When Stephen met Trayvon

Est. read time: 20 min
Credits: "Stephen Lawrence memorial", by Darryl_SE7 (Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0)

Credits: “Stephen Lawrence memorial”, by Darryl_SE7 (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

Stephen Lawrence – 1993 to 2013 and continuing… Trayvon Martin – 2012 to 2013 and continuing… So, who will guard and police the guards? Who and what are those guards protecting and on whose behalf?

When does ‘neighbourhood watch’ morph into vigilantism, with vigilantes exercising what they see as their moral and God-given right to determine who is acceptable in a neighbourhood and who is not; who could go visit residents without fear of challenge and who should just know that, if they do, they are eligible to be challenged by those who appoint themselves as gatekeepers to exclude people like them?

Who has the inalienable right to walk the street and go wherever they like, irrespective of their dress code and who does not? Who are immediately identified with those of their ethnic or social group who commit crime and engage in anti-social behaviour and from whom the same could be expected automatically and who are not?

Who can presume to have the protection of the law and the services of the police when their rights have been infringed and their person or/and property violated and who cannot?

Why should any society presume that it is held together by liberal democratic values and principles and can export those to, if not impose them upon, others when from childhood every African heritage person born in that country learns that they carry an ethnic penalty that restricts their freedom of movement and access to opportunity and that they forget that fundamental fact at their peril?

Two sets of events in Britain and the USA in the last month have triggered a wave of media comment, posturing by leaders of State and other politicians and righteous outrage on the part of those who stand up for justice and are arraigned in the struggle against oppression and against the denial of fundamental human rights.

There can be no more fundamental a human right than the right to walk the streets and go about your lawful business routinely without fear of harassment, abuse or maiming and murder on account of the colour of your skin, your age, your gender, your physical or mental capacity, or any other defining characteristic.

In Britain, there was shock and expressions of horror and disbelief when it emerged that the British police and the British secret service had been spying on the Lawrence family and witnesses to the murder of Stephen Lawrence and had been corruptly dancing with relatives of Stephen’s murderers in the criminal underworld and offering protection to those murderers, while at the same time systematically trying to discredit Stephen’s family and witnesses to his murder by racists and neo-fascists.

In the USA, African people and those across the globe who have an historical perspective on the targeting and barbaric oppression of African descendants in that country waited to see whether or when George Zimmerman, a self-appointed vigilante in a neighbourhood where he defined African youths as an out-group would be arrested and charged with the murder or at least the manslaughter of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on 26 February 2012. Zimmerman’s arrest and charge were made a full six weeks later and that was after African communities and civil rights groups engaged in mass protest in the USA and elsewhere. On 13 July 2013, a jury of six women, five of them white, found Zimmerman not guilty of murder or manslaughter.

As someone who has been actively engaged in the struggles against those practices for just shy of 50 years, in the criminal justice system, in the police nationwide, in education and schooling, in the health system and in employment, I have observed three interlocking tendencies.

One is the tendency both of the State and its apparatuses and of civil society to see fundamental infringements of people’s basic rights and civil liberties as isolated episodes that bear no relationship one to another. Another is the tendency for the majority group to which those whose rights are being trampled upon belong to believe that they must accept the State’s definition of the entire group and believe the myth that it is acting in their collective interest by targeting those elements that ‘give the vast law-abiding majority a bad name’. The third is for that same majority group to isolate and see as ‘trouble makers’ those who challenge the practices of the State and its institutions and seek to hold them to account, thereby enabling the State to claim that it is controlling ‘unacceptable elements’, criminals and political activists alike, in the name of the majority of law abiding citizens, black and white.

This has been the story of policing, race relations and crime in Britain in the last 60 years, at least.

It explains why within weeks of the British state canonising Doreen Lawrence and celebrating her relentless 20 year campaign for justice for her murdered son, revelations started coming thick and fast about the State’s and the Metropolitan Police Service’s own role in undermining due process and facilitating Stephen’s murderers to escape justice, while targeting those political activists who joined the Lawrence family in demanding answers and holding the State and its police to account. The corruption and blatant abuse of power that is alleged in those reports was not a new phenomenon in 1993, nor was it confined to the Metropolitan Police. The way the police responded to the report of the circumstances surrounding the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was not new to the Met, nor was it unknown in other police forces across the land.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when African and Asian people were being murdered by neo-fascists and white racists in West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and London, to name but a few police force areas, it was not uncommon for the police to respond to reports of such murders by targeting the families mourning their loss and dealing with the trauma of those murders, rather than apprehending the murderers and bringing them to justice.

