A BBC programme last week again shone the spotlight on a case from 1993 that revealed so much of the reality of life in Britain.
The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence said that police racism and corruption had helped to shield the killers of black teenager Stephen Lawrence from conviction.
Specifically it alleged that the murder inquiry’s Detective Sergeant John Davidson was paid by drug smuggler Clifford Norris, father of one of the prime suspects - David Norris. Davidson denies these allegations.
Speaking on the programme, police officer Neil Putnam claimed he had informed the Metropolitan Police several times of his concerns about Davidson, but they did nothing about it. The Met denies this.
Reporter Mark Daly did a good job in reminding a new audience of the bitter injustice of the case and the way the police utterly failed to find the killers.
And he questioned the alibis of the five men who were suspected, but never convicted, of the crime.
But in some ways it is hardly news that a web of corruption was entwined with the racism that infected the investigation into the murder.
The corruption trail goes back to criminals from south east London connected to the 1983 Brinks Mat gold bullion robbery.
Those involved included Kenneth Noye - now in prison for a road rage murder - who was alleged to have corrupt links to police officers.
One of Noye’s criminal associates was Clifford Norris. Clifford’s son David Norris was one of the gang of alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence.
When the police did actually stir themselves to try to arrest them, David Norris was not at home, suggesting he had been warned to disappear.
During the Macpherson inquiry into Stephen’s murder - which followed the failure to secure convictions and revelations of police racism - the Lawrence family’s solicitors battled to make the links between corruption and racism.
But they were blocked by the Met police who were desperate to keep separate the question of police corruption in south east London and the Lawrence murder.
One Flying Squad officer who had investigated links between the Brinks Mat gang and police was prevented from giving evidence at the Lawrence inquiry.
He said that this was done because “there are links between south east London criminal families and policemen, senior policemen, that go way back and the Yard couldn’t afford for any of this to come out during the Lawrence inquiry”.
The then home secretary Jack Straw must have known all this - but he still backed Met police chief Paul Condon to the hilt.
The case of Detective Sergeant Davidson highlights the fact that it took police two weeks to arrest any suspects. Yet during the two days after the murder detectives received 39 tip-offs.
Many included the same names - Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight.
They were said to be members of a local gang that carried knives.
Yet there were no arrests until South African president Nelson Mandela met Stephen’s parents, putting the case on an international stage.
The key informant was a man with the pseudonym Grant, who walked into Eltham police station at 7.45pm on 23 April, the day after the murder. He told police he was very close to the suspects.
But he wasn’t taken seriously and his information wasn’t acted on immediately. This gave the suspects plenty of time to concoct alibis.
Much of Grant’s information has been “lost” but an outline remains:
“A male stated that the persons responsible for the murder on the black youth, are Jamie and Neil Acourt of 102 Bournebrook Road SE3 together with David Norris and two other males, identity unknown.”
He went onto say that David Norris had stabbed Stacy Benefield a month ago and that a man who had stabbed to death Rohit Duggal was a member of the Acourt gang.
He also mentioned other stabbings carried out by the gang.
On 6 May, Grant told police that the Acourts were fascinated by knives and often hid them under the floorboards. When a search of the Norris family home did take place, police did not lift up floorboards.
Instead they told Norris’s mother that she had very nice furnishings - including carpets - which they didn’t want to disturb. David Norris was eventually put on trial for the stabbing of Stacy Benefield.
But during the trial the foreman of the jury approached Norris to reassure him that he was going to get off - and also to offer him a job!
New Labour has tried to roll back Macpherson
In the period following the publication of the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence there was a widespread sense of a new start - a watershed had been reached.
Seven years later the words of Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence, appear prophetic. She said that the police had investigated her son’s killing like “white masters during slavery”.
She added, “What I see is that black people are still dying on the streets and in the back of police vans.
“I believe black youngsters will never be safe on the streets. Nothing has changed.”
Institutional racism remains a central feature of life in Britain.
New Labour has played a double game of rhetoric about “tolerance” and “inclusion” while enacting a harsh barrage of racist anti-asylum and anti-immigration measures.
The “war on terror” and the assaults on civil liberties have massively intensified racism against Muslims. They have produced a racist blowback from imperialism.
In this situation the government has dumped the aspects of the Macpherson inquiry that pointed to the systematic nature of racism.
In 2003, then home secretary David Blunkett said that “the slogan created a year or two ago about institutional racism missed the point”.
Macpherson had argued that the police’s failure to catch Stephen Lawrence’s killers was not the product of a few “bad apples”, but flowed from racism rooted in the structures of society.
The Macpherson report has been rightly criticised as too weak in its conclusions and recommendations. But in identifying institutional racism as the heart of the problem, it marked a step forward.
The previous report into police racism, the Scarman report into the 1981 Brixton riots, had rejected any idea of the police as a racist institution.
It argued that there were just a few ignorant coppers around who didn’t like black people.
But Labour has gone back to this position.
It has tried to steer the focus of tackling racism away from institutions and those in power, towards the individual and those at the bottom of society.
In 2002 Blunkett was asked what he thought caused racism.
He replied that “deprived people are frightened of change, they are frightened of an influx of different cultures, different people coming into the area”.
In other words, it’s those nasty working class people who create racism.
No one is saying that racism doesn’t exist in our communities, but that is not where the roots of racism lie.
Ordinary white people do not have the power to turn black people down for jobs, arrest them on trumped-up charges and throw them in jail, put them in rotten housing or pass laws to keep them out of the country.
Neither do they own the media that pumps out racism daily.
The 1960s Black Power activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton famously argued that institutional racism “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in society”.
They said that if we are to tackle racism then this is where we have to take the fight.
The police and justice
On the night of Stephen Lawrence’s murder his friend Duwayne Brooks, who had been with him during the attack, was taken to Plumstead police station.
He was mistreated there and made to feel like a suspect. Several detectives at Plumstead were identified as being part of the “institutional racism” of the Met police highlighted in the Macpherson report.
Overall Macpherson found that “the lack of respect and sensitivity in handling Duwayne Brooks must reflect unwitting and collective racism particularly in those who dealt with him both at the scene of the murder and at the hospital”.
In the wake of Macpherson the police promised root and branch reform.
Tell that to Patricia Coker. Her son Paul died at Plumstead police station in August 2005. At a recent meeting she said, “To have someone taken away by the state in this way is terrifying.
“The people at the top are simply not doing what needs to be done. A disproportionate number of those who die in these circumstances are black. Is this because they treat all people of colour as criminals?”
In January this year police from Plumstead police station raided a house in the area.
Alone inside was Nuur Saeed who was unconnected to any offence but was later found outside seriously injured. It seems he fell head first from a second storey balcony.
He died on 22 January from a massive brain injury.
Officer found not guilty of racially aggravated public order offence
PC Wayne Bell from Plumstead police station was found not guilty last week of racially aggravated public order and a public order offence.
The investigation, managed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), took place following a complaint of racism.
Mehmuda Mian Pritchard, IPCC commissioner for the London and south east region said, “Following the conclusion of PC Wayne Bell’s trial today into his conduct while on duty at Plumstead police station, the IPCC will now consider whether the officer should face disciplinary action”.