The violence of denial

Twenty-one years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in South London, the criminal justice system maintains a reflex to deny racism. This amounts to the routine denial of justice.

Jon Burnett
13 March 2014

Near the end of January, the IPCC announced that it was widening its investigation into the police’s treatment of Bijan Ebrahimi, an Iranian refugee murdered last year in Bristol. That it was doing so was barely acknowledged. But it should have been. The IPCC is an organisation that is now almost universally recognised as not fit for purpose. So when even the IPCC announces it is extending its enquiries in a case, focusing not just on the immediate events surrounding a man’s death but on the years preceding this, the indication that the police may have seriously failed to carry out their stated aim of making communities ‘be safe and feel safe’ could hardly be greater.

Two people – Lee James and Stephen Norley – were prosecuted in relation to Mr Ebrahimi’s murder last year: the former for killing him; the latter for helping move and then burn the body in an attempt to get rid of the evidence. Their trial and the details of their actions, was extensively reported. And as a result, it is well known that an entirely false rumour was fabricated that Mr Ebrahimi was a paedophile; that James threatened him; that Mr Ebrahimi phoned the police for help, terrified that he was going to be harmed, but that the police arrested him instead of the aggressor; that neighbours clapped when the police led him away in handcuffs; that they gathered outside his flat, taunting and mocking him the day after the police released him from custody; that James went on to beat him to death; that paramedics had to put out Mr Ebrahimi’s still burning body when they found him; that his flower beds were still wet, indicating that the man who loved gardening had at one point so wrongly assumed it was safe to go outside and water his flowers, a tragic misjudgement with fatal consequences.

The outcome of the now-broadened IPCC investigation is as yet unknown. But what is in no doubt is that Mr Ebrahimi was vilified, humiliated and persecuted for years before his eventual murder. He was relocated from several properties because of ongoing racist abuse; and was abused continuously as a result of his disability. According to journalists, he was failed by a police force that, whether through intent or inertia, was inadequate in the face of the harassment that he was being forced to endure. At one point, an officer reportedly refused to respond to a desperate call for help because he was eating a pot noodle and he didn’t want it to go cold.

Such indifference to violence echoes the police’s apathy towards victims of attacks decades ago - the most well known example of which is, of course, Stephen Lawrence in 1993. When two of his killers were convicted in January 2012, their incarceration was celebrated almost universally by the press, the government, the police, the establishment, as a shared national victory, as evidence that a scar of injustice had at last begun to heal. But more than this, these convictions were routinely portrayed as proof of the criminal justice system’s broader and ongoing reform. ‘The nation’s ability to co-opt and rebrand resistance to past inequities as evidence of its own essential and unique genius’, wrote Gary Younge about the United States, ‘is as impressive as it is cynical.’ It is a point applicable to the UK, too. The Stephen Lawrence murder and the resulting Macpherson Report in 1999 has become part of the UK’s self-congratulatory narrative, despite – even because of – the state’s initial hostility to the teenager’s family and their determination to gain some form of justice.

The denial of racism...

The extent of this hostility has been made clearer through the revelations – already public knowledge but officially accepted last week – that the Metropolitan police spied on the grieving Lawrence family in the 1990s as they desperately began their grinding battle to try and find out what had happened to their son. Given the undeniable evidence of corruption, it is no surprise that the home secretary has ordered an inquiry into undercover policing (with a remit going beyond that surrounding the Lawrence investigation). Nor is it any surprise that within hours of this being announced, government ministers were deploying the well-worn line that state crimes are the preserve of a few bad apples, with Damien Green arguing that the vast majority of officers ‘have integrity’.

But as much as attempts are already being and will be made to repair the police’s reputation, the fact remains that this was a police force so antagonistic to any attempt to expose the racism embedded in its core – a level of racism that, of course, Macpherson would maintain was institutional – that it was prepared to go to huge lengths to undermine and disrupt any attempt to hold it to account. Destroying files and evidence at the same time as feeding Macpherson’s inquiry team a stream of misinformation, directing the retired judge ultimately to the conclusion that such corruption did not even exist. In effect, from its conception, the Macpherson inquiry was hamstrung by the very agencies it was investigating.

And yet, if this says something about the cynicism of the nation’s self-defined narrative of post-Macpherson benevolent reform, the true extent of state cynicism is made clearer in the criminal justice system’s ongoing failure to recognise and respond to racist killings, or deaths with a known or suspected racial element, since the publication of the Macpherson Report. This is made evident in Investigated or Ignored, a report published by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) earlier this year.

