Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
The anger over the Stephen Lawrence case shows no sign of going away. Peter Morgan spoke to some of those attending a meeting on the issue in Leicester.
'The issue of Stephen Lawrence has brought racism to the forefront of every community up and down the country. R has forced people to take notice.' These are the words of Astril McKoy, a young black woman who, along with over 150 other people, came to a meeting in Leicester on British justice last month. They came to hear speakers from both the Stephen Lawrence Family and Ricky Reel campaigns, along with socialists and activists who have been campaigning over the issue of racism and police harassment.
Listening to the experience of Astril McKoy it is clear to see why the murder of Stephen Lawrence has struck a chord with so many people. 'I'm a mother of four teenagers,' she explains. 'I'd always taught them and brought them up to respect the police. But that all changed when I was viciously beaten by the police a number of years ago in Birmingham. Now my children have no respect for the police. After we moved to Leicester, my children were attacked by racists. But what did the police do? They defended the racists. This is why the Stephen Lawrence inquiry is important--racism exists and it is the police who are the biggest instigators. They have no respect for black people or working class people--black and white. I am here today to be heard--to say to people to stand up, stand firm and speak out.'
It was the most angry speech of the night, and as you looked round the room virtually everyone was nodding. Everyone had admiration for what the Lawrence family have done - 'dignity' and 'courage' were the words used by so many people. Vasanthi is a young student at Leicester University and she said, 'There is widespread sympathy for the Stephen Lawrence family-most of my friends at college sympathise with them.' Clive McKoy argued, 'It would have been very easy for the family to go down under the strain, but they have pushed, stood up and played a very significant role! But the sympathy was also ringed with anger for the ordeal the Lawrences have been put through. 'You've got to admire them for what they've done', said Judith Dixon and Lorraine McCollin, 'but what else could they do? In fact they have been forced to campaign for too long since their lad was killed!
But it is clear speaking to people in Leicester that the Lawrence case symbolises a whole catalogue of injustices. Zoe Sheppard and Natasha Deacon, two young black community workers, said 'the Stephen Lawrence case has opened the door to what has been kept quiet.
Protesters outside the Stephen Lawrence inquiry confronted by the police
The family has pushed and pushed and exposed the police for what they are. But it's not just the Stephen Lawrence case--we all know someone who's been attacked. There is no justice in this country.'
Gurjit works in the local council housing department. 'Racism is not just confined to London,' she said, 'it happens in Leicester as well. In my job I know of many people who have been harassed and even some who have been firebombed. This is not something new--we deal with this all the time. But I want to know, what do we do now? It's no good having a meeting if nothing is going to happen afterwards. How do we get more people involved?'
Part two of the inquiry will start this month when there is the possibility that it will visit different parts of the country. As Asad Rahman from the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign explained, this second part is absolutely crucial. 'So far the support has been absolutely brilliant--there's no doubt all of this has taken us a step forward. But the real important bit starts now. The police knew they would get a bad press from the first part but they are absolutely determined that nothing significant will change out of the inquiry.
They are arguing that, yes, mistakes were made in 1993 but that is five years ago. Things are different now. The family know this is complete rubbish. The police were racist then and they are racist now. So, yes, we want the sacking of Paul Condon, but we also want the whole criminal justice system changed. It's great that so many people have supported us, but people must organise and demand change. We're now in a position to change things. People must get along to the inquiry so they can see how much racism there is in Britain today. And the Lawrence Campaign has called a demonstration at the end of October--this is crucial.'
This was what people wanted to hear--the fact that there is something to organise around. 'The demonstration must be compulsory,' said Telford Brown after the meeting. 'I've felt angry about this for a long time, but I didn't realise so many other people did. I was in the navy for 14 years so I know all about prejudice. But when we talk about the police they are all corrupt.' This was echoed by Warren, a security officer: 'The demonstration is a great idea because at last it gives black people the opportunity to show what they feel about the police.'
It is clear from the mood at this meeting that people are fed up with waiting for something to be done. Zoe and Natasha were absolutely adamant that nothing will come from Labour out of all this: 'We've no faith in Tony Blair - if anything he's even more conservative than the Tories. A demonstration in October will be massive because it will involve all those who suffer injustice--whether it be racism, sexism, homophobia. Look at Labour over the age of consent--they just folded and backed down.'
Ajit Sandhu, from the Indian Workers Association, was just as forceful: 'The policy of every government in this country has always been racist, as well as government institutions. We must demand that people fight this, and they must do this by uniting.' And Sukhchan Singh put it like this: 'When one person fights then barely anyone listens. But when you have ten people fighting people are forced to take note. Protesting, involving everyone, is the only way to get noticed.' 'I've got no faith in the Labour Party', said Astril McKoy. 'In fact I have no faith in the law of the land. The police are given too much leeway and they carry out too much injustice. All of this is upheld by the government no matter who is in power. Look at the police complaints authority-all done by the police and supported by the government.'
It is clear that the Stephen Lawrence case has tapped into a groundswell of anger and outrage against the racist murderers and the police. But what also came out from this meeting in Leicester, and from the many others that have taken place up and down the country, is the tremendous frustration at a society that breeds such racism, and a real desire to do something about it.