“DESPITE THESE VERDICTS, TODAY IS NOT A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION…WE ARE JUST ONE FAMILY AMONG HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS STILL SUFFERING” (Doreen Lawrence)
JUST West Yorkshire welcomes the guilty verdict of Gary Dobson and David Norris and the imposition of minimum sentences of 15 years and 2 months and 14 years and 3 months respectively, almost two decades after the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The verdict represents a landmark decision which declares categorically that race has to be considered in the context of a crime. While the tenacious and dignified struggle of Doreen and Neville Lawrence has come to symbolise the fight for racial justice, yet another family is grieving over the murder of their son Anuj Bidve, an overseas Indian post-graduate who was callously shot in the head on Boxing Day in Manchester.
Like Stephen who had aspirations of a career in architecture, Anuj too had a promising career in microelectronics ahead of him. The failure of the Manchester police to inform the Bidve family of their son’s death or to keep them posted on the status of the investigation has ominous overtones of the Metropolitan Police’s treatment of the Lawrence family in the immediate aftermath of their son’s murder. The Met’s disregard for victims’ families became a central recommendation in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report in which the presiding judge Lord Macpherson called on: “Senior Investigating Officers and Family Liaison Officers be made aware that good practice and their positive duty shall be the satisfactory management of family liaison, together with the provision to a victim’s family of all possible information about the crime and its investigation.“(Chapter 47, point 26, Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Recommendations)
The fact that the Bidve family only learnt of their son’s death on Facebook merely highlights how the Report’s Recommendations, have been kicked into the long grass, despite assurances from polices forces across the UK that the Macpherson recommendations are integral to policing practice. The abandonment of the monitoring group that oversees the implementation of the Macpherson recommendations represents a complacency in policing practice at a time when racist crimes continue to be committed.
The Lawrences’ 18-year campaign for justice has been a running sore which has held up a mirror to the racism that still dogs parts of British society. In this context the Prime Minister’s statement to the Lawrence family, outlining his hope that the outcome “brings at least some comfort after their years of struggle” provides cold comfort at a time when his government is actively undermining the equalities and human rights agenda and delivering racially and religiously divisive speeches, which make BME lives unsafe on British streets.
The Lawrence campaign highlights the dual capacity of British politics and the press and the media to either bridge or create divides. The Lawrence campaign became a cause célèbre due to the weight that the Daily Mail threw behind the Lawrence family’s campaign for justice. Similarly the decision by the Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw to set up a public inquiry was instrumental in adding political weight behind the Lawrence’s struggle. If politics is to be a force for good then David Cameron would do well to devise a robust policy framework that delivers a Just Society rather than tinker on the edges with the rhetoric of the Big Society.
It is apparent that the jury conviction of the 2 suspects would not have been possible without the Metropolitan police’s decision to undertake a cold case review, the leading role of Scotland Yard’s Clive Driscoll in pursuing the investigation and the forensics team’s painstaking role in in pursuing the investigation. However the court proceedings revealed that justice might have yet been perverted, as the basic safeguards that should have been observed to prevent contamination of crucial material evidence, had been clearly ignored. The criticism leveled at the Metropolitan police in Doreen Lawrence’s poignant statement following the guilty verdict, highlights the personal and emotional burden she has been carrying. “Had the police done their job properly I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court.”
JUST believes that the Metropolitan Police has crucial questions to answer as to how and why the contamination of vital evidence occurred. Unless there is an urgent review of present procedures and clear processes on the preservation of key evidence across all police forces, the pain that the Lawrence family had to endure is likely to be repeated.
So has justice been served in the Stephen Lawrence case? The Acting Chief Constable of Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick believes that the campaign of the Lawrence family has led to major changes towards racism in law, policing and society as a whole.
She is correct in so far as in the decade since the Macpherson Report, the legal framework has undoubtedly been strengthened and BME communities enjoy better safeguards, albeit with a higher threshold of proof for race hate crimes.
In policing and criminal justice terms however the statistics point to the disproportionate targeting of BME people: 1 in 4 of the prison population is Black; young men are 8-10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White men; more BME police officers are leaving the service compared to their white counterparts; a disproportionate number of deaths following contact with the police are of Black people; almost half the deaths of people in police custody are mental health service users; deaths of those detained under the Mental Health Act account for 62 per cent of all deaths in state custody.
The disproportionate targeting of BME young men is not just specific to London but plagues young people in West Yorkshire too as a video compiled by JUST West Yorkshire in the immediate aftermath of the 7 July London bombings and the introduction of draconian anti-terror legislation revealed. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCdIGO5tvbY&feature=youtu.be )
Recent proposals by the police to purchase water cannons, deploy rubber bullets and use disabling laser technology to quell future riots, highlight the continued use of punitive measures to policing young people and the BME community.
As for the Met’s third claim that the Lawrence campaign has led to a transformative change in attitudes towards racism within British society, the response of Anuj Bidve’s father is instructive in this regard. When asked about the experience of fellow Indians in the UK, he said: “all my friends who have been to the UK have had some sort of bad experience there.”
This might not be wholly accurate but for BME communities, in the decade since the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report they have witnessed a number of alarming trends: the resonance of far-right ideas within sections of the British electorate; government policy which continues to define BME and particularly Muslim communities as the Other; anti-immigration, anti-asylum and anti-immigrant stories that drive the sale of the tabloid press. The split along the fault-lines of race and religion that are occurring within British society while the frameworks which enshrine minority rights – Equality legislation, civil liberties and human rights – are coming under relentless attack, creates a nervousness about the place of the BME citizen within British society.
The experience of the Bidve family in relation to the treatment they have received at the hands of the Manchester Police, highlights that almost a decade since the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report and the introduction of the term Institutional Racism, the definition and the Recommendations have even greater saliency.
It is a very sensitive issue for any Indian. If someone dies, we have to perform all the rites. We burn the body on the day of death and for the next 13 days we have to do several other things, otherwise the soul might not rest in peace … (we) were ready to fly to Britain to bring the body home, but despite help from the Indian authorities there had been no progress in getting it released. They say the investigation is still pending, the charge sheet has not been filed and a second postmortem is still pending. The holidays are taking their toll. If there were more people working, we would not have to wait so long.
Until there is a radical change to policing responses in relation to hate crime and murders police forces across England would do well to heed Doreen Lawrence’s appeal “not to use my son’s name to say that we can move on” because “racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country.”
The call from the Bidve family to the British authorities “to help us to believe again that Britain is not a racist place” echoes the cry of the Lawrence family for fair justice. The renewed commitment of public bodies to the definition of Institutional Racism and the wholesale adoption of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report recommendations may be an effective starting point on the journey towards Fair Justice for ALL.
As Stephen’s father so aptly put in his statement: “Something has happened over the last 7 weeks, I have seen justice been done. I will let this good news sink in however I’m conscious there were five or six other attackers. I don’t think I will be able to rest until they are brought to justice.”
Ratna Lachman Director