At least 93 people have lost their lives as a result of such attacks between 1999 and 2013: attacks which serve as a macabre reminder of the way in which popular racism continues to have fatal consequences. But the criminal justice system’s response to these deaths displays a seemingly wilful myopia. In almost half of the cases the allegation of a racial motivation was removed from the charge, and in about a fifth more the fact there was a racial element never appears to have been acknowledged in the first place. That is, racism was written officially out of existence.

The introduction of a subjective definition of a racist incident as ‘any...which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’ was one of the many changes in criminal justice procedure that came about as a result of the Macpherson report. And as (or indeed, if) a case progresses through the courts, this perception quite rightly has to be examined and investigated, not least because if accepted evidence of racial motivation in an attack can impact on the punishment. But in many of these cases, whilst the fact that racial motivation may have been at least some factor was not in dispute, decisions were simply taken to remove this from proceedings.

Thus, when delivery driver Mohammed Saleem Khan was murdered in north Yorkshire in 2012, for example, by a man who earlier spoke of his intent to ‘do that P**i’, the prosecution dropped the racial element from the charge, seemingly because the attack was also part of an attempted robbery. Similarly, when in 2010 Simon San was beaten by a group of teenagers in Edinburgh (which has a different prosecuting body than in England and Wales), in the course of his work as a takeaway delivery driver, he was hit with such force that he later died. Some of the attackers had previous convictions for racist abuse, and witnesses said that they heard Mr San being called a ‘ch**ky’ during the attack. But the allegation of racial motivation was dropped from the case, in part because the attackers rifled through the man’s pockets and the incident was consequently treated as a robbery.

Despite the law making clear that racism does not have to be the sole aggravating factor in an attack to be recognised within a prosecution, in practice it is not always interpreted in this way. The police, the CPS and the judiciary each contribute, in different ways, towards this outcome.

...and the denial of justice

But this is not just an issue of the way in which the law is interpreted, or misinterpreted. It is indicative of a level of indifference to the reality and impact of racism in its rawest form. And this indifference becomes tantamount to a denial of racism with very serious consequences. For, by asserting that racism does not exist, at what point does this denial become complicity in its effects? The father of Johnny Delaney made clear this line of questioning after two 16-year-olds were given short custodial sentences in 2003 for beating his son to death in Liverpool. One of the attackers was reportedly heard to say that the 14-year-old boy deserved the violence they meted out to him ‘because he is only a f*****g Gypsy’. The judge in the case removed the allegation from the case though and the victim’s father, outraged and devastated, argued: ‘There is no justice here. They were kicking my son like a football. Are they going to let this happen to another Gypsy?’

This is not to advocate a law and order lobby clamouring simply for ramped up punishments for perpetrators of racist attacks. Nor, given that proof of racial motivation can impact on a sentence, would it be correct to call for allegations of racism to be taken as read and not properly investigated. But it is to argue that the criminal justice system’s understanding of racism appears to have narrowed solely to a point of legal wrangling over whether there has been ‘enough’ racism to impact on the way a case is prosecuted at the expense of any broader concern.

At the same time, in some cases at least, police apathy towards those experiencing racist attacks remains just as it was pre-Lawrence. It is this apathy and indifference to harassment which not only denies a reality of racism, but can deny any semblance of justice to those experiencing a lived reality of racist attacks. And it is embodied in its most extreme form in the deaf ear that was turned to Bijan Ebrahimi before he was murdered last year. Or, to take another example, it is manifested in the way the police responded to Mi Gao Huang Chen’s appeals for help in Wigan in 2005 when staff in his takeaway were persistently racially abused and the building was vandalised. The police reportedly only interviewed the man and his girlfriend months after the incidents had started, despite repeated requests for help. And the following night, Mi Gao Huang Chen was seriously assaulted by a group of youths, suffering injuries that he would later die from. Some of the attackers were arrested, but so too was the man’s girlfriend, who had tried to defend herself, her partner and her business.

When the Macpherson Report was published in 1999, the landmark finding of institutional racism was rightly interpreted as something which changed the landscape of Britain; that it did so was testament to the dedicated struggle of Stephen Lawrence’s parents. Yet for all of the gains that were made, fifteen years on, the criminal justice system still has a tendency to deny the reality of racism in Britain. Then, as now, a denial of racism equates to a denial of justice.

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