The Murder of Stephen Lawrence: Lessons for Europe

Dr Iyiola Solanke

Stephen Lawrence was 18 when he died on a street in south London from two stab wounds. 18 years later, two of the men involved in the racist attack on that night have been found guilty of his murder. Nine suspects remain at large – the case is therefore still open. During the last 18 years there have been two failed public prosecutions; one failed private prosecution, an intervention from Nelson Mandela, a public inquiry and a change to the rules on double jeopardy. Standing back to take all this in, the verdict defies words. For the family it must feel like a bitter-sweet miracle. You may ask yourself – what has this got to do with Europe? Well, the European Union has competence to make laws to prohibit racial discrimination and the Court of Justice has jurisdiction to interpret them. There are at least six lessons on racial equality and racial justice which the Union can take from this tragic British tale.

1. Race and data: it is now accepted that Stephen was attacked and murdered for no other reason than the colour of his skin. There are black boys just like him living all over Europe, many of whom will be EU citizens. Their exact number remains unknown as most member states refuse to collect racial data – although some do so in order to monitor crime rather than address racism. Because we collect such information in Britain, we know that, sadly, Stephen was not the only black boy to die at the hands of racists in that part of south London. This transparency provided the public with the knowledge that the police were in general failing to provide justice to black families. It was therefore a crucial tool in the long campaign: without it, the police may not have had a case to answer. EU leaders can learn from this – whilst such information about racial discrimination is absent in most parts of the EU, justice can be denied for black EU citizens.

2. Race and law: Britain recognised and passed legislation to address the social consequences of race in the 1960s. The first Race Relations Act was passed in 1965; following repeals and reforms in 1968 and 1976, it has now been incorporated into the Equality Act 2010. When Stephen was murdered in 1993, Britain therefore had already developed a level of public discourse on racial discrimination, even if key institutions such as the police remained contaminated. The concept was not new to politicians or the public. There was a clear understanding of the meaning of race and racism. This is not the case in most of the EU. Many member states have only recently introduced similar levels of protection as a result of action by the European Union: a binding anti-racial discrimination law – the Race Directive 2000/43 – was created in 2000. It requires all 28 member states to provide an accessible remedy for racial discrimination. Although it should have been fully transposed by 2003, implementation has been slow and enforcement patchy.  In one member state – Germany – it has had the curious consequence of creating an enforcement body – the German Human Rights Institute – that has led a campaign, supported by the Left Coalition in the German Parliament, to remove the word ‘race’ from Article 3 of the German Constitution. What is the Race Directive in the absence of the concept of race? Without an understanding of race and racism, black EU citizens lack freedom in their own member state and worse still cannot enjoy the freedom of movement throughout the EU endowed by Art 21 TFEU. If racial equality in the EU is to become a reality, EU leaders must take firm action to address attempts by the member states to undermine the Race Directive.

3. Policing – much has been written on the troubled relationship between the police in Britain and its black citizens, especially black males: recently Smiley Culture, a reggae/pop star in the 1980s, died during a police raid on his home. This tension informed the police response when they arrived on the scene where Stephen lay dying. They did not call an ambulance or try to administer first aid to stem the flow of his blood; they did not give chase to the gang but instead interrogated Stephen’s friend, Dwayne Brooks, who had called them for help. Why? Because they were dealing with two black boys and assumed that they were at the scene of a drugs deal gone wrong. As Lord Macpherson concluded, these assumptions were made solely because two boys were black. This was one manifestation of ‘institutional racism’ – a collective failure of the police as an organisation to serve black people. If an institutionally racist culture can exist in Britain with its history of race relations legislation, education and other initiatives, what is to be expected of forces in other parts of the EU, where ‘race’ remains a contested concept? In Spain, a local policeman was vindicated by his superiors and all the way to the Spanish Supreme Court for performing an identity check on Mrs LeCraft, a black woman, as she disembarked a local train with her white husband and child for no reason other than her skin colour. For black EU citizens, therefore, the increasing levels of cross-EU co-operation in the field of policing can give rise to concern rather than comfort. How secure are black EU citizens as they try to enjoy their Treaty rights across the Union – will the police protect or persecute them?[1] If co-operation in criminal justice is not to result in the spread of racial injustice, the EU needs to incorporate a programme to rout out racism in policing in the EU. Without action to tackle racism in policing, the Union is not a space for freedom, justice or security for black EU citizens.

4. Public Inquiries – as well as finding institutional racism, the Macpherson Inquiry found evidence of police incompetence: despite receiving 26 tip-offs within 48 hours of the murder the police made no arrests. They even filmed one of the gang-members leaving his house with a black bin-liner, perhaps full of relevant evidence. The findings of the inquiry were a crucial juncture in the road to justice for the Lawrence family. Britain has a history of such inquiries into race in Britain. The first was perhaps the Rose Study of 1964, which explored the profile and distribution of Britain’s black community and created knowledge used to inform legal reform. The PEP report of 1968 is another example as is the report by Lord Scarman after the Brixton riots in 1981. How common is this culture of public inquiries into black communities and racial tensions in other parts of the European Union? Was there are enquiry into the success of Jorg Haider in Austria? The deaths at Sollingen in Germany? The unrest in the banlieus in France? The lesson for Europe is that if it is serious about getting rid of racism, it must invest the resources to study and understand it in all its guises. It requires more than introduction and implementation of a formal law.

5. Language – the N-word need not be spelt out. This racist epithet was used twice as Stephen was stabbed. It is heard repeatedly on the secret video recording of the gang made by the police during their second investigation in 1994. During the MacPherson Inquiry it became clear that police officers were themselves in the habit of using the term. In 2002 the German Press Authority decided that the word was not racist. Comments – presumably by lawyers or law students – on a recent German judgement denouncing use of the word make interesting reading. Last year a theatre in Hannover decided to use the original title for its performance of Agatha Christie‘s ‘And Then There Were None’. One can only wonder why. This word is always an insult, even in football, that most European of sports. Luis Suarez claimed that his use of the N-word to address Patrice Evra was friendly and conciliatory and may have believed like Sepp Blatter that racism in football could be settled with a handshake.[2] The Football Association has thankfully stood up to this shameful attempt to dismiss racism: both men still have their jobs but Suarez was landed with a ban for 8 matches and a 40,000 fine. The fate of John Terry following the CPS prosecution remains to be seen. In this instance the Football Association have provided an example which European leaders should follow: there is no place for  ambivalence- they must commit to kick use of the N-word out of social discourse in the Union. It has the same derogatory and insulting meaning in any language.

6. Cause lawyers– the road to these convictions was long and winding. The CPS dropped murder charges after two failed investigations. The family failed in its private prosecution. It was clear that the police and the Conservative administration at the time did not want to listen to the Lawrences. They had to battle not only with an intransigent and incompetent police force, but also the CPS and the judiciary. It took the intervention of Nelson Mandela to embarrass the police into action. Mandela’s intervention also spurred politicians into action: on the eve of a national election, Labour pledged an inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. It fulfilled that pledge with the Macpherson Inquiry. The point here is that the battle which came to an interim end on January 3 2012 actually required more than a sophisticated DNA test and a jury: it also required more than the tenacity and determination of the family: it required an establishment with members willing to question it and lawyers willing to pursue this cause, sometimes at risk to their own professional reputation. Such ‘cause lawyers’ are few and far between in jurisdictions where legal education focuses on legal doctrine and the interests of the state. Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon is a rare European example, but where are the others? The EU needs to take action to ensure that its legal system is not only sensitive to the concerns of black EU citizens but also responsive to them. It can begin by paying as much attention to racial representation in its legal institutions as is given to gender.

Thus the verdict is not only important for Britain, but contains lessons for Europe. Stephen may have been killed in Britain but there are young black men just like him – intelligent, ambitious – growing up in all parts of the European Union. Without data to demonstrate otherwise, we can assume that they suffer under the same unreconstructed racism that informed the police actions on that fateful evening in 1993. Yet it is unlikely that this delayed verdict would have happened if Stephen were killed in another member state. Britain has a long-standing recognition and definition of racism, so even the Metropolitan Police knew that the behaviour of its officers in 1993 was wrong; Britain also has an accessible political structure, so the Lawrences could organise a campaign to make their pain audible and visible to politicians and the nation – in our newspapers and on our televisions we saw an ordinary family grieving for the death of their innocent son and knew that what had happened was wrong. Finally, legal education in Britain goes beyond the study of doctrine, so legal professionals like Imran Khan, Jocelyn Cockburn and Michael Mansfield recognised racial injustice and worked tirelessly to reverse this, standing with the family against the power of the state. Which other member state in Europe can claim these attributes? It goes without saying that European integration is not a project to create continental uniformity, but without an unequivocal commitment in Brussels and Luxembourg to racial equality and justice for black EU citizens, there will never be a ‘peoples of Europe’. This tale has ‘scared’ the conscience of Britain and should stir the conscience of Europe. The EU must take the lead here: ensuring that every police officer and cadet in the Union knows and understands the sad story of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence would be a good starting point.


One thought on “The Murder of Stephen Lawrence: Lessons for Europe

  1. I am glad to read a commentary that puts this latest step in a wider context. One that is needed to be brought to the public. I am pleased to see the deeper implications of what it means to be a citizen of Europe and what is needed to make it real

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