Thoughts on the Stephen Lawrence verdict

Chris Ofili: No Woman No Cry
So, the jury has decided and the judge has sentenced and David Norris and Gary Dobson, two of Stephen Lawrence's five or six killers, will be serving time. The wait has been long: almost the same length as Stephen's short life. And the time they serve will be short: the pair have been sentenced today as juveniles. And of course at least three other men took part in the killing, and they have not been brought to justice.

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 BunkerVron Ware and Les Back Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics and Culture.


MildMike said…
I am surprised you left this article out, given how popular you seem to think they are.
bob said…
Thanks Mike. I didn't see that until after I had posted this. In some ways, Spiked has a similar view to mine, but in other ways very different. I am actually trying to write somethnig now in response to that piece. Be posted in about an hour if I get time in my lunch break!
dave brockley said…
its late and i,m tired but this week has been bittersweet .
The behaviour of the Mail needs more than a passing comment about how Bob thinks the Lawrence case has been reported.
The editor was perhaps more candid about the papers real role in race relations when he said this in the Mail on wednesday.on the papers Lawrence suspects in 1997

“The first time that many people in britain realised that black readers were as important to the mail as white readers”

in other words the readers up till that point hadn,t realised the paper was going to appeal to black readers as well as white.
perhaps thats why some read it?

Thats as near an admission that in the first five years of Paul Dacres editorship that the mail was unsympathetic to black readers.
So the paper is admiting it appealed to readers that didn,t see black people as equal or racism being of concern.

Through luck of work (Dacre was reminded that Neville lawrence had worked for him) the lawrences have had the dubious honour of the Mail campaigning to catch Stevens killers.

we can all respect the Lawrences tireless campaign against racism and justice for Steven and no words of criticism should be made of them.
Shame it had to be the Mail to get the case into the minds of many .

But what of the Mail .
it wants to bask in an orgy of self congratulation .
Yet until the editor realised he knew Neville the paper was according to some sources coming out against an enquiry.

The Mail,s current strategy is to paint the Lawrence murderers/suspects as underclass appealing to the papers latent snobbery .
Meanwhile the paper carries on the same way with its attempt to keep its readers and circulation with an orgy of shared hatreds .It will include articles encouraging hatred of immigration ,political correctness ,religeous and ethnic minorities along with building resentment towards benefit claiments and public sector workers etc.

you can bet your bottom dollar that any time the Mail is criticised for its articles regarding black people or race .
It will play its Steven lawrence get out of jail card.

some of its columnists are still trying to excuse or rehabilatate E Powell .
i wonnder if they see the police surveillance video of one of the lawrence suspects mentions powell as an inspiration while they demonstrate how to stab a black man .

The Mail perhaps deserves praise for bringing the Lawrence case to the public ,but it leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth.
Waterloo Sunset said…
A lot of the points Dave makes are backed up by Nick Davis in Flat Earth News. Including suggestions that the Daily Mail have cancelled stories when they've found out the victim wasn't white.

And the allegation about the Mail's approach to the Lawrence story is so damning it's worth quoting at length:

"One of those directly involved say the Mail's approach to the story began by being hostile. They sent their only black news reporter, Hal Austin, to interview the dead boy's father, Neville Laurence, with instructions to attack the groups who were campaigning for a new inquiry into the murder. 'We don't want rent-a-mob left-wingers. That was the line.' During that interview, Neville Laurence realised that Austin's editor was the Mr Dacre for whom he had done some plastering in Islington some years earlier. By the time Austin sat down to write his story, the highly respectable Neville Lawrence had contacted Dacre and the news desk told him to change the line; 'do something sympathetic.'"
damon said…
Spending any time in the poorer parts of London which have received the highest rates of immigration right up to this date, the idea of the racist white people sometimes seems a bit far fetched ....or at least unfair.
If you look in some of the cheaper pubs, like the Wetherspoons chains, where ''washed-up'' middle aged to elderly working class men gather in the daytime, it seems like the old order is passing and the new younger vibrant multi-cultural present has taken over.
See Lewisham, Woolwich, Hackney, West Croydon, and Walthamstow for examples of this. And travelling about between these places by bus, as a white person, can leave one feeling as a bit of a minority.
Which is fine btw. It makes life interesting to see historical change happening in front of you.

The way people seperate themselves out though, according to class, race and culture, can seem a bit like mild apartheid at times.

This working class cafe in Woolwich looked like something for a bit of David Attenborough analysis I thought when I walked past the other day. With it's elderly white customers having their teas, egg and chips.
modernity said…
"the idea of the racist white people sometimes seems a bit far fetched "

Indeed, it would be good if racism amongst 'whites' were to vanish, but sadly the evidence points the other way.

The figures for racial attacks in Britain have been surprisingly high for decades.

Bear in mind that these are official figures and probably under report the overall situation.

