Its incendiary findings about racism in the Met shook the nation, but 20 years after the Macpherson report, TREVOR PHILLIPS argues it paralysed policing and poisoned race relations
They say you never forget your first time. It’s true. Mine took place one evening just outside Finsbury Park in North London, and nothing that my parents or older siblings said or did could have prepared me.
Not surprising; I was just eight years old and the sight of two policemen beating a black man to a bloody pulp seemed like a clear warning: get used to the treatment that awaits you when you grow up.
I had just walked from my Bible studies class at the Methodist church in Wilberforce Road to catch the bus home to Wood Green. Obviously, as far as the police were concerned, the lessons that I’d been reading — ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’ — didn’t apply to black men. People murmured quietly as the man struggled and the truncheons flailed. No one intervened as they dragged him away. In those days, the uniform provided absolute protection against criticism.
I never told my parents, but I never forgot the incident. Like most immigrant families, mine went along with the unspoken assumption that if you kept your head down and behaved yourself, the police would not trouble you, nor you them; if the police were after you it must be because you were doing something wrong.
Police powers: Officers stop and search youths at the Notting Hill Carnival in 2009
Yet 20 years ago this month, in February 1999 when Sir William Macpherson published his ground-breaking report into the murder of the South London teenager Stephen Lawrence, that moment by the park gates came flooding back to my mind.
Macpherson produced a 350-page tome, based on testimony from 88 witnesses, and more than 100,000 pages of evidence. He told a tale of wilful neglect, victim-blaming, and officially condoned racism.
An institution that most people had been raised to trust — ‘if you’re lost, ask a policeman’ — had proven itself utterly unworthy of public confidence.
Most people were shocked. As an investigative journalist I had worked closely with brilliant police officers for my show, The London Programme. I knew and liked many of these men and women; I should have been outraged on their behalf. Yet I suddenly grasped that experience had programmed me from childhood never to trust them or to expect that black families would receive equal treatment from the police.
It took Stephen’s murder to reveal a truth that black Britons have known for many years. The African-American poet Langston Hughes summed it up brilliantly:
That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once, perhaps, were eyes.
Top woman Scotland Yard officer is charged over a child…
Police chief says Met is ‘utterly different’ 20 years after…
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Even those of us brought up to respect the uniform smiled wryly when we heard that Bishop John Sentamu — the man who would become Archbishop of York, the second most important prelate in the Anglican church — had been stopped and searched by the police. We’d all been there.
I have never owned a car which hasn’t seen me stopped and interrogated; from my first clapped-out Austin Maxi, to my current, beloved, 20-year-old S-type, I’ve heard the phrase ‘IC3’ — code for black — ring out across the police wavelengths so often that I consider it a routine, inescapable hazard of the road.
I once proposed, while Chair of the Commission For Racial Equality, that the Highway Code should incorporate a new cautionary section entitled ‘Driving while Black’.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’s searing report showed the rest of the nation what had been happening to people of colour for half a century. And no one did more to make that possible than Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen, whose dignity and determination crossed the boundaries of race and class to touch the nation’s hearts.
It took them five years of campaigning before the New Labour government launched the inquiry.
Few would have blamed the Lawrences had they given up within days of their son’s death; it was evident that the local police assumed that Stephen had in some way brought it upon himself.
Neighbours were far from sympathetic. Doreen Lawrence told me that, a few weeks after her son had died, she’d reported being abused in a car park by a woman who told her: ‘If [Stephen] wasn’t in this country he would be alive today.’
It took the police eight weeks to contact her about the incident; as she said: ‘Our lives aren’t worth anything.’
Pictured: Trevor Phillips, writer, broadcaster and former Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission
But the Lawrences’ campaign did eventually bear fruit. They gathered support from all over the nation, including from this newspaper, which famously ran the front page banner headline ‘murderers’ and dared the prime suspects to sue.
Ironically, the inquiry report was published just eight months after the nation had enjoyed a season of self-congratulation for its progress in race relations, by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush in June 1948. Macpherson’s findings came like an icy bath after a warm summer.
That perhaps is why the official reactions to the report were so panicked and ill-judged. In a frenzy of official action, committees sprang into being, laws were drafted, and bureaucratic reviews were spawned by the dozen.
Some good did come out of all this activity.
In line with one key recommendation by Macpherson, Parliament changed the law on double jeopardy, which previously had prevented an acquitted defendant from being tried twice for the same crime.
As a result of this welcome change, Gary Dobson and David Norris were both convicted in 2012 of Lawrence’s murder, though other members of the gang that killed him have continued to evade justice.
On the far more negative side, Macpherson’s findings triggered an orgy of liberal guilt, political finger-pointing and empire building.
At a moment when the nation needed a calm, considered response Macpherson triggered a spiral of events that would paralyse the police, poison the well of race relations and encourage the emergence of a mindlessly anti-immigrant politics.
20 years ago this month, in February 1999 when Sir William Macpherson published his ground-breaking report into the murder of the South London teenager Stephen Lawrence
Looking back it’s not hard to see why people lost their minds. In researching this essay, I returned to the TV programmes I had made, first in 1993, in the wake of the original killing, and then during the inquiry itself.
Today, we think of London as one of the nation’s most tolerant cities; I was surprised to be reminded of the extraordinary racial toxicity in the capital of the early Nineties.
Stephen’s murder was not the first of its kind. In February 1991, a group of 12 thugs assaulted teenager Rolan Adams, stabbing him fatally in the throat. Only one of them, Mark Thornburrow, was convicted of the crime.
