Unlike most in the Black community I did not view the peerage of Doreen Lawrence as a cause for celebration. Many of us see the acceptance of Black individuals into the exclusive clubs of the ruling white elite as a sign that we as a race are progressing. I don’t see it like that. Let’s not forget that three of the five killers of Stephen Lawrence still have their liberty. To make matters worse last month it was revealed that instead of pursuing the suspects in the immediate aftermath of the crime, the Metropolitan Police spent their time operating a covert surveillance operation on the Lawrence family and their supporters. In their all-to-familiar style, instead of pursuing the criminals the authorities expended their energies trying to smear the Black victims. Will Doreen’s presence in the House of Lords bring the remaining killers to justice? Will it reveal which members of the establishment knew what of the surveillance operation and when? Somehow I doubt it.
At the same time we are told that the Police officers who shot Mark Duggan dead in the street, and those present when Smiley Culture ended up with a knife in his chest, have no case to answer. Rather than advancing the cause of racial justice, I see Lawrence’s peerage as hush money – like giving a crying toddler a lollipop in the hope that it will shut them up. To liken the process to the days of slavery, it’s like the slave masters taking one of their most troublesome field negroes and giving them an easier job in the house, thus both pacifying the gripes of said slave, and at the same time removing a rallying point from those disgruntled comrades still left in the field.
Or as Professor Gus John so eloquently put it in a recent article for the Voice “without wanting to diminish in any way Doreen Lawrence’s passion for justice for her son, we must not fight shy of pointing out the cynicism of the British state and particularly of the Labour Party in seeking to hijack and fashion Doreen Lawrence into its own grotesque creation.”
I am not trying to detract from the tireless efforts of the Lawrence family over the last 20 years, but in truth she is not a wiley and seasoned political operator versed in the dark arts of the party politics. She is merely an ordinary wife and mother who was thrust into the spotlight by the outcry from the community when her son was brutally murdered, and the Justice system seemed not to care. How much impact can she really have?
But my sense of disquiet is not confined solely to the amateur politics of Doreen Lawrence. Remember back in 2008 when we were all filled with a similar sense of optimism when Barack Obama became the President Of The United States, and supposedly the most powerful man on earth? Now in the cold light of day, five years later, we can see that Obama has not had the effect that we hoped he would. He has not been able to reduce Black unemployment, or stop the tide of Black men dying on the streets or joining the conveyor belt of the Prison Industrial Complex. Despite the softening of the Marijuana laws in many states, he has not ended the War on Drugs that results in the criminalisation of so many Black men, and he was not even able to get his signature policy of Obama-care through Congress without a host of compromises. The most powerful man on earth seemed powerless to change the racist ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy adopted by the New York Police Department, or the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida. In truth, having a Black Commander in Chief does more harm than good to the prospects of the average African-American. Because of him, whites can claim that we now live in a post-racial society where discrimination no longer exists, and affirmative action is no longer necessary. And the Black activists are muted in their criticism because they do not want to undermine the first Black POTUS and give more ammunition to his opponents. And Obama himself is being less proactive in his own appointments because, unlike all of his white predecessors he does not have to pander to the Black vote, and doesn’t want to be accused by the opposition of favouring African-Americans. (Remember that even the much maligned George W. Bush had a Black Joint Chief of Staff (Colin Powell) and a Black Secretary of State (Condoleeza Rice). So tell me again how much progress Blacks in America have made by having a Black President. It makes all the more puzzling to me why Black people over here are asking when we will have a British Obama?
Back in Britain, in a new twist in the long legacy of the Stephen Lawrence case, Duwayne Brookes, the friend who was with Stephen on the night he was murdered, has announced that he will be standing as the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate for Lewisham. We also learnt this year that Brooks too had suffered a campaign of covert surveillance, attempted smearing and harassment from the Police. No doubt Duwayne, like Doreen, feels that if he is part of the Political establishment, he can effect change, and stop such miscarriages of justice from occurring in the future. It was probably such noble motives that Shaun Bailey had when he became a Tory Prospective Parliamentary Candidate and advisor to David Cameron.
It took him a while to realise that Cameron’s all white, Eton and Oxbridge cabinet were ignoring his suggestions and side-lining him – for his appointment, just like that of Doreen Lawrence is merely a token gesture, designed to make us believe that they are listening; that they really care. With Doreen, just like Mandela, whites in power elevate one Black person and deify them, to show us that now everything is alright. Mandela became President and so racial inequality was eradicated in South Africa in one fell swoop? Doreen Lawrence becomes a Baroness and so racial justice has been achieved in the UK?
No doubt the recently retired Police Superintendent Leroy Logan wanted to make a difference when he joined the Metropolitan Police 30 years ago. His own father had been on the receiving end of rough treatment by the Met, and he nobly wanted to try and influence change from the inside. But despite being a founding member of the Black Police Association and one of the highest ranking Black officers, he could still not stop Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan from being shot dead in the street, or Roger Sylvester, Frank Ogburo and Sean Rigg from dying whilst in Police restraint. As we discover each new case of Police racism, we have to ask ourselves, despite all of their racial sensitivity training and the efforts of Logan and the BPA, how much has really changed at the MET?
All those who want to be MPs say they do it because they want to help – they want to effect change. But how much do they really help? Three well established Black Labour MPs David Lammy (Tottenham) Diane Abbott (Hackney) and Chuka Umunna (Brixton) all preside over boroughs with high levels of deprivation. Knowing all three areas of London well, I don’t know how much the presence of a Black MP has helped Black residents. What I do know is that all three areas have undergone a process of gentrification whereby poor people can no longer afford to live there. And remember that both Lammy and Abbott preside over boroughs where the nationwide riots of 2011 first took hold.
Lammy has been very quiet about the Mark Duggan shooting which sparked off the riots in the first place, and all he felt able to do at the time, was condemn the violence and respectfully escort deputy PM Nick Clegg around to inspect the damage. Abbott showed her hand in 2012 when she withdrew perfectly legitimate comments she made on twitter, about white people playing divide and conquer, after receiving instruction from her massa, (sorry leader) Ed Milliband. Are they really there fighting for our interests or simply trying to further their own careers and feather their own nests?
Real activists are down in the trenches, fighting for civil rights, embarrassing the law-makers and law-enforcers into action: not quaffing champagne with our oppressors in Westminster, and occasionally sharing their privilege with those of us still out in the field, by hosting the odd reception at the big house.
Remember that Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey were not members of any political party. They were leaders of grass-roots movements, and they arguably have had more impact than any Black politician. The Reverend Al Sharpton did more to draw attention to the Trayvon Martin case than Obama, who seemed afraid to speak about it too strongly for fear of offending. If we really want to change things for the better, the grassroots is where we should be working, not these exclusive private members clubs in Westminster.
I will leave the final word to the always excellent Gary Younge who wrote this regarding Obama.
“The presence of underrepresented people in leadership positions only has any significantly positive meaning if it challenges whatever obstacles created the conditions for that underrepresentation. To believe otherwise is to trade equal opportunities for photo opportunities, whereby a system looks different but acts the same. “