Lessons of the Stephen Lawrence murder

Submitted by Matthew on 11 January, 2012 - 10:53

That Gary Dobson and David Norris have been jailed for the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was for the people who loved him, some sort of justice. But as Doreen Lawrence has pointed out it cannot be the end of the matter.

The details of the Stephen Lawrence case and the inquiries and investigations which followed have been thoroughly revisited recently but the lessons of this terrible story bear repeating. Two things stand out.

The police have not — as some pundits would have it — made “good progress” since Stephen’s death. They are still incompetent, racist, corrupt, thuggish and a bureaucratic imposition on society. Backed up by the criminal justice system, the police marginalise, alienate and if necessary repress working-class people, both black and white.

Violent racist attacks have not decreased. According to the Institute of Race Relations, there have been 96 deaths by racially motivated violence since 1993, the most recent the murder of Anuj Bidve in Salford. Yet there is very little media analysis about what leads to these killings. It is as if, racist killings, stabbings, beatings and arson attacks… just happen. And there is very little social or political intervention can do to stop it.

Yet the roots of most violence in society is very understandable and linked to the stress on and brutalisation of individuals caused by the effects of inequalities. The more unequal the society, the more violent it is. The police and criminal justice system are there to both mop up the mess caused by inequality and prop up the system of inequality!

All of this was graphically highlighted by the Stephen Lawrence case.

At the time the police said they had met a “wall of silence” from the community where the killing took place and this hampered the investigation. That was a lie. The police had good information given to them by local people, but they squandered it. People in Eltham wanted to see the small group of thuggish youths who they knew must be responsible for the crime brought to justice.

But what working-class people understand and experience counts for virtually nothing in society. The police are “in charge” and they need to stay in charge. To the police ordinary people are either “criminals” or “law abiding citizens” or other “types” –— there to be processed by a badly functioning bureaucracy made up of people who are often more aggressive and narrow-minded than the communities they say they “serve”.

Black and Asian people are especially likely to be treated as “types”.

Duwayne Brooks, for instance, was treated as a suspect at the start of the investigation. Duwayne’s character was maliciously smeared and he was even prosecuted (for a minor public order offence) in order to discredit him. This was both racist, and also, if the police were ever actually interested in prosecuting Stephen’s killers, moronic.

The police are never accountable except under political pressure.

“Modernisation” of the capitalist state bureaucracy has brought a tick box culture of fake accountability to the police service. But according to the National Police Racism website the police massage the figures just as much as they used to “massage” confessions out of suspects. The police continue to do what they do best — treating their “customers” like scum.

The routine and racist use of stop and search policing — an invasion of private space tantamount to harassment — exposes this reality perfectly.

According to 2007-8 research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK (excluding statistics associated with anti-terror legislation) black people are at least six times as likely to be stopped (and maybe searched) as white people; Asian people, around twice as likely.

The disproportionality was affected by the high London rates in areas with large black populations.

Other research (including that of a House of Commons Select Committee) show stop and search to be ineffective in pushing up detection rates.

Why do they do it? To harass us all, and black and Asian people in particular. But mostly because the police want to “stand above” society as a visible force to be reckoned with. Stop and search has the appearance of busyness, it is day-to-day enforcement of police power on the streets.

According to recent research by the Institute of Race Relations there have been 96 lethal attacks involving some racially motivated element since 1993.

The IRR highlighted certain risk factors:

• 52 percent of attacks were random events by young men individually or in gangs under the influence of drink.

• Most of the victims are young or relatively young.

• Workers in late night street trades — taxi drivers, restaurant workers — are particularly vulnerable.

• Refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers and overseas students are also vulnerable.

• A high proportion — 44 per cent — were from Muslim backgrounds (explained in large part, but not completely by victims being refugees and workers in “night trades”).

• Areas where settled BME communities are relatively new are to a certain extent “hot spots” for racial violence.

Such statistical information should give political people pause for thought. It should be obvious that anti-immigration rhetoric generates a fatal hostility to migrants. It ought to prompt fresh ideas about how to talk about and tackle racism in schools. There should be a public debate about how to create safer urban environments.

But even a thoughtful liberal response is hard to come by when the reality of racial violence is not reflected in the criminal justice system.

According to the IRR “racial aggravation” in crimes of violence (which brings higher sentence if it can be proved) has become a bargaining chip in the bureaucratic criminal justice system. The extra charge is often dropped in order to secure convictions.

What do socialist advocate?

Something radically different to Macpherson Inquiry panel member Richard Stone’s solution (Guardian, 5 January) — more black police officers! Socialists say to young black people: don’t join the police force!

We say that not just because black and Asian police officers are slapped down and discriminated against and in the abstract the police could reform to make life just about tolerable for black and Asian police. We say this because if people think they can change the police system this way, then they are wrong!

We want and demand something much more radical. The right for working-class people to democratically control the police. The right to sack corrupt police who derail investigations — as may have happened in the Stephen Lawrence case. Don’t leave big policing decisions to Teresa May, or policing enquiries to government appointees.

If there had a been an elected committee of local people in Eltham in charge of policing operations there would have been an immediate debate and conflict over what the police did and didn’t do instead of 18 years of slow to happen public inquiries — a process which had some grip on events.

If there were such committee in London there would now be conflicts over the levels of stop and search with the potential to put real political pressure on the police and help young black people create and shape their own political responses independent of to the workings of bureaucratic political systems.

The fight for such democratic accountability would not change the character of the police. But any changes forced by political action might restrict the state’s ability to act against us all, push back routine harassment, questing the batoning and controlling of our protests.

The struggle itself could reveal to millions just how undemocratic, dishonest, incompetent and racist the establishment really is.

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