Lessons of the murder of Stephen Lawrence

Police racism can no more be abolished under capitalism than can racism generally – it is a vital weapon in the bourgeois armoury of divide-and-rule tactics that keep the working class weak and impotent.

Two of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence are behind bars – at last. Gary Dobson and David Norris will spend a considerable period of time in prison. But we cannot now heave a sigh of relief and say, “justice has been done – all is now well”.

This is not only because at least three other murderers of Stephen Lawrence are still free, nor just because minimum sentences of 14 and 15 years for Dobson and Norris cannot be described as severe (certainly not when compared with draconian sentences handed out for such offences as taking a bottle of water from a shop during the uprising last summer!)

It is because the struggle is by no means over. All is not well. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. And the context is a working class that is being burdened with the effects of the crisis of capitalism, and receiving heavy treatment from the state, not least the police, when it resists. The intention to divide and thus weaken the working class by fomenting racism has to be fought against and overcome.

Racist murder

Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death on the night of 22 April 1993 by a gang of at least five young white men, who attacked him and his friend Duwayne Brooks at a bus stop in Eltham, southeast London. It was clear, not only from the nature of the attack but very explicitly from words used during it, that it was a racist attack. Stephen Lawrence was murdered for the sole reason that he was black.

Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother put it very succinctly after the guilty verdict on Dobson and Norris on 3 January this year, following a trial that began on 15 November 2011. She was quoted in the Guardian of 4 January as follows:

“How can I celebrate when I know that this day could have come 18 years ago if the police, who were meant to find my son’s killers, had not failed so miserably to do so?

“This result shows that the police can do their job properly, but only if they want to.

“The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country and the police should not use my son’s name to say that we can move on.”

And Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father said: “I don’t think I will be able to rest until they are all brought to justice.”

Campaign driven by the Lawrence family

Doreen and Neville Lawrence are remarkable people. It is they who have not let go. They just kept demanding, and made good use of the support they received from the Daily Mail to keep Stephen’s murder in the public eye.

The editor of that paper had come into contact with Neville Lawrence when the latter did some building work at his home. This personal interest in the matter resulted in a campaign in the Daily Mail, including a front page of photographs of five men, including Dobson and Norris, which called them murderers and challenged them to sue.

Driven by Doreen and Neville Lawrence, the British state was forced into mounting the Lawrence Inquiry, which among its findings concluded that there was institutional racism in the police force. And now, 18 years after the murder, there have been two convictions.

These convictions were not owing to the fact that new forensic techniques improved the evidence. They were certainly significant in the trial, but the fact is that so much forensic evidence was ‘lost’ by police inaction at the time of Stephen’s murder.

For instance: a police photographer carrying out surveillance on the Norrises and their associates saw black bags being taken away from their house soon after the murder, which could well have contained bloodied clothing, but the men were not intercepted and the bags were never recovered. And so it goes on.

It is the determination and publicity that makes Stephen’s murder remarkable. Many other racist attacks and murders have taken place, but the treatment received by the Lawrences and by Duwayne Brooks indicates how much pressure there is to silence protest.

When the police arrived at the scene of the murder they concentrated their attention on Duwayne, accusing him of being in a gang, assuming that Stephen’s injury was the result of a gang dispute, that he had started everything, etc. They refused to look for the murderers, although Duwayne told them which way they had gone. Duwayne has since been stopped many times by the police, and there have been many slanderous attempts, not least on the internet, to destroy his character.

In an interview in the Guardian on 28 January 2012, Doreen Lawrence underlined that the police failed to find her son’s murderers, but stopped his brother 20 times as a criminal suspect! She herself was stopped a year after the murder, ‘suspected of driving a stolen car’.

Lessons not learned

Some say that “lessons have been learned”, that “justice has been done” and that “we should now move on”. Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick claimed the convictions were a victory for British justice.

The same Cressida Dick was the officer in charge of ‘anti-terrorist surveillance’ when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police officers, a fact that was even noted in a letter in the Guardian on 5 January 2012. Another letter on the same day welcomed the convictions and added “Would that the killers of Blair Peach, and those who protected them down the years, might some day occupy the same dock at the Old Bailey.”

How can ‘lines be drawn under’ and ‘moving on’ take place when the United Families of those killed in police custody still campaign without redress? When only recently Mark Duggan was hauled out of a taxi and shot dead through the head by police? The latter sparked a justified uprising, but did not demonstrate ‘lessons learned’ by the police.

Our lessons

So much more could be said, but it is we who need to learn the lessons.

On the one hand, our bourgeois politicians of all shades make pious statements deploring racism. On the other hand, they, at every opportunity, peddle the idea that all the ills of our society are caused by black people, by ‘multiculturalism’, by immigrants. And they preside over detention centres, concentration camps for so-called ‘illegal immigrants’, still incarcerating young children, and over security firms that ‘manage’ deaths of deportees on planes.

It is not that they have failed to learn lessons. The arms of the bourgeois state have learned their lessons well. They know that the aim is to divide the working class as much as possible in order to make it easier to keep it down when it protests against the conditions that imperialism imposes on it. (Remember the draconian sentences following the uprising last summer, and the attempts to blame it, without foundation, on gangs – especially black gangs!)

All power to the Lawrence family and its supporters. Much has been achieved. But we must all take up and continue the fight against racism, which indeed is a fight against imperialism. And we must not be blinded by the fact that the murder of Stephen Lawrence took place 18 years ago so that we do not see what is going on around us now. Unless we understand the reality of the bourgeois state, unless we forge the maximum working-class unity, not least by fighting resolutely against racism, we will never achieve anything.

It is the fashion of the apologist for imperialism to claim the Karl Marx is now irrelevant. That is becoming increasingly a futile claim, as can be shown in so many ways. Suffice it for the moment to just remember that it was he who said, “Labour in the white skin cannot be free where in the black it is branded.” (Capital, Vol 1, 1867)

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