts of South London too.
I live barely four miles from where Stephen was killed on Well Hall Road, and I drive past the site frequently. Eltham, along with Mottingham, New Eltham, Kidbrooke and Lee, marks the eastern edge of my part of southeast London. It's is tangibly different - whiter, leafier, quieter, less quirky, more suburban, more air to breathe, less pedestrian-friendly - than my manor.
I can't say I know Eltham well, though. In fact, I live much closer to Catford, which featured in the infamous secret video recording made of the young David Norris:
"I would, I would go down Catford and places like that, I am telling you now, with two sub-machine guns and I am telling you I would take one of them, skin the black cunt alive, mate, torture him, set him alight … I would blow their two arms and legs off and say, 'Go on you can swim home now.'"In that rant, Catford symbolises inner London and its multicultural drift: the world that the killers' parents and their generation had fled in moving out to the leafy white suburbs. Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks were attacked, and Stephen slain, because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time: black men in a landscape the racist killers saw as their territory.
As the sociologist Les Back has suggested, it is therefore appropriate that the Lawrence Inquiry was held in Elephant and Castle, in the heart of heterogeneous inner London, and that this was where Norris, Dobson and the other alleged killers, Neil and Jamie Acourt and Luke Knight, were called to account.
The kind of racism that produced this tragedy was fuelled by the presence of the fascist British National Party's bunker in nearby Welling, and the years of the BNP's presence correlated with a wave of horrific acts of violence in the area, of which Stephen's murder was only the most high profile. Transpontine reminds us, for example, of the killings of Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal and Ruhullah Aramesh in the period. And the killings did not end with Stephen: there was John Reid in Plumstead in 1996, Ricky Reel in Kingston in 1997, and Remi Surage in Orpington in 1998.
On the other hand, there were racist killings across Britain in the 1990s, and in some ways Eltham and its surrounds were not exceptional. However, the aftermath of the murder helped mark Eltham, and outer South East London in general, as an inherently racist and blighted location, beyond the pale of respectability. The national media would send reporters to the area, like Victorian pith-helmeted explorers to "darkest Africa", and they would bring back headlines about "London's deep South" and its recalcitrant redneck population; the worst I can recall (I think it was the Mirror) headlined the article "Into Hell". (This string of cliches from the liberal Independent is a recent example of the genre.)
Arguably, the projection of entrenched bigotry on to the disreputable transpontine netherlands of the metropolis allowed the political class north of the river to feel good about themselves, but didn't help tackle the root causes of the racist culture that formed Norris, Dobson and their gang.
It was also an unfair and inaccurate portrayal of the complexity of the area. This BBC item, quoting Les Back, catches it well:
"It needs to be remembered too about how many people went to the police to try and do the right thing, to speak with their consciences about what they knew and what they'd heard about the people involved in this murder."
Local people have long denied police claims that they put up a "wall of silence" during the original investigation.
In the nearly two decades since the murder, Eltham, London and the UK as a whole have changed, in some quite fundamental ways. The murder and its aftermath played a major part in this change, both locally and nationally.
Hopefully, the verdict will allow Eltham to heal, to continue to move forward. A good sense of the local changes that have already occurred can be read in two responses from two contemporaries of Lawrence and his killers from the same area: Darryl at 853 and Dan Hodges in the Telegraph. Both pieces are excellent and well worth your time. People like Darryl and Dan, not people like Norris and Dobson, have become the norm in outer London, and, although racism still exists, areas formerly seen as no-go areas for non-white people are now far more cosmopolitan, in a mundane, unspectacular way.
Both liberals and conservatives in the political classes like to stereotype white working class people as bigots, but (at Owen Jones notes) the statistics show that white working class people not only live amongst but also work and sleep with people from other backgrounds far more than middle class white people, and this is as true in Charlton or Abbey Wood too.
Nationally, too, there have been significant changes: in policing and in the way public services deal with black citizens. More importantly, the quiet dignity, impressive perseverence, articulacy, moral backbone and, well, ordinary-ness of the Doreen and Neville Lawrence made a huge difference over time to the way in which the mainstream media, and thus Middle England, viewed black Britons. An indicator of the sea-change is the excellent reportage of the issue from the right-wing media, including the Daily Telegraph but especially the Daily Mail.
Black people are, at least conditionally, much more included within the space of the British nation than they were in 1993, partly due to the Lawrence family and their campaign. But anti-racism has weekened rather than strengthened in the process.
Anti-racism is no longer a movement or a form of politics. It is no longer rooted in the (working class) urban communities that birthed it. In the aftermath of the July riots, I was struck again how little the older languages of radical anti-racism spoke to the young people on the English streets, an indicator of the attenuated presence of radical politics in our inner cities.
Anti-racism as politics has been replaced by anti-racism as litigation, as lawfare, as grievance procedure, as managerialism, as code of conduct. It is now owned by solicitors, barristers, parliamentarians, civil servants - some of them black, but almost all of them far distant from racism's cutting edge on the street.
Meanwhile, racism remains, but it has mutated. Its targets are different, and it is not about skin colour. Its targets are now more often white European migrants, Gypsies and Travellers, or Muslims (or people who might look Muslim). The BNP are no longer in their Welling bunker, but the English Defence League are active, and promoting a culture of thuggery and terror in London as elsewhere. And the mainstream newspapers which have been so clear in denouncing the racism that killed Stephen Lawrence continue to promote a wider climate of hatred against Islam and against migrants.
The Institute of Relations claims that close to 100 people have been murdered since 1991 "in cases where racial hatred was either clear cut or suspected. At least 15 remain unsolved – either because charges were dropped or because no one was ever convicted."
A Pakistani beaten to death in the immediate aftermath of the July 7 bombings as his attackers cried "Taliban!" An Asian man stabbed through the heart in Scotland. A Ghanaian found hanging from a tree after a racist gang threatened to kill him. A Sikh whose body was found in the Thames hours after he was attacked by another mob.[...]
In November 2009, Christopher Miller, then 25, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the racially aggravated murder of Indian sailor Kunal Mohanty, 30, in Glasgow in March that year. Mr Mohanty, who was about to become a father, was slashed in the throat by Miller with a knife in the unprovoked attack, which was carried out after the attacker called his victim a ‘black b*****d’.
In October 2009, George Austin, then 22, was jailed for four-and-a-half years for the manslaughter of Mohammed al-Majed, 16, from Qatar, who died from brain injuries three days after hitting his head on the pavement after being punched by Austin. Austin was part of a gang of youths shouting racist abuse that attacked the teenager in Hastings, East Sussex.
Stephen Lawrence is a household name, but how many people have heard of Mohammed al-Majed or Kunal Mohanty? And behind the murders are the thousands, yes thousands, of incidents of racist violence and harassment recorded every year.
That is why we still need an anti-racist movement. So, we should be thankful for the partial justice the Lawrence family received this week; we should honour their work in making Stephen's legacy mostly positive; we should celebrate the changes in both South London and Britain at large. But much work remains to be done.
UPDATE: Second thoughts here.
Previous: Policing anti-racism in the 1990s;
Elsewhere: Owen Jones "Beware the assumptions"; Harpy "Justice 18 years on"; Stella Duffy "Everything is Connected"; Mark Easton's original 1993 Newsnight report; Francis Sedgemore "Justice, not quite"; London Raven (an Elthamite) on the local Twitter reaction.
Added: Sunder Katwala "Why we will remember Stephen Lawrence"
Further reading/wathcing off-line: Roger Hewitt White Backlash: and the Politics of Multiculturalism; and Routes of Racism; Critical Eye Living With The Bunker; Vron Ware and Les Back Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics and Culture.