Thirty years ago, today, Black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racist thugs in South East London, in Britain. It became an international cause célèbre after, as founder of the Anti-Racist Alliance, I was able to introduce Nelson Mandela to Stephen's parents. Before that, political leaders had ignored a spate of murders of young black men in a part of London we dubbed “the racist murders capital of Britain”.
It took six more years before a new Labour government set up the Macpherson public inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence killing. It found the police to be riddled with institutional racism and proposed unprecedented reforms. Then the Met’s chief accepted the institutionally racist label. Today, commissioner Mark Rowley does not, even after a damning report from eminent lawyer Louise Casey this year that found his force is also misogynistic, homophobic and corrupt.
In 1999, the former senior judge Macpherson concluded that institutional racism at least in part explained why Stephen’s killers had escaped justice. Police had been incompetent and committed fundamental errors, including:
• failing to give first aid when they reached the scene.
• failing to follow obvious leads during their investigation.
• failing to quickly arrest suspects.
Significantly, Stephen’s parents buried him in their homeland of Jamaica not Britain.
Macpherson found that recommendations of the Scarman report, after the 1981 Brixton, south London, uprising by black youth against police oppression, had been ignored. The Macpherson report’s recommendations included changes to the Civil Service, local government, the National Health Service, schools, and the judicial system, to deal with institutional racism.
Fast forward to January, 2012, when Gary Dobson and David Norris were found guilty of murdering Stephen Lawrence after new evidence came to light. But their accomplices Luke Knight, and brothers Jamie and Neil Acourt – the main suspects – escaped prosecution for the part they played. Now Dobson and Norris are up for a parole hearing this year that could release them from jail, which is being bitterly opposed by Stephen’s parents.
In a dramatic turnaround this month, Doreen Lawrence has claimed her long-time ally the Daily Mail hired private investigators to hack her phone and get information on Stephen, potentially disrupting the police investigation into the racially-motivated murder.
Baroness Lawrence, who was put in the House of Lords by the Labour Party, now believes she “failed her murdered son” by trusting the Daily Mail, and particularly its discredited editor Paul Dacre, during the 1990s. Perversely, the Tories, after failing to make Dacre the head of the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, now want to put him in the House of Lords. Doreen Lawrence received thousands of pounds from the Daily Mail, including for the serialisation of her book about the case in the paper. She now claims it only campaigned for justice on behalf of Stephen Lawrence in a cynical bid to sell more newspapers.
Despite some partial successes, on many fronts, race relations in Britain have not improved. The high number of deaths in police, prison and hospital custody of Black people is a national scandal as reports from Inquest and other campaigners starkly show.
Young black men are still disproportionately stopped and searched by police. There is shocking racism in the education system, with, for instance, black students, including girls like Child Q in Hackney, disproportionately subjected to humiliating strip-searches in schools. Combined with high level of unemployment and poverty in black communities, these factors have been cited as fuelling the several inner-city riots many of us call uprisings.
It’s alarming that migrants are being scapegoated as an “invasion” by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, herself the child of migrants from the Global South, who peddles hate-fuelled rhetoric in a desperate attempt to win the votes of racists. It’s a continuation of the ruling Conservative’s “hostile environment” that wrongly deemed as illegal immigrants thousands of people who arrived in Britain from 1948 onwards, in what became known as the Windrush scandal.
A clampdown on racism throughout British society has slowed by the government since the Macpherson report and must be kick-started back into action by a broad-based, united anti-racist coalition. That’s why trade unionists and community activists, including me, have set up The Liberation Movement, as a much-needed black-led initiative.
I’m speaking at an online Zoom at 7pm on Tuesday, April 25, titled Remembering Stephen Lawrence – The legacy and way forward https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/remembering-stephen-lawrence-the-legacy-and-way-forward-tickets-611518788157?aff=eand
It will give participants the opportunity to hear from and debate with both me and veteran anti-racist campaigner Suresh Grover, who also helped Stephen's parents run their justice campaign, and leading family and police justice champions, Janet Alder, of the United Families and Friends Campaign, Emmanuelle Andrews, Liberty's policy and campaigns manager and the prominent scholar and community activist Professor Gus John.
*The moderator will be Deborah Hobson, a leading Unite black activist, whose union’s London and Eastern Region supports The Liberation Movement along with many others.
- Marc Wadsworth is co-founder of The Liberation Movement and helped the parents of Stephen Lawrence set up their justice campaign.