Friday, 6 January 2012

The Stephen Lawrence verdict

On Tuesday, Gary Dobson and David Norris were found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. For Lawrence's parents, this was the vindication of an 18-year hunt for justice, perhaps some closure over the death of their son. For others, it has proved another occasion to promote their own agendas and to re-awaken old vendettas.

The most significant fallout from the Stephen Lawrence murder is that - via the MacPherson Report - it exposed the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police. The recommendations that came with this revelation can be seen as one of the main drivers of an institutional focus on diversity and race relations, and thus the "political correctness" that would become the bug bear of both the conservative and far right. The Lawrence verdict, particularly as a counterpoint to other events, has become an excuse to wheel out the same arguments.

For example, one article doing the rounds - re-blogged by BNP supporter Centurean2 and ex-BNP, now British Freedom Party supporter Lee Barnes - is this one over at the Libertarian Alliance. In it, Robert Henderson "contrast[s] the elite response to [Richard Everitt's] death and that of Stephen Lawrence." He notes that whilst Everitt's murder was also racially motivated, "there has been no public inquiry into Richard’s murder," "there has been no concerted media campaign stretching over nearly two decades" and "pressure was put on Richard’s parents at the time to go along with the usual Maoist pc line that they were not racist and so on." This proves that "in really important matters such as the administration of justice [political correctness] was already solidly entrenched two decades ago."

However, presuming that use of the phrase "Maoist pc line" hadn't already set alarm bells ringing, there are glaring holes in this narrative. For one, as Henderson himself points out, "the gang were arrested the same night for a separate incident" which saw Richard's blood found on them. "After nine months the police had arrested 11 people in connection with the murder," and two people were jailed in connection with the crime in 1997 - three years after the murder.

It is true that the entire gang involved did not face trial, let alone sentencing, and that there appear to be serious problems with the way in which this issue was dealt. But, in trying to prove that somehow Lawrence's murder was taken more seriously, Henderson is on to a loser. Let's not forget that the Lawrence murder took eighteen years to see any kind of resolution, and that the killing wasn't the result of a mass campaign and parliamentary inquiry on the basis of being a racist murder - it was so because of a mishandled police investigation, rooted in the Met's institutional racism.

Casuals United take issue with the fact that the Attorney General considers the sentencing in the Lawrence case "unduly lenient." Trotting out cases of white people being killed where they consider the sentence lenient, they thus conclude "our legal sytem is dominated by political correctness and is not there for white people, except to persecute them." Thus, the fact that bad things also happen to white people with shitty redress (and that Stephen Lawrence's parents were able to build a campaign with considerable momentum and support) becomes proof that non-white people are somehow privileged and political correctness has run rampant. Though, if you want to see what that argument boils down to with all sophistry removed, I'd suggest a quick glimpse of this Facebook thread.

As an example of how far this ridiculous, desperate scramble to salvage white victimhood goes is in the response to what Diane Abbott said on Twitter. In fact, the only mention on the BNP website of the Stephen Lawrence verdict is the briefest of references when bemoaning Abbott's turn as an "anti-British bigot." Which is, of course, an utterly ridiculous comment coming from someone with as long and proud a history of bigotry as Griffin has.

What Abbott said was "White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game." This, as Adam Ford points out, was not offered as a reference to the tactics of colonialism - tactics that remain in force today. The ruling class have long played off one section of the working class against another in order to avoid being challenged themselves, and racism is just one example of this. It is true that "by couching her Tweet in purely ethnic terms, Abbott has laid herself open to easy and convenient accusations of racism," but that doesn't mean that it was racist.

If anything, the context of her tweet actually leaves her open to criticism from the opposite direction. Namely, that she was incorrectly referencing the divide-and-rule tactic in order to silence a legitimate criticism of official, state multiculturalism by another black person. Journalist Bim Adewunmi had tweeted "I do wish everyone would stop saying 'the black community'," clarifying that "I hate the generally lazy thinking behind the use of the term. Same for 'black community leaders'."

This was a legitimate point, since the liberal habit of referring to imaginary, homogeneous "communities" has long been used for political capital, with "community leaders" having funding thrown at them in exchange for votes. Meanwhile, it serves only to emphasise ethnic separation (albeit from a "progressive" point of view) and over-write issues such as class. In defence of this practice, Abbott responded to Adewnmi's criticism by declaring "you are playing into a "divide and rule" agenda" and later, "ethnic communities that show more public solidarity & unity than black people do much better," with the hashtag #dontwashdirtylineninpublic - in other words, shut up and accept the official line.

Ultimately, Abbott was herself playing divide and rule - in its multicultural rather than colonial guise. But to suggest that it is racist, thus equating a reference to colonial tactics to suppress non-whites with the insinuation that all blacks are criminals or all Muslims terrorists, is a nonsense.

Returning to the Lawrence case itself, here too there are serious criticisms to be made about how it was handled. For example the cynical opportunism with which people attached themselves to the cause - not least the Daily Mail, who have claimed an enormous amount of credit yet started out with a considerably more hostile editorial line. Yet this is nothing new, nor exclusive to cases of racist murder. We might remember how Tony Blair used the murder of James Bulger to raise his profile, as David Cameron exploited the case of the "torture brothers", or tabloid hysteria over any number of high profile murders and disappearences. Cynical political maneuvering doesn't equal political correctness.

Also of concern is the change in the law which resulted in this conviction - the removal of "double jeopardy." In essence, where once people were protected from being tried for the same crime twice, they are now not. This is something with potentially far-reaching civil liberties implications, and a point that I can't claim to have an answer to. It could be said that this is the inevitable result of campaigning for the state to intervene on your behalf - especially given the government's form in this area.

This is not something that can be laid at the feet of the Stephen Lawrence campaign or of "political correctness." The lesson here is only that a racist murder doesn't change the interest of the state to consolidate its own power. Meanwhile, beyond the fury, opportunism and right-wing propaganda, the verdict may bring a sense of closure and justice to at least two people.