Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/297/13889
Ten years after the murder of Stephen Lawrence: When Mass Action And Class Unity Beat Back The Fascists
TEN YEARS ago, the Black teenager Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered in a racist attack in Eltham, South-east London. The fourth racist murder of young Black or Asian men in the area in two years, it provoked outrage across Britain.
The shocking level of racist attacks was closely linked to the presence of the neo-Nazi BNP, whose national headquarters in nearby Welling had encouraged racist violence.
The anti-racist movement that followed Stephen's murder succeeded in closing down the BNP's HQ in Welling and defeating the BNP on a national scale. The Lawrence family campaign succeeded in exposing the police racism and corruption that had stopped Stephen's killers being brought to justice.
Two weeks after Stephen died, as 8,000 people marched through Welling demanding an end to racist murders and the closure of the BNP's HQ (on a demonstration co-organised by Youth against Racism in Europe [YRE] and Panther UK, a Black socialist organisation) the Metropolitan Police were blaming their failure to catch Stephen's killers on a 'wall of silence' from local people.
In fact the police were bombarded with information from local people but acted too late, giving suspects time to dispose of evidence that could have helped link them to the crime. The police appeared too interested in investigating Stephen and his family for criminal connections to follow up the murder as what it was - an unprovoked racist attack.
While Stephen Lawrence's murderers were being allowed to get away with their crime, the police poured resources into attacking the anti-racist movement. Riot police attacked both the main demonstrations to shut down the BNP HQ. The police tried to discredit the movement and scare the new generation of young people drawn into political activity for the first time.
For the second demonstration, of 50,000 people (co-organised by the YRE, Anti-Nazi League and the Indian Workers' Association), the police spent £1 million on their operation.
But the demonstrations succeeded. The BNP were isolated politically and local communities gained the confidence to drive them out. Their only national public activity - a paper sale in East London - was closed down and they lost their only councillor. Within two years the BNP's headquarters had been shut.
This success was made possible by the approach of groups like the YRE and Militant Labour (the forerunner of the Socialist Party). Then as now, YRE and Socialist Party members call for mass action and using the arguments of working-class unity to defeat the BNP.
The YRE was able to organise community defence campaigns, particularly amongst the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, as well as going into Welling and winning disenchanted white youth away from the BNP.
Lessons for today
TODAY WE face similar problems: the growth of the BNP, who have learnt from their past defeats; desperate attempts by the government and police to stop an anti-racist movement developing (including banning many anti-racist events); and police racism and corruption.
The reason is simple: while the far-right were temporarily defeated, the conditions that allow them to grow remain: racism, poverty, exploitation, insecurity and anger against the establishment.
Despite the promises made after the Lawrence Inquiry (into how the police investigated Stephen Lawrence's death), racism and corruption have not been removed from the police and the justice system, as recent figures show.
Stop and searches of Asian people increased by 16% in 2001-02 compared with 2000-01; those of black people increased by 6%; while those of white people fell by 2%. In London the Metropolitan Police stopped 40% more Asians and 30% more black people, but 8% fewer white people.
New Labour and the establishment are not prepared to really tackle racism or police abuse of power as they are both essential parts of the system that they support - capitalism.
If we are to defeat the BNP today, the anti-racist movement must be prepared to take up such bread-and-butter issues as low pay, privatisation and cuts in public services. It must oppose the mainstream parties - Tories, Liberals and New Labour - who attack working-class people's rights.
It must convince the wider layer attracted to the BNP's image as an anti-establishment alternative that the BNP are no alternative and a dangerous opponent of the working class.
This is what the YRE did in Welling, and what the YRE and Socialist Party members are campaigning to do today. But 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 where the world's resources are democratically planned for the benefit of all.
In The Socialist 26 April 2003: