Britain: Stephen Lawrence murder – The untold story

How socialists and the local community fought back against racism and the BNP

On 3 January 2012 Gary Dobson and David Norris were found guilty of the horrific murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and sentenced to life imprisonment. Stephen was murdered almost 19 years ago in a racist attack by a white gang in south London.

Media coverage after the trial has focussed on the issues which emerged after the murder – such as institutionalised police racism and police incompetence, and how much has changed since. But there has been little mention of the presence of the far-right racist British National Party (BNP) in the area at the time and also the united community and trade union anti-racist campaign to drive them out.

Lois Austin, (pictured above, speaking) then a leading activist in Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and the Labour Party Young Socialists, whose branches initiated the campaign, spoke to the Socialist:

"Firstly I want to pay testament to the Lawrence family and how strong and tough they’ve been to see it through this far. It is galling to see parts of the British establishment and the right-wing media, such as the Daily Mail, lauding the Lawrence family. At the time most of the British establishment turned its back on the family and the justice system didn’t deliver for them and neither did local politicians.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s YRE was involved in a local campaign that eventually closed the racist BNP’s headquarters in Welling.

Immediately after Stephen’s murder we made appeals to Bexley council and the press to help get the BNP out because it was the BNP’s divisive campaigns that were leading to an increase in racism and racist attacks in the area.

The media has also been almost completely silent on the mass protests that took place after Stephen Lawrence was murdered.

Much has been said about the Lawrence family being left isolated and alone and they were by most of the political and media establishment, but that was not the case when it came to support from ordinary people. Thousands came out onto the streets to show their anger at the murder and their support for the family.

In May 1993, just a few weeks after Stephen Lawrence was murdered, over 8,000 joined a demo called by YRE and others – including Panther, the black socialist organisation. Mainly local young people, black and white, marched past the BNP HQ demanding that something must be done to rid our area of these racists.

A 1993 YRE Demo

A few months after that, on 16 October, YRE, the Anti-Nazi League and other organisations and trade unions called another march. We wanted to go past the BNP HQ but the riot police wouldn’t let us. Nonetheless 60,000 of us marched through the town centre. Everyone saw and understood the link between BNP activity in south east London and the racist attacks and racist murders – not just of Stephen Lawrence – three other young black men had been killed since the BNP moved in to Welling in 1987.

Greenwich council published statistics that showed a 200% increase in racist attacks in the few years that the BNP had been active in Welling, recruiting young people, giving out racist literature and using their HQ as a base.

The Greenwich and Bexley Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) had set up a campaign against the BNP in 1987 with support from a number of left Labour councillors and trade union branches.

But Bexley Tory council refused to listen; they told us to to ’ignore them and they’ll go away’. Yet in 1987 we pointed to the danger that their campaigns would lead to and, unfortunately, we were right.

The BNP moved in to south east London during the Thatcher government, a time of high unemployment, of the cheap labour Youth Training Schemes (YTS), and, overall, a bleak future for young people. They began a systematic campaign based on a small minority of racists; they preyed on young people, visiting youth clubs to try and whip up racism.

But after Stephen Lawrence’s murder thousands of local people came out onto the streets and said ’enough is enough’. We had launched a campaign around ’jobs and homes not racism’. We went into youth clubs to talk to young people about the YTS, the lack of opportunities for young people, etc, and we were able to cut across the BNP’s growth.

In 1994 a planning inquiry into the use of the BNP HQ in Welling was set up. This was the establishment’s way of recognising that they had to act without conceding that they were closing it down because of mass pressure.

YRE wrote a submission which proved that it was not just an innocuous ’bookshop’ but a party HQ. The second point we set out to prove, since it was a planning inquiry, was that incitement to racial hatred was relevant to planning law because it was of detriment to the community and the environment. The YRE evidence was cited in the summary.

Institutionalised racism

Stephen’s murder trial has exposed some appalling things about the police. Outrageously both Stephen and the friend who was with him at the time of his murder, Duwayne Brooks, were treated as criminals instead of being treated as victims. And then there was a completely bungled police inquiry.

My family knew people in the Eltham area and Welling who said that the police knocked on their door once, asked a few questions, said they’d be coming back and never did. Why was there not a vigorous inquiry?

All sorts of things have gone on which, quite frankly, are outrageous and show that at the root of this was, and still is, a degree of deep-seated racism within the Metropolitan Police. It’s that and the racism in the political establishment that has meant we’ve had to wait 18 years for justice.

However, there have been some steps forward. The campaign of the Lawrence family and all their supporters, campaigns of groups like YRE and others and the fact that they were steadfast and that police racism has been exposed mean it’s more difficult for the police to repeat such a miscarriage of justice.

But young black men continue to die in police custody and there’s still terrible outrages being committed by the police. There’s still a big job to do. The riots in August showed the anger and resentment of many, many young black people in London and elsewhere; they’re much more likely to be stopped and searched. So while I think a step forward has been made there’s still a long way to go.

And there is still a danger from racist groups like the English Defence League (EDL).

Anxiety exists in white working class communities over jobs and housing. That’s the result of the policies of the last Labour government and the Con-Dems. In the late 1980s in order to cut across the BNP we ran a very successful ’jobs and homes not racism’ campaign. And don’t forget that the successful anti-poll tax campaign was around that time too.

We used those campaigns to go out into the community and to unite black, Asian, white people in a campaign on the social and economic issues that affected everybody. We said the BNP doesn’t have any solutions, the BNP are not fighting for you, we’re fighting for you and we need to fight together.

And really it’s the same sort of campaign that we need to day. Defend jobs, homes and services – not racism, not blaming immigrants for social ills, but blaming the capitalist crisis and the profit system and the politicians of all the three main parties. These establishment politicians support austerity and more cuts and more attacks on the living standards of the working class.

A 1993 demonstration

Exploitative system

The idea, that was suggested to black youth in Eltham in the 1990s, that all you need is a few key black and Asian people in the police force or in parliament to emancipate and heal the social and economic deprivation that exists and challenge racism, is absolute rubbish.

We need to fight the cuts and improve things for everybody. But also we need to remove the institutions that are inherently racist and maintain the status quo. No matter how many black people you get elected as Tory MPs the Tories will always be a party that has, as part of its repertoire, a racist programme. They do it by whipping up racism around asylum laws and immigration, or when they talk about the so-called criminality of the black community. It is they who divide and rule as a way of maintaining their power.

The Labour Party is no longer rooted in working class communities but accepts austerity and the neoliberal agenda. It was their policies and lack of investment in working class communities which led to the growth of the BNP in some areas when they were in government.

One of the tasks of the anti-racist movement is to link up with trade unionists and socialists and build a new, mass working class party. But I would also say that while the unjust, exploitative, and corrupt capitalist system remains, racism and the far right will always exist.

To eradicate racism and prejudice, and to remove the conditions that allow the far-right to grow, capitalism must be replaced by a socialist society."

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January 2012