June 2, 2011

18 Years Later, Will Justice Come for Stephen Lawrence?

A reader recently asked me if I think justice will finally come to Stephen Lawrence. This came after news that two men, David Norris and Gary Dobson, will face trial for his 1993 murder.

Who is Stephen Lawrence, you ask? If you're from the U.S., chances are that you've never heard of him, although there was a PBS docudrama about the case some years ago. He was a black teenager from south-east London, an honors student and an aspiring architect who was studying physics. On the evening of April 22, 1993, Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks were waiting at a bus stop when a racist white mob descended upon them. One of the attackers yelled "what, what n****r?" The group of five or six men quickly crossed the road and stabbed Lawrence twice in his upper torso to a depth of five inches, severing two auxiliary arteries. In this horrific incident that lasted no more than 15-20 seconds, Lawrence fled 130 yards and then bled to death.

According to the pathologist's report, "It is surprising that he managed to get 130 yards with all the injuries he had, but also the fact that the deep penetrating wound of the right side caused the upper lobe to partially collapse his lung. It is therefore a testimony to Stephen's physical fitness that he was able to run the distance he did before collapsing". Due to the heavy layers of clothing he was wearing, Laurence was drenched in blood.

Stephen's body was flown to Jamaica, where he was buried. Dobson was tried for the murder but was acquitted.

A damning inquiry conducted by Sir William Macpherson blamed "professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership" for the blunders in the investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder. The 1999 report also concluded that from the very top of the ranks, London's Metropolitan Police Service was riddled by "pernicious and institutional racism" in the investigation of this crime, the racial disparity in "stop and search figures," the underreporting of racial crimes, and the failure of police training in racial sensitivity.

Duwayne Brooks, who was also a victim, was treated by the police as a witness. "We are driven to the conclusion that Mr. Brooks was stereotyped as a young black man exhibiting unpleasant hostility and agitation, who could not be expected to help, and whose condition and status simply did not need further examination or understanding," according to the Macpherson report. "We believe that Mr. Brooks' colour and such stereotyping played their part in the collective failure of those involved to treat him properly and according to his needs."

Macpherson made 70 recommendations in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, including reforms of the police force, the justice system, the schools and the civil service, making the use of racial language in private a criminal offense, and the aggressive recruitment of black and Asian police officers. Perhaps one of the most significant recommendations, now the law, is the abolition of the centuries-old double jeopardy rule, which prevented a person from being tried twice for the same crime.

And now, after years of allegations of official corruption and the withholding of evidence, David Norris and Gary Dobson -- whose 1996 acquittal was quashed by an appeals court -- now stand trial for an 18-year-old murder.

I first heard about the Lawrence case in 1998, when I was in London working with Amnesty International. Subsequently, I produced some news segments on the killing and its aftermath as a producer for Democracy Now! in New York. For Britons, the Stephen Lawrence case was a watershed moment in race relations in that country, and a turning point on the problems of hate crimes and racial violence, and the issue of police corruption and misconduct. In that regard, the significance of this incident was not unlike that of the 1960s riots throughout America's urban centers, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the police torture of Abner Louima, or the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell in New York.

And still today, some black observers, including Stephen's mother Doreen Lawrence, say that little has changed in the way black Britons are treated by the police. Five years after the Macpherson report, an investigation into diversity and the policies, procedures and employment practices in the Metropolitan police called for change. Meanwhile, today the London police still maintain a white male culture. Hate crimes against minority groups continue. Parliament could pass legislation that would dismantle the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the regulatory body established after Lawrence's death that brought transparency and structure to the handling of complaints against the police. And a British prison system eager to emulate the U.S. -- that is, the "land of the free" with its pernicious war on terror and its prison-industrial-complex -- incarcerates black, Asian and increasingly Muslim men at a disproportionate rate.

So, will the family of Stephen Lawrence finally find justice in a London courtroom? I don't have the answer, but we can only hope. In any case, there's much work to do, in Britain and here in America.

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