An Asian taxi driver would be stabbed to death in a frenzied attack aggravated by the mouthing of the foulest racist epithets. The home of an African or Asian family would be firebombed, with human excrement stuffed through the letter box. The police would turn up at the home of the victim(s) and immediately begin checking the immigration status of the occupants of the house in ‘fishing’ expeditions, hoping to bag some ‘illegal immigrants’, while ignoring the evidence the family could give that might help them to apprehend suspects and do so without losing valuable time.

"Support for the family of Jimmy Mubenga" by 4WardEver Campaign UK (Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Support for the family of Jimmy Mubenga” by 4WardEver Campaign UK (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Those fishing expeditions in the aftermath of such murders were part and parcel of similar police and immigration and nationality department raids of ‘sweat shops’, factories and other businesses, or of dwellings in multi-occupation that were carried out routinely across Britain. The ethnic majority, white Britain, and the ‘law abiding’ majority in the Asian and African communities were not expected to protest or complain, irrespective of how persons apprehended were treated by the police or whether the Home Office observed due process in seeking to remove people from Britain, many of whom were legally entitled to be here, because as far as the police and Home Office were concerned, the majority of the society wanted something done about ‘illegal immigration’.

It is this presumption of consensual thinking on the part of the State and a nonchalance about the value of the life and family ties of persons who are stripped of all value and human dignity by being classified as ‘illegal immigrants’, or being denied the right to a family life and deported from Britain on conviction for a criminal offence that leads to tragedies such as the death of Jimmy Mubenga (pictured above) at the hands of three security guards on an aircraft while being removed from the country in October 2010.

When organisations such as the Black Parents Movement (which I chaired), the Asian Youth Movement and The Monitoring Group protested against these outrages, individually and collectively, we were made the subject of further police harassment and surveillance while the neo-fascists rubbed their hands with glee at the way the police determined their priorities.

When I lived in Manchester over a period of some 35 years, my home was burgled four times. Each time, the police were immediately notified and each time they turned up, eventually, only to concern themselves much more with the books I was reading and had in my bookcases, with the displays on my walls and with what I was doing as a political activist, than with the damage done to my home and the losses I had suffered.

On one particular occasion, one detective constable was particularly incensed by a Palestinian scarf hanging on my coat stand and posters on the walls of my study. Why are you supporting the ‘intifada’, he demanded. He became angry and hostile when I told him it was none of his business and that he should be taking prints and trying to recover my stolen property. I told him emphatically that I and my political affiliations were not the focus of his investigation. He left immediately afterwards, making it clear that he did not think their investigations would have a positive outcome.

Having iconised Stephen Lawrence and canonised his mother, leaders of state and other politicians are now expressing shock and outrage that the police could have acted corruptly and collude with others in obstructing the course of justice and enabling Stephen’s murderers to go free. That is because they insist on separating Stephen Lawrence and his parents from all those other victims of racist murder, police oppression, deaths in custody and state denial of fundamental rights and freedoms that have been part of the reality of African and Asian communities in Britain, at least since 1945. It is as if the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was totally without context and history; as if the way the police reacted to Duwayne Brooks and other witnesses and conducted their investigation was totally without historical precedent; as if the entire Stephen Lawrence debacle was dropped from the sky upon an unprepared and unsuspecting nation and its police service.

The campaign against police ‘Stop and Search’ practices targeted at African heritage young people is at least 40 years old. The society witnessed an entire generation of ‘young blacks’ being criminalised through police use of ‘Sus’ laws and widespread racial profiling of African young people, the same profiling that ensured that the police victimised and further traumatised Duwayne Brooks (pictured right) and members of the Lawrence family.

We, as political activists and youth workers with a determination to be relevant in our communities and not see ourselves as running services simply to ‘contain’ young people, had to train and politicise a body of solicitors and barristers in London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere, so that they could understand the context within which the charges laid against those young people were occurring and how, therefore, they should make defendants central to their cases and learn how to work with them, their families and communities to prevent the police and the courts placing them on a conveyor belt for off-loading at young offender institutions and prisons across the land.

This forms the context in which Duwayne Brooks as a key witness to Stephen Lawrence’s murder was treated by the police. It forms the context to the attitudes of the majority of African and Asian youths in urban areas towards the police, especially in the last decade when the government’s ‘Prevent’ agenda as part of the so-called ‘war on terror’ married up with the police operational agenda in respect of African young people.

