For every police murder of a person of color or racist street killing in the United
States, there are mirror cases of death by bigoted cops and street thugs in other places.
Nowhere is this truer than in the United Kingdom.
In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of people of color who have died
in police custody as well as have died from the hands of racists and neo-fascists. In too
many of these cases, the police have done little and guilty parties walked away scot free.
Fortunately, in the case of the killing of Stephen Lawrence, persistence did not let
the case die, and an important victory against racism was won. After more that five years
of determined organization and mass mobilization by activists and community leaders, the
British government has finally conceded that the 1993 murder of Lawrence was
racially-motivated, mishandled by police and state authorities, and that racism is
pervasive and institutional.
Coming home on the night of April 22, 1993, black teenager Lawrence and his friend
Duwayne Brooks were attempting to catch a bus. When Lawrence stepped down the road to see
if the bus was coming, he came across a group of 5 or 6 whites youths who called him a
“nigger,” and then physically attacked him. Lawrence was stabbed twice in the
chest and arm, and after running more than 100 yards, died on the street. This horrible
death shocked a nation where homicide still remains rare. Many believed that the sheer
notoriety of the case would force authorities to expend every effort possible to catch the
perpetrators of this crime.
From that point on, however, every phase of the investigation by the Metropolitan
Police Service (MPS) was botched by either incompetent or uncaring neglect. At the base of
this fiasco was a nagging and disturbing racism that simple did not care that a black
youth had been brutally murdered by a gang of racist brutes. Neither the police nor the
Conservative Party that was in power at the time thought that the case merited serious
attention or further investigation.
Although 5 suspects — who reportedly boasted to their friends about the killing
— were quickly identified by witnesses and people in the neighborhood, no arrests
were made by the police. Somehow, the police investigations turned up no witnesses other
than Brooks even though press reports at the time identified a number of people who said
they saw what happened. There was also no real physical evidence collected from the scene.
Lawrence’s parents and others continue to press their case, however. At one point,
in 1996, three of the suspects were brought to trial in a private prosecution. However,
due to lack of firm evidence and no assistance from the police, the suspects were
acquitted and, most unfortunately, can never be tried again in regards to this case. Two
other suspects were never even brought to trial.
Despite these setbacks, the case continue to gain momentum and symbolized for many
black Britons a pervasive lack of injustice, discrimination, and rising racism against
people of color. The case was kept alive due to the unwillingness of the black community
to let it go. They were soon joined by activists throughout the country and the case
became a cause celebre for anti-racists. Pressure was put on the Labor Party and candidate
Tony Blair was forced, during his run for Prime Minister, to commit to establishing a
commission of inquiry if he was elected. He was and, in 1997, setup a high-level
commission. After many months of testimony and investigation, the commission released its
report in late February and concluded, to a somewhat stunned nation, that “Stephen
Lawrence was unlawfully killed in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white
The inquiry produced a 459-page report with more than 12,000 pages of transcripts from
88 witnesses. It is further estimated that there are more than 100,000 pages of supporting
reports, statements, and other documentation. The release of the report received massive
media coverage for days. Despite all of these documents and the publicity, the report made
it clear that the five known suspects will not be brought to trial.
Yet, the explosive expose of institutional racism rocked all of England from top to
bottom. In an unprecedented move, Blair went on the floor of the House of Commons and
denounced “the racism that still exists in our society.” Sir Paul Condon, head
of Scotland Yard, also declared that “institutional racism” exists in his
department and that a “sense of shame” had grown among police officers due to
their failure to appropriately handle the Lawrence investigation.
Regrettably, while those who committed the Lawrence homicide will not be formally
punished, anti-racist activists feel that they have won a tremendous victory anyway. The
case brought together and mobilized the greatest number of people ever around the issue of
racist violence and institutional police racism.
This is significant because many other cases involving people of color and racist or
police violence still remain. There is the case of Michael Menson who was set on fire by
four white youths in North London in January 1997. As has happened on at least nine other
instances, on January 18, 1999, Roger Sylvester was killed while in police custody under
questionable circumstances. It should also be noted that there are a number of cases of
police frame-ups of black activists such as that of Michael Singh who has been in jail for
10 years although it has now been documented that evidence was destroyed and suppressed in
his case. If the Lawrence case and struggle inspires activists to embrace these and other
cases of blatant discrimination, then perhaps great tragedy can be turned into great