Little over a year later, in July 1992, 16-year-old Rohit Duggal was knifed to death outside a kebab shop in Eltham, South-East London by a white youth, later named as Peter Thompson, who was convicted of the murder in 1993.
The area around Eltham where Stephen died was a hotbed of racial hostility. White families saw people of colour as invaders: ‘Woolwich, that used to be a nice area, but it’s started getting blacks and Asians in it.’
Trevor Walsh, a white man married to a black woman, came home to find his home besieged by a 40 strong mob shouting at his wife ‘You went on holiday — you should have stayed there.’ Politics ramped things up even further. In the month after Stephen’s death, 19 people were injured in a battle outside the local headquarters of the British National Party. It appeared to some that the police sided with the racists.
Rolan Adams’s brother was arrested no fewer than five times in the year after his brother’s killing after altercations with white youths. His father Richard, at the end of his tether, told his son to fight back with whatever weapons he could find.
He told me: ‘I’ve told my son that I don’t want to visit him in the cemetery too — I’ll visit him in prison, but not in the cemetery.’
Against this background, Macpherson decided to expand his brief to treat police racism as simply an example of bigotry that permeated the whole of British society. It was a grave mistake. For all his distinction as a lawyer, I believe the judge had limited experience in race relations.
First, he came up with a definition of ‘institutional racism’ that managed to be both unintelligible and wrong.
Thus began a 20-year-long goose chase in search of racial bigotry often where none exists; a trend that has been extended to other aspects of identity politics, including, spectacularly, putting feminists in the dock for questioning the right of anyone in possession of a working penis to identify as a woman.
Just this week the feminist tennis icon Martina Navratilova was being denounced as ‘transphobic’ after telling a Sunday newspaper that it is ‘cheating and unfair’ to allow men who ‘decide to be female’ to compete with women who were assigned the female gender at birth.
Second, Macpherson incorrectly attributed almost all racial disadvantage to conscious white discrimination. He ignored the responsibilities of minority communities themselves; most knife crime, for example, is committed by young black men against other young black men.
And he encouraged a bureaucratic public culture in which tens of thousands of public bodies — schools, hospitals, government departments — spent millions of pounds and years of staff time compiling annual reports on their anti-racist activities — none of which were read by anyone.
But frightened politicians, desperate to be seen to take the issue seriously, created a political environment that made it impossible to question any of his 70-plus recommendations, including those which were patently absurd.
According to Macpherson, any incident can be defined as racial as long as someone present says it is — even if they aren’t involved and know nothing about the background; a busybody’s charter of a particularly pernicious kind.
Anybody — black or white — became fair game for allegations of racial bias that could destroy careers at a stroke.
Today we’re seeing some of the grim results. Law enforcement agencies’ failure ten years ago to identify the early signs of street violence in some minority communities (for fear of stigmatising children in black communities) has led to the knife crime epidemic.
The reluctance by police and local authorities to address the grooming of young girls by mainly Pakistani gangs gave us the Rotherham scandal.
The demonisation of anxiety over immigration turbo-charged Ukip’s accusation that conventional politics was ignoring the public’s concern over immigration. Brexit should not have been a surprise.
And Macpherson has distorted our crimefighting priorities hopelessly. There’s alarm about a ‘rise’ in the number of racial incidents post-Brexit. Actually, the growth is mostly down to better reporting and changes in the definition to include online insults.
It is true that a black man in London is still seven times as likely as his white peer to be stopped and searched by police. But he is also 20 times as likely to die from a knife wound.
I’ll gladly take an extra ten minutes on my journey to work if being stopped and searched will save a black life — particularly my own.
The continuing focus on racial incidents as a measure of social progress presents a travesty of the country we live in. For example, the UK has one of the largest mixed-race populations in the developed world.
But unlike other nations with a mixed population — U.S., Brazil, South Africa — our million-plus group came about because of the choices of couples who met as equals during the period since Windrush. Everywhere else in the world, the history of mixed-race people is largely one of slavery and coercion.
The British people should be a beacon to a world driven by racial and ethnic strife. During last year’s Royal Wedding no one was at all interested in the Duchess of Sussex’s race; and the two people who emerged from the day with the most public admiration were two African Americans — her mother Doria Ragland, and the preacher Bishop Michael Curry.
People who think that Brits are xenophobic and anti-immigrant need to explain why the biggest scandal of last year was fuelled by public outrage at the thoughtless treatment of a group of elderly black Caribbean people denied their true citizenship by the Home Office’s shameful incompetence.
And the answer to the Windrush scandal was the replacement of a white Home Secretary with a Pakistani Muslim, Sajid Javid, now the highest-placed minority politician either side of the Atlantic.
There are new challenges that our society needs to tackle if we are really serious about ‘burning injustices’, for example the bias created by insurance company algorithms that cost people of colour hundreds of millions each year in higher premiums.
And when I visit some of the dying towns in coastal resorts and former coalfields, where dark faces like mine are rare, I am forcibly reminded that there are many white people who feel as aggrieved about their lot as any minority Briton — and with some justification. As I wrote in these pages on the tenth anniversary of the Macpherson Inquiry, we need to realise that ‘increasingly the colour of disadvantage is white as well as brown and black’.
All over the developed world, the passions of race, religion and culture are dividing nations. Conventional politics seems unable to cope. The world is desperately searching for answers and in spite of our past, glimmers of hope have emerged in Britain, which is widely acknowledged to be the best place in Europe to live if you are a person of colour.
It’s time to put the legacy of Macpherson aside. We shouldn’t constantly be evoking the ghosts of yesterday when