The Stephen Lawrence murder investigation raises a great many issues. The hard fact is that long before and since the State and its apparatuses adopted Doreen Lawrence and had her going up and down the land drawing attention to the fundamental flaws in the system and its treatment of African and Asian people, there was ample evidence of why things were as they were and why it would take much more than an inquiry such as Sir William Macpherson’s to transform the relationship between the State, the police and African and Asian communities. The problem, though, is that our collective efforts in defence of fundamental rights and freedoms and against structural, cultural, institutional and personal manifestations of racism and the evidence we present to the nation of the way we experience the State and its institutions are either ignored, dismissed or actively resisted.

As early as 1978, Professor Stuart Hall warned of the importance of situating ‘race’ in the context of the state the nation is in and of understanding how ‘race’ is constructed and forms the prism through which the society sees itself, its pretensions, its opportunities and its challenges.

“There is, it seems to me, an overwhelming tendency to abstract questions of race from what one might call their internal social and political basis and contexts in British society – that is to say, to deal with ‘race’ as if it has nothing intrinsically to do with the present ‘condition of England’. It’s viewed rather as an ‘external’ problem, which has been foisted to some extent on English society from the outside: it‘s been visited on us, as it were, from the skies.”

Source: HALL, S (1978) Racism and Reaction. A public talk arranged by the British Sociological Association, given in London on 2 May 1978. In Five Views of Mult-Racial Britain. Talks on Race Relations broadcast by BBC TV. Commission for Racial Equality, London

This is as true of Britain now, some 35 years later, as it was then. It was even more pertinent to the United States of America then and it is no less so now. It is a useful paradigm for interrogating issues to do with race and schooling and education; race and curriculum; race and the study of British social history; race and the study of American history; race and policing; race and the criminal justice system; race, crime and punishment; race and equal employment opportunity; race and economy in Britain and in the USA; race and Britishness; race and ‘the future of multi-ethnic Britain’… and much more besides.

It is a paradigm that highlights the sheer naivety and obfuscation of those who insist that the George Zimmerman shooting dead of Trayvon Martin had nothing to do with ‘race’ and that it is ‘to their credit’ that the jurors in the Zimmerman trial kept race out of it.

It is also a sharp reminder that it matters not how much we as African people might seek to humanise Britain, we make assumptions about commonly held values and about how we live and give expression to those values, we lower our guard and act normally at our peril.

A few months ago, my 17 year old son went to visit a neighbour a few doors away who had recently broken her arm in a fall. He was a young black man visiting a middle aged white woman living on her own. No sooner had she let him in and they started talking, there was a knock on her door. She opened the door to a white man who introduced himself as living up the street. He quickly added with breathtaking confidence and nonchalance that he was standing at his window and saw this black boy enter her gate and go up to her front door. He therefore decided to come and make sure she was safe. Meanwhile, my son is sitting there and hearing this with his jaw dropping to his knees. That neighbourhood vigilante was clearly expecting the white woman to be thankful for his concern and to see his actions as sensible and praiseworthy. Instead, she said to him: ‘I know who he is, but who the hell are you? I feel much safer with him than I do with you, so get out of my sight’. The shock on his face was evident and he tried to justify his intervention by saying: ‘We have to look out for one another, you know’.

That white man saw a young black boy. He knew nothing about him and certainly could not image that the white neighbour might know him and might be totally at ease with him coming to visit her. Nor did he imagine that the black boy might live on the same street and that he had every right to do so. By his logic, even if the black boy did live on the street in that North London suburb, neighbours like her should be making it quite clear that they consider him ‘persona non grata’, rather than allowing him into their home. The boy’s feelings at being talked about in that way were evidently no concern of his, nor did he stop to consider that the boy might have been visiting out of concern for the health and well being of the white woman or in order to assist her with some chores.

The white man saw a young black boy and that was enough to set him off imagining that the worst possible things could be happening to that defenceless white woman at the hands of the monster he had conjured up in his mind. ‘We’ have to look out for one another’…. That ‘we’ is inclusive of ‘people like us’ who live in fear of people like them and who certainly do not want people like them seeing themselves as our neighbours, let alone our friends.

The white man left without tendering so much as a lame apology to the black boy. The latter remained part of the white man’s ‘out group’, ever to be thought of as being about to commit an arrestable offence, and never to be included and afforded the same respect and acceptance that would automatically have been given to a white 17 year old visiting that woman with the broken arm. He remained a living, walking symbol of that group from which he and white people like him needed to protect themselves; the group that renders it necessary for white Brits to ‘look out for one another’ once there is any evidence of them being around.

