Police End Stephen Lawrence Murder Probe That Showed U.K. Racism

When London police pulled over the Black driver of a BMW on Sunday, his passenger, a Black lawmaker, found her mind going back to the racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

Labour Member of Parliament Dawn Butler filmed the police as they explained they had stopped the car because they were targeting gang crime in North London, and their computer had initially and incorrectly shown the car registered in another part of the country. She was unconvinced.

Police End Stephen Lawrence Murder Probe That Showed U.K. Racism

“If you’re profiling people because of the color of their skin, that’s an inappropriate reason to stop,” Butler told the officers. Her question was whether what was really behind the stop was institutional racism.

That phrase was imported into British usage in 1999 by William Macpherson, a judge, in the conclusions of his inquiry into the killing of Lawrence, an 18-year-old who planned to become an architect. It was a moment that had a profound impact on British society.

Lawrence’s murder by a gang of White youths is many British people’s point of reference in thinking about the Black Lives Matter protests and the death of George Floyd. Which is why the announcement Tuesday by London’s Metropolitan Police, that their investigation into the 1993 killing would “move to an inactive phase” after all lines of enquiry were completed is so significant, even 27 years on.

Police End Stephen Lawrence Murder Probe That Showed U.K. Racism

“It was a touchstone moment,” said Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank that looks at identity and integration. “It’s similar to George Floyd, especially in the sense that there are many George Floyds, and quite a few Stephen Lawrences, but a set of particular factors made these cases break through.”

Lawrence was with a friend, Duwayne Brooks, when they were attacked in South London. He didn’t know his killers, nor they him: The attack was motivated entirely by the color of his skin, prosecutors said in 2011.

Investigation Incompetence

The police investigation that followed was marked by incompetence and insensitivity. Even though officers were told the identities of suspects within days, they moved slowly to investigate or arrest them. Instead, Stephen’s parents Doreen and Neville felt they were being treated as criminals.

”It was a patronizing way in which they dealt with me and that came across as being racist,” Doreen later said.

Even once the five suspects had been arrested, prosecutors refused to pursue the case, saying the evidence was insufficient. Three years later, in an extraordinary step, the Lawrences took the men to court themselves, but the case collapsed.

By then, the case was becoming a cause celebre in British politics, driven by the suspicion that, had the Lawrences been White, the police would have treated it completely differently. The Daily Mail named the suspects on its front page as Stephen’s killers, telling them to sue for libel if this was untrue. They didn’t.

“Middle England found it was looking at this case through the eyes of Doreen Lawrence,” said Katwala. “Lots of people experienced this case of racism like they never had before.” Doreen and Neville co-founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust in 1998 to tackle inequality through education. Bloomberg is a corporate philanthropy partner of the organization.

When Tony Blair’s Labour Party won power in 1997, determined to build a modern, culturally diverse society, one of its first acts was to appoint Macpherson to head an inquiry. When the suspects arrived to give evidence, they were pelted with eggs, and fought back.

Macpherson’s report, completed in 1999, set out how detectives had assumed that Stephen must have been in a fight, rather than the victim of an attack, and ignored the evidence of Brooks. The treatment of Stephen’s parents had been “patronizing and thoughtless.” Rather than realizing their errors, senior officers had blamed the family for losing trust in the police. “Racism awareness training was almost non-existent at every level.”

‘Institutional Racism’

And then the inquiry’s starkest conclusion: “Institutional racism affects the Metropolitan Police Service, and police services elsewhere.” That phrase had been coined decades earlier in the U.S. by Kwame Ture, who coined the phrase “Black Power” and was prime minister of the Black Panther Party, and civil rights leader Charles V. Hamilton, but it was a new concept in Britain. The idea that an institution whose members didn’t see themselves as racist could behave in a racist way shook a country almost all of whose institutions were dominated by White people.

Boris Johnson, now prime minister, was a critic of Macpherson, saying in 1999 that the report had led to “the cowing of the police.” He returned to the subject the following year, saying officers were unable to investigate crime because they were “stuck on racial awareness programs.” His office didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether he still held those views, but his spokesperson denied on Monday that the Met was institutionally racist after the police apologized to the Labour MP Butler for stopping the car she was in.

Keir Starmer, now leader of the opposition Labour Party, on the other hand, oversaw the successful prosecution of two of Lawrence’s killers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, in 2012 after double jeopardy laws were changed, in part because of campaigning by the Lawrence family.

Still, nearly three decades after the teenager’s murder, and two decades after the Macpherson report, neither the search for justice for the family nor the quest for racial equality in Britain are over. A poll of British ethnic minorities published in July found they were as likely to say racism had increased as decreased in their lifetimes.

Three of the men accused of the murder by the Lawrence family remain unconvicted of it and Neville Lawrence told The Guardian newspaper that he wants the decision to end the investigation overturned.

“The Metropolitan Police have given up,” Doreen Lawrence told the BBC. “I never will.“

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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