"According to the British Crime Survey there were 280000 racially motivated incidents in 1999. 98000 of these (ie 35%) were against Black, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people (who comprise 7%of the population). Those at greatest risk to racial attack are Pakistani and Bangladeshis at 4.2%, followed by Indians at 3.6% and Black people at 2.2%. This compared with 0.3% for white people."

"In 2000-2001, police recorded 25100 racially aggravated offences of which 12455 incidents were of racially aggravated harassment, 4711 incidents of racially aggravated common assault and 3176 incidents of racially aggravated wounding in England and Wales."

"Ethnic minorities living in parts of Britain are now four times more likely to have suffered from racism than they were before the last general election, according to one of the most exhaustive studies of race and crime, undertaken by The Observer .

Between 2000 and 2004 racist incidents reported to the police in England and Wales - anything from verbal abuse to the most vicious of assaults - rose from 48,000 to 52,700. "

"According to research carried out by the IRR (which has been monitoring deaths from racial attacks from the 1970s) since the highly publicised death of Stephen Lawrence, in April 1993, an average of five lethal attacks with a racial element take place in the UK each year."

"DURING July and August, certain types of racial attacks have become very prevalent, with takeaway workers, those using public transport and those of a 'Muslim' appearance being especially vulnerable."

"since Stephen Lawrence's death, at least ninety-six people have lost their lives to racial violence - an average of five per year."

"New figures seen by BBC Newcastle show that Northumbria Police received more than 1,000 reports of racial incidents in 2010, while Durham had nearly 300."

So the anecdotal evidence which we are all privy to (people of all ethnicities getting on with their lives and together), doesn't truly paint the picture of racism in Britain.

That does not mean that it is as bad as the 60s and 70s, or that every Briton is a racist, but the phenomena of racism in Britain is complex and still exists, even if obvious manifestations of it are frowned upon in polite society.

We all have our own experience of people getting on together, and then of peculiar outbursts of racism in Britain, but I think the problem is that the British don't really fully and openly discuss the evidence and what that tells us about existing views.
modernity said…

Only recently did taxi drivers in Cardiff strike over racial attacks and the inability of the police and the establishment to deal with it.

"Faced with ongoing risks of violence, taxi drivers throughout the UK are beginning to organise. In June last year, between seventy and eighty taxi drivers in Cardiff said they would refuse to work on the day of a rally by the Welsh Defence League, with anti-fascist campaigners urging them to join a counter-demonstration against the presence of the far-right group in the city. In Huddersfield, almost 3,000 drivers went on strike a few years ago in protest against racial violence, in Coventry, some 600 cabbies did the same and in 2009, in Birmingham, 200 drivers attended a meeting expressing anger at the local council's inadequate response to attacks. The strike next week, if it goes ahead, will continue this trajectory. As Mathab Khan explained, as it stands at the moment, drivers working over the Christmas period will be 'endangering their lives'. They are faced by a lethal combination of routine violence on the one hand, and official indifference on the other."

I think racism in Britain takes on very British proportions, understated, brushed under the carpet and certainly not analysed in the way it might be.

We only need to look at British attitudes towards Europe, the French, etc and xenophobia in general to realise that old colonial ideas from the days of Empire haven't really died off, just taken new forms and they come out on a frequent basis.

plasterer croydon,,
Toby, it's the old, blurry line between truth & "the facts." Sometimes, they overlap, but often, they don't.

Twenty-five years ago, I spent six months flat on my back with a dislocated disk, unable to much of anything but nap & read. One day, my once-a-week cleaning woman was dusting my bedroom, and she paused as she picked up a paperback copy of "Bleak House" that was lying near my sickbed. She looked at the cover, which showed a painting of a woman in an somberly decorated 1880s interior, then looked around. "Looks like this place."
The room in the painting was much more elegant than mine, but I took her words as a compliment. "That's a really great book" I told her.
She turned the book over & looked at the blurb on the back. "Is it true? she asked.
"Actually, it's a novel."
"I see. So it didn't actually happen?"
"Well, no. It's a novel."
She made sort of a face. "So it's just made-up storying..."
"Well, yes, basically."
She put the book back down & wiped her hands on her apron, like they were soiled and looked at me like I was a spoiled child. "Then I wouldn't be interested. I don't read things that aren't true." If she could have sent me to bed for the day, she would have, but I was already there.

I'm reminded of Jesus' words to the persnickety Pharisees: "You have strained out the gnat & gulped down the camel."l
Arshe bony said…

plasterer croydon>
There are some elements in Islam, like "the way you treat woman, kids, thief's, other religions, alcohol drinkers,"honor killings".
That fascinates some person's WEIRD imagination.
Living in Muslim countries, like Saudi, Iran must be fascinating, so liberal, so advanced, so democratic that support freedom of speech as blogs.


plasterer croydon

Hi There, I just spent a little time reading through your posts, which I found entirely by mistake whilst researching one of my projects. Please continue to write more because it’s unusual that someone has something interesting to say about this. Will be waiting for more!