The conduct and justification of that white man lie along the same spectrum as that of the police who investigated the Stephen Lawrence murder; the police who perform those thousands of ‘Stops and Searches’ of black males every year; that of organised racists and neo-fascists who set themselves the task of dealing with ‘wogs’, ‘nigs’ and ‘Pakis’ on behalf of ‘the silent majority’ and that of those who racialise immigration and forever trumpet on about ‘illegal immigration’ and refuges and asylum seekers.

It is the spectrum along which the conduct and justification of George Zimmerman in respect of Trayvon Martin must also be placed.

"Trayvon Martin Killing Documentary" by Werth Media (Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Trayvon Martin Killing Documentary” by Werth Media (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

Trayvon Martin was a young black male being followed and accosted by an unknown white male who was clearly not a police officer and had certainly not identified himself to Trayvon as such. Zimmerman saw a hooded youth and his imagination went into overdrive. So much so, that he apparently failed to consider that this scene was being played out in the US of A…

That in the US of A strange things happen to black males at the hands of white men. That in the US of A, black males are killed simply for not giving the ‘right’ answers to white men who feel they have the right to challenge them, spuriously or otherwise. That in the US of A, black men are strapped to vehicles and dragged through the streets until their brains sweep the highway. That in the US of A, black victims of white aggression know that the justice system has a way of believing the story of white aggressors and making black victims responsible for the harm they suffer at the hands of those aggressors. That all of that historical experience in a country where history becomes contemporary reality confounds those who indulge the luxury of insisting that if the likes of Trayvon Martin were not guilty of wrongdoing, or were not indeed about to commit an arrestable offence, then they should have nothing to fear.

Zimmerman was in a car, Trayvon Martin on foot. Zimmerman reported to the police that he was following a suspicious person. The police told Zimmerman he not follow Trayvon. Yet, Zimmerman proceeded to follow him both in his car and on foot. He seemed to have no concern for the fact that the youth might be frightened, or that he might be going about his lawful business, gated community or not. As far as he was concerned, Trayvon had no right to be there and he was going to make damn sure he knew it, even though the police had instructed that he was not to follow the youth.

Trayvon is dead. Nothing can or will change this tragic fact. His death and the conduct of the Zimmerman trial and the perverse verdict returned by those six jurors speak to the condition of being young, black and male in American society no less than in Britain.

Young black males carry a heavy ethnic penalty from birth. It is a penalty that is imposed through the reasons that are given for their exclusion from school (increasingly as early as age four); through police targeting for Stop and Search (even of African police officers), irrespective of academic qualifications, employment or economic status; through denial of access to opportunities for training, employment and progression in certain careers; through just being African and male and exercising the right to live one’s life according to basic human values.

And while the society gives tacit consent to all this or comforts itself in the belief that the condition of living with that ethic penalty on account of being young, black and male is simply an aberration and does not define the society, people seldom stop to consider the psychological impact of it all upon succeeding generations of African males in the US of A and Britain. Few appear willing to attribute to it all the anger, cynicism, despair and nihilism that drive whole sections of the youth population in our communities.

The tragedy is that although many of us campaigned and continue to do so relentlessly for the right of the likes of Stephen Lawrence, Trayvon Martin and every other young person to walk the streets without fear of harassment, maiming or murder on account of their ethnicity, young black males themselves have so internalised the oppression and damage inflicted upon them by structural, cultural, institutional and personalised manifestations of racism that they have been erecting their own artificial boundaries and murdering those who fail to observe those boundaries. It is that basic fact that links the murder of Stephen Lawrence with those of the hundreds of young Africans who have been murdered at the hands of their peers in ‘post code wars’ and other senseless conflict over the last thirty years.

That is why those murders, including Stephen Lawrence’s, have everything to do with the condition of Britain and how that positions young black males. As CLR James once famously said, addressing some 300 young people at the Metro Youth Club in Ladbroke Grove as I recall:

‘Your future is Britain’s future and Britain’s future your future. If you succeed, Britain will succeed, but if Britain fails you, it will have a hell of a job saving itself’.

Leaders of State and Commissioners of Police, take note!

Picture (home): “Trayvon Martin Protest – Sanford” by Werth Media (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

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[…] should any society,’ asks Gus John (http://gusjohn.com/2013/07/when-stephen-met-trayvon/) ‘presume that it is held together by liberal democratic values and principles … when from […]

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