The British Urban Film Festival (BUFF) gets underway on 4th April with a screening of the “The Murder Of Stephen Lawrence”. Directed by Paul Greengrass ( Bourne Supremacy), the film enlists the talents Black UK Stalwarts Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Hugh Quarshie as well as Ashley Walters in providing a unique window into the trials of a grieving family and the challenges they faced in the quest for justice.
The screening marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of the promising young Black teenager. The fact that such an event would be honoured by a film festival is a reflection of the indelible mark that this tragedy has left on the conscience of British society. It would be true to say that Stephen Lawrence is one of many such murders endured by the Black Community in Britain. However, no case before or since has held the attention of the nation in quite the same way. The sustained prominence of the case has done much to shed light not only on the incident but on the inability of the British Criminal Justice System to live up to its name.
Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death on 22nd April 1993, after he and best friend Dwayne Brooks were chased down by a gang of white youths in Eltham, South East London. Far from an isolated incident, only 2 years earlier, Rolan Adams met the same fate while he and his brother waited for the bus but 2 miles from where Lawrence was killed.
Though campaigns for justice rightfully ensued, the Black Community had little faith in the capacity of the Police – and for good reason. 1985 saw the shooting of Cherry Groce and the Murder of Cynthia Jarrett, both in police custody. The fact that no one was convicted for these crimes sparked demonstrations and so called “riots” in Brixton & Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm – reminiscent of the “riots” motivated by similar occurrences that exploded all over the country only four years earlier.
In the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, these uprisings could not have been far from the memories of the British media, who eventually seemed to deem it far better to report the murder, than another “riot”. Their initial reluctance was overcome by some skillful manoeuvring on the part of the Anti-Racism Alliance (ARA) led by Marc Wadsworth. In the past, the police and the media appeared to have conspired in playing down the race factor as it applied to attacks against Black youth. The murder of Rolan Adams, for example, was said to have been primarily motivated by a “territorial dispute”, intimating that Rolan and his Brother Nathan were mere victims of a fight between rival Gangs.
In the Lawrence case, the evidence of Dwayne Brooks was largely ignored by the police. Brooks reported that the assailants approached shouting “What, what nigger”, but the Met seemed reluctant to properly consider the fact that the attack was racially motivated. Though Gary Dobson, David Norris, Luke Knight, and Neil & Jamie Acourt, the five prime suspects were identifiable to the police within 48 hours of the murder, no arrests were made. Instead, the police turned on Dwayne Brooks, treating him as a suspect and going as far as to question Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence on his character.
In order to combat this, the ARA employed a strategy. Playing on the fact that the Lawrence Family would be perceived as an acceptable face Black Britain, Marc Wadsworth explains how he went about presenting Stephens image:
“We were saying Stephen Lawrence was like you to white society. He may have been a different colour but he was hard-working, and he was doing well at school. He wanted to be an architect. He wanted to be a decent citizen…. it played on the value systems of news desks and politicians and the public in middle-England.”
Rather appealing compared to the images of riots that plagued the memory of upper middle-class Britons. This strategy, along with the employment of a lawyer to liaise with the police on the families’ behalf, exposed and gave a national voice to the fact that as QC Michael Mansfield put it “The Police had clearly botched the Investigation”. The Black Community had already rallied in lending voice to the cry for justice. It was clear the story had weight and media were now compelled to report it. None of this resulted in convictions, however. The persistent negative press in response to the charges being dropped as well as acquittals of the assailants made the Lawrence investigation a political issue. As such, in 1997 then home secretary Jack Straw ordered a public inquiry into the murder. Though the inquiry would not result in a conviction, the Black community in Britain were mobilised by the fact that this was an opportunity for the truth to finally be heard.
Hundreds of Black men, women, children activists and organisations attended the inquiry on a daily basis in support of the Lawrence family. The Brooks family made themselves very much a part the people who assembled, thanking them for the support for their son Dwayne. The scene demonstrated that this was not simply the pain of an individual family, but an entire community, who had come to have let their voices be heard.
Conducted by Sir William Macpherson the report into the inquiry made British society aware of something that the Black community had known for some time – that the Police were “institutionally racist”. For some, this admission was a much needed a validation of what they had been campaigning on for a long time. It was expected that the report would be a springboard for racial reforms throughout British society. Present indicators in Criminal Justice, Education & Employment suggest that these reforms far from a reality. However the report did lead to the abolishing of the Double Jeopardy law as it related to murder and as such Gary Dobson and David Norris were tried, convicted and sentenced in January 2012.
The BUFF observance is a testament to the resilience of the Lawrence family, Dwayne Brooks and Black Britain as a whole, who have not allowed his memory to be forgotten. For as long as such injustices continue to plague British society, we are reminded that there is still much work to be done.