Making campaigner Doreen Lawrence a political 'saint' is folly

In the past few days, I have had many people from the Global African Diaspora, women especially, express their delight that ‘Doreen is now the Right Honourable Baroness Lawrence’ and that ‘there is one more of us in the Lords’. They all thought I was being churlish and, as one put it, ‘typically anti-establishment’ when I disagreed.

One wonders why Doreen Lawrence was made a Labour peer and not an independent ‘cross-bench’ member of the unelected second chamber of the British parliament called the House of Lords. After all, she has been held up by the entire British political class, not just the Labour Party. She is the revered emblem of the British establishment and an ambassador for the supposed ‘openness’, ‘inclusiveness’, ‘justice’ and ‘antiracism’ of British society.

In 2003, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for ‘services to community relations’ (sic). In July 2012, she received worldwide exposure as the totem of the British establishment when she took part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, carrying the Olympic torch. In October 2012, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 14th Pride of Britain Awards. And now, as Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, she has reached the top of the totem pole.

Over the past 20 years, we have become used to hearing newsreaders say: ‘Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence…’ It is worth reminding ourselves that this is the profile out of which this creation of the British establishment has been forged.

A mother seeking justice for the murder of her innocent son cut down in his prime while going about his lawful business; a mother who was able and was assisted by the wider African community to place her son’s murder by white racists in context and to gain strength from the active and prolonged support of activists and campaigners within that community, many of whom kick started the campaign that supported the Lawrence family in holding the Metropolitan Police and the British Home Secretary to account for the investigation of Stephen’s murder.

So, when Doreen Lawrence was awarded an OBE for ‘services to community relations’, those recommending her for that award succeeded in reducing a historical, community struggle for justice for Stephen and to hold the Metropolitan Police to account for the way they investigated Stephen’s murder to some liberal, do-gooding efforts of a courageous grieving mother to ‘promote good community relations’.

The words still echo: the dignity with which she conducted herself throughout a difficult period; her lack of bitterness; her determination that the tragedy of Stephen’s murder should be seen for what it was, i.e. ‘the evil deeds of a few racists who do not represent our fair and tolerant society’ etc.

In other words, the state was valorising and distorting the conduct of Doreen Lawrence as a private individual and displacing her and her response to Stephen’s murder from the collective action and shared grief of a community that had every right to be fed up with the dehumanisation of African and Asian people in Britain and to demand that the police, the criminal justice system and the state afforded the same rights and protection as everybody else.

By removing Doreen Lawrence and her response to her son’s murder from that wider struggle and context, the state is not only able to indulge its pretence of supporting and valorising the ‘underdog’, of standing with her against racist and neo-fascists and of standing up for ‘decent British values’; it is able to pretend that there is really no need for all that activism and for the construction of British society and its institutions the activists would have Doreen Lawrence adopt.

Meanwhile, other campaigns proceeded apace amidst systematic and costly obstruction and obfuscation by those same state institutions: campaigns for justice for Sean Riggs, Azelle Rodney, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Jimmy Mubenga and more. The canonisation of Doreen Lawrence and her positioning at the top of the British establishment’s totem pole is disturbing for one very simple reason. We as the Global African Diaspora in Britain and the history of our presence and struggles here are already pretty much written out of British social history.

Doreen Lawrence is being heralded as the person ‘who changed Britain’. The likelihood is that when the story of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath comes to be written, it is the account of the canonisation of Doreen Lawrence and the ‘magnanimity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ of the British state that will be recorded, rather than the state’s own complicity in the botched investigation of Stephen’s murder and in denying the context within which that murder occurred and in which the active political response to it by the African community was framed.

Future generations of black and white British citizens are therefore likely to be treated to a social history curriculum that includes a Wikipedia type entry on Doreen Lawrence, rather than the true narrative of the origins, trajectory and contradictions of the Stephen Lawrence campaign.
That is why, without wanting to diminish in any way Doreen Lawrence’s passion for justice for her son, we must not fight shy of pointing out the cynicism of the British state and particularly of the Labour Party in seeking to hijack and fashion Doreen Lawrence into its own grotesque creation.

The question remains, however, what difference does it make? Baroness Lawrence will no doubt be lauded and patronised by a majority in the Upper House who can accommodate aberrations and exceptions such as Doreen Lawrence with magnanimity because she and the likes of her do not pose a threat to their power base or their capacity to maintain that ‘status quo’. For one thing, neither Doreen Lawrence nor any peer of African or Asian heritage has the social and cultural capital that gives them the leverage to broker power among their peers in the Lords.

However powerful or gut-wrenching the statements Doreen Lawrence might make, based upon her limited experience and knowledge of that age-old parliamentary system, therefore, they are unlikely to have any meaningful impact upon the situation and struggles of those who continue to fight for justice in relation to stop and search, deaths in custody, school exclusions or the treatment of immigrants deemed to be ‘illegal’.

Since the 1987 General election and the much celebrated election as MPs of Diane Abbott, the late Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Paul Boateng, neither the Labour Party nor the Tories or LibDems have put ‘race’ centre stage on the political agenda, despite the ethnic penalty that generations of British born children of African and Asian heritage continue to suffer. Diane Abbott now has an impressive track record in respect of challenging the state about the schooling experiences of African heritage children. The fact that she has been clamouring within the Labour Party on this very issue for the last 25 years has not resulted in any Labour Government, let alone any other, addressing seriously the issue of schooling practices and schooling outcomes for African heritage children.

Since the beginning of March 2013, I have been supporting the Burke-Monerville family in Islington whose son, Joseph, was shot in the head and killed while sitting in his brother’s car in Hackney on route to meet their father on 16 February 2013. One of the saddest moments for me was the morning I turned up at the family’s home to find Mr Burke-Monerville deeply distressed.

He had just received a phone call from Doreen Lawrence’s personal assistant in response to a request he had made to Doreen for support and solidarity in their own campaign to get the Metropolitan Police Service and in particular Operation Trident to spare no effort in apprehending the murderer(s) of their son. What so distressed him was the response from Doreen Lawrence to the effect that she was sending her deepest sympathy to the family through her PA, but was unable to get involved in any more ‘casework’. The family should therefore seek advice from Citizens Advice.

Casework? Citizens Advice? It was all too bewildering for that grieving father, John Burke-Monerville. He was distressed because he felt that his expectations of solidarity, at least, in his family’s struggle for justice had been misplaced and that they were being regarded by Doreen Lawrence simply as a ‘welfare’ case.

My wish, and it might well prove to be a vain hope, is that we as the Global African Diaspora in Britain will examine critically the disturbing case of Doreen Lawrence and ask ourselves some searching questions: How have we allowed this to happen under our very noses? How complicit have we been in that very process? How can we develop and spread the understanding that despite the worthy and ceaseless efforts of Operation Black Vote, our power as a Global African Diaspora lies not so much in harnessing our electoral power to increase the number of African councillors and MPs, but in building a mass movement to articulate our demands, develop a vision of the society we want now and want our children and grandchildren to inherit, and deal with the pressing issues that successive governments continue to ignore.

Those issues include: deaths of African people at the hands of the police and others operating the institutions of state; the burgeoning African population in young offender institutions and prisons; the scandalous number of our children being excluded from schools year on year; the treatment of African teachers in the schooling system and in academies in particular; the perennial over-representation of African youths in unemployment statistics and the scandalous number of murders of African young people by other African young people year on year; the high incidence of mental health problems among young black males and especially those in prison.

The inescapable fact in my view is that irrespective of how many Lords and Baronesses of African heritage they appoint; or MPs the Labour, Conservative or LibDem parties manage to secure in the next or any other future elections, it is the masses of people in the Global African Diaspora, supported by other progressive movements, who will hold the state and its institutions, especially the police, to account.

* Augustine "Gus" John is a veteran Black community campaigner, honorary fellow and associate professor at the Institute of Education, London, and an international consultant.