by Lola Okolosie
When I first heard the news that Gary Dobson and David Norris had been convicted for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, I simply felt heavy with sadness. Not joy or even relief, but an overwhelming sense of gloom that it had taken so long, longer than Stephen had lived as the papers continue to remind us, to get this little bit of justice; three or four of the killers are still out there living their lives freely. If I am honest, I had no hope that the British justice system would pull through for the Lawrence family. Or indeed faith that the police at that time were capable of following procedures well enough to not have contaminated the evidence. Damning, I know, but what else am I supposed to think as a black person? After all, this was the same police force that dismissed 27 eye witnesses identifying the five as Stephen’s attackers. The police preferred, rather, to work under their own racist vision of the truth- a black teenager has been stabbed to death, therefore a gang member/drug dealer he must be, ergo he is underserving of a thorough investigation. It was only the fact that Nelson Mandela discussed and highlighted the issues surrounding the case that lead the embarrassed police force to begin pursuing the correct leads.
The racist logic of the police enabled the murderers to grow into wizened men, seemingly encapsulated in their bitter racism. David Norris evidently learnt nothing; in 2002 he served a prison term for racist behaviour directed at a plain clothes police officer. I felt a sense of pride that Doreen Lawrence refused to let the celebrations proceed without reminding us of the terrible way in which the police had handled the case. The sentencing of the two cannot and should not, as I fear may be the case, be used as some sort of bench mark of how far we have come as a nation when it comes to race. Those 18 years aren’t really that far away in terms of race relations, walk anywhere in some of our most deprived metropolitan neighbourhoods and it will become quite clear how far we are yet to go. Arguably since 9/11 and the 7/7 bombing, Britain has become a much more racially divided society. Islamophobia has become widely established as a natural and understandable reaction to the ‘war on terror’.
The police, rather than congratulating themselves for having the foresight to pursue a ‘cold case’ review, need to continue to readdress their sustained use of racial profiling. In 2010 researchers from London School of Economics and the Open Society Justice initiative examined official figures discovering that in ‘2008/2009, there were 41.6 searches for every 1,000 black people, but only 1.6 for every 1,000 white people’, making black people 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched. 26 times! We are 3 times more likely to be arrested than white people despite the fact that we are more likely to be victims of crime. If this is not proof that the police remains institutionally racist, then I don’t know what is.
I remember the sense of utter anger and frustration when the revelations of just how wrong the police got it were revealed. As a teenage black girl in the north, it only served to remind me of how I existed within a society that expected absolutely nothing of me but the worse. We may have stumbled a few paces beyond this awful point but we really do need to do much more work.
The same papers that are so self-congratulating at the moment, your Daily Mails for example, need to recognise that their constant attacks on immigrants and their woeful reporting of August’s riots, to name just a few topical issues, are only the flip side of the same coin as that of the murderous racists. Yes the Daily Mail was instrumental in getting the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to order the Macpherson Inquiry. The irony is unsettling. To that end, millions who subscribe to their daily dose of insidious xenophobia need to take note. The right-wing media’s coverage of the case smacks a little too much of middle England’s desire to distance itself from a thorough analysis of its own routine acts of racism. Underlying the coverage of this case is the message that these men are an isolated example, possibly prototypical of ‘chav’ behaviour in the extreme. This view allows for a convenient separation, falsely deluding many into thinking that they are not themselves connected to this heinous crime. The same disconnect that seemed to be operating for middle England during the summer, when most of the media coverage all but said ‘look at those black thugs’, is operating here. There is a pervading censoriousness that believes it is wholly separated from its object of disgust. It is not. Insidious racism and xenophobia provide the bedrock on which violent racists can and do operate.