Nineteen Years Fighting For Justice


This article appears in the current issue of Labour Briefing

Estelle du Boulay and Kevin Blowe, Newham Monitoring Project, ask if anything has changed in the way police relate to black and Asian people following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence nearly two decades ago.

“The police can do their job properly, but only if they want to.” In an overtly angry, political and pointed statement by Doreen Lawrence outside court on the day Gary Dobson and David Norris were convicted for the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, the public were reminded how far society remains from being just and fair for all its citizens.

Relief at the verdict came, after all, with the knowledge that the police had the names of the five suspects within 24 hours of Stephen’s murder and that a successful prosecution could have happened years ago if police racism hadn’t resulted in the original investigation being handled so disastrously. As a result of the botched investigation, Doreen and Neville devoted a significant part of their lives to fighting for justice.

In 1999, the Lawrence Inquiry concluded the investigation into Stephen’s death “was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.” In the hope of shifting the ingrained culture within institutions, it laid down a series of recommendations to address racism from the most senior level down to the front line.

The post-Lawrence vision appeared radical and wide-ranging in relation to the conduct of policing on the streets, a source of acute tension particularly felt by black communities: it advocated building greater trust and dialogue between communities and the police through increased accountability and transparency, with stop and search used appropriately and applied proportionately.

Ten years later, when reviewing the impact which attempts to implement the Lawrence recommendations had made, Dr. Richard Stone, one of the original Inquiry panel, sadly reflected that the changes “had made little impact on reducing black, white and increasingly Asian disparities in stop and search.”

Despite the replacement of the widely-criticised Police Complaints Authority with a new Independent Police Complaints Commission, the introduction of receipts for stops and community monitoring panels to scrutinise stop and search, their impact seems to have been little more than bearing witness to the operation of a system that remained unfair and discriminatory.

Despite the scrapping of Section 44 powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 (which heavily targeted Asian people), Asians remain twice as likely to be stopped as white people under another police power, Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Figures suggest black people are up to 26 times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts under Section 60 stops, which require no reasonable suspicion and are therefore susceptible to racial profiling.

A significant barrier to the success of the Lawrence recommendations has been the shifting face of state racism that it was trying to regulate. As early as 2001, the Institute of Race Relations was highlighting the alarming trend in the media of attacking asylum seekers and refugees and tracking the growth in racial violence cases that followed. Post 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005, the scapegoat for societal anger became Muslims, more recently shifting towards young people and gangs. Against this onslaught of criminalising different sections of society and the swathe of laws and powers it has produced, institutional racism has been able to regroup and strengthen. The ground under the feet of the original Lawrence recommendations has changed so rapidly that it has been easy for them to be pushed aside or undercut.

An insight into how this takes root at street level can be viewed through the monitoring by NMP of local stop and search operations at Tube stations across east London over the past ten years. Around 2004 it became routine to witness joint operations between the Metropolitan Police, British Transport police and immigration officers primarily targeting “illegal immigrants”. After 2005 and the London bombings these operations were commonly based around Section 44, heavily targeting Asians. In recent years we have seen a proliferation of Section 60 operations, with knife arches targeting a particular profile (by admission of officers at the scene) of young people.

It is too simplistic to say these operations provide effective remedies for existing trends in crime at the time. Stop and search remains largely ineffectual in relation to the crimes it purportedly targets – this has always been borne out by its related arrest and prosecution rates. The societal impact of operations such as these is to normalise a set of ideas and values that are the agenda of those who hold the power in society and strengthen their ability to extend them further and further. Until public pressure effectively refuses the foundations on which institutional structures operate as well as their manifestations, systems of state sanctioned accountability will do little more than pay lip-service to an ideal of the public regulating those at the top.

The most important legacy, therefore, from the Lawrence Inquiry seems to be not the recommendations it made but the lessons it taught us: that complacency breeds complicity and nothing will be gained without a fight. Not only do we owe it to the grieving family of Stephen Lawrence to continue this battle, but it is our only chance of creating lasting and progressive change.