Killers sentenced in UK’s defining race case
It took 18 years of cover-ups and denials but two men have finally been jailed for the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence. The whole of the UK is gripped. But why?
An 18-year-old boy is killed at a bus stop in South London. Yesterday – 18 years later – two men are sent to jail for his murder.
Reduced to bare essentials, the facts of the Stephen Lawrence case are nothing remarkable. Like most countries, the UK has numerous murder cases. Some of them take decades to come to justice.
But yesterday’s sentencing of the killers David Norris and Gary Dobson for what the judge called a ‘murder which scarred the conscience of the nation’ is a front page story all across Britain today.
In fact, the Lawrence trial has been dominating the news all week. On Monday BBC’s Panorama concluded a full year of preparations with its special programme ‘Stephen Lawrence: Time For Justice’. Every single serious media platform in the UK will have its say. Among those who rushed to comment yesterday are the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the Archbishop of York.
Why? The answer is that the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 triggered a national debate about racism. The judge yesterday described the crime itself. ‘A totally innocent 18-year-old youth on the threshold of a promising life was brutally cut down in the street in front of eye witnesses by a racist thuggish gang’. The victim was black. All the members of the gang were white.
Gradually, after seven police investigations, the relentless pressure of the victim’s parents, an extraordinary campaign by the Daily Mail and the intervention of a succession of Home Secretaries, a shocking self-portrait of Britain emerged showing a deeply prejudiced society in which black people were routinely treated as second class citizens or worse.
Even more shocking: prejudice on the streets was mirrored inside the establishment – including the police, the media and politics. Stephen Lawrence’s death, some said, implicated everyone.
On the day after the murder, reports suggested that it was a gang killing, that Stephen Lawrence had provoked his attackers, that it was a fight about drugs or about a girl. None of this turned out to be supported by any evidence – but many still believe that racism in the UK is not as harmful as drugs or crime.
Other commentators are arguing publicly today that the lessons of the Lawrence case have still not been properly learned. The racism of violence and thuggery on British streets may be less widespread (though it still exists). But they argue that the subtler kind of racism which pervaded British institutions in 1993 is still very much alive and kicking; and that people in ethnic minorities are still routinely disadvantaged in the UK by collective prejudice and denial.
- ‘The best cure for racism is travel.’ What do you think?
- Four years after the murder, the police had given up the chase. Then the Daily Mail ran a huge front page photo of the main suspects under the headline MURDERERS. It worked. But was this a good way to secure justice?
- Look up the word racism in three different dictionaries or encyclopedias. Write down a list of different definitions. Highlight the one you think best and share it with the class.
- Write a short letter to your MP about the problem of racism as you see and experience it. You might say that it is never a problem in your life at all; you might say that you have witnessed some very nasty examples. Both extremes are equally interesting.
Some People Say...
“Racism is a problem that will never be solved.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What difference will this make?
- Certain events in public life arecatalysts for change: they become symbolically important as a result. The Lawrence case is one of these. Yesterday’s judgement will probably ensure that life is never quite the same again for anyone living in Britain.
- In what ways?
- In three ways. First, after the terrible publicity they have had, the Metropolitan Police (and probably all the British police) will never again be complacent or casual about a racial murder investigation. Second, the example of the Lawrence parents who never once gave up their campaign for justice will inspire many others to make their own difference. Third, the sentencing of the killers and the fierce investigation of other members of the gang will send a warning to pockets of Britain where racism is still rife.
- Eye witnesses
- An eye witness is someone who has seen a crime happen with their own eyes. Eye witness testimony is considered strong evidence in court. Interestingly, though, psychological studies have shown that eye witnesses may be much less reliable than commonly thought, and that most people remember dramatic events very poorly, if at all.
- Home Secretaries
- The Home Secretary is the British minister in charge of prisons and the legal system.
- To be implicated in a crime is to share some of the guilt or responsibility.
- The word ‘thug’ now simply means a violent criminal. Originally, it comes from the name of an Indian fraternity of bandits, the thuggees, notorious for strangling their victims during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
- In science, a catalyst is something that speeds up a particular chemical reaction. Metaphorically speaking, a catalyst is anything which provokes or causes change.