Now that Doreen Lawrence has been made a life peer, her canonisation by the British establishment is pretty much complete. But while her undoubted achievements are lauded by the entire British political class, other campaigns related to racist murders and unlawful killings continue to be systematically obstructed and obfuscated by the state and its institutions: campaigns for justice for Sean Riggs, Azelle Rodney, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Jimmy Mubenga and more; campaigns which the state would no doubt prefer us not to know about, much less to join.
Over the past 20 years, we have become used to hearing newsreaders say: “Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence…” And it is worth reminding ourselves of exactly who this woman is, and why she was thrust into the limelight: Doreen was a mother seeking justice for the murder of her innocent son, cut down in his prime while going about his lawful business; a mother who, assisted by the wider African and Asian community, was able to place her son’s murder by white racists in context; a mother who was able to gain strength from the active and prolonged support of activists and campaigners within this wider black community, many of whom kick-started the campaign that supported the Lawrence family in holding the Metropolitan police and the home secretary to account for the investigation of Stephen’s murder. I long to see a more mature and dispassionate debate about why Doreen Lawrence is put on a pedestal while others are not, without people feeling that one is being “irreverent” to this courageous woman by raising the question.
I believe that extricating Doreen from the wider collective campaign that was launched after Stephen’s death – a campaign that sent such a strong message to the country that it needed a high-level government response – plays into the cult of individualism. By portraying her achievements as a victory for one solitary grieving mother, the power of – and the need for – collective action is dismissed. To say that is not to detract from Doreen’s enduring grief and steely determination, but rather to acknowledge that Stephen was a proxy for any of our children. He was not specially chosen as a victim; his assailants had no reason to single him out. That is why so many ordinary parents and young people, as well as activists who had already been part of many similar campaigns, spent years campaigning with the Lawrence family.
As Lester Holloway, the Liberal Democrats’ most influential black voice, has forcefully argued, it is only by revisiting the Stephen Lawrence agenda, as opposed to remembering Stephen Lawrence or honouring his brave mother, that we will make progress.
Holloway went on to write: “In that sense, while I welcome Doreen’s new peership, if anyone will make an impact in reviving this agenda it is Professor John [that’s me]. If he was a lord he would stand up for the Stephen Lawrence agenda and articulate the arguments … in a way that would shake the upper house to its foundations.” Generous sentiments indeed! However, my position is clear: I have no wish to become a lord. While I do not deny any member of the African or Asian diaspora in Britain the right to aspire to such a position, the question is: what difference would it make?
In the time I have left, I would rather support the empowerment of ordinary working people, of the dispossessed, marginalised and vulnerable, than put my energy into a system that enables the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne, aided and abetted by a vacuous opposition, to erase the fundamental rights for which heroic generations gave their liberty and their lives.
Given the profile she had already, Doreen Lawrence could have sent out a powerful message about the many other bereaved families who are being failed by the system if she had turned down the peerage and called on the government to act, similarly, on those cases.
This article was published by The Guardian on August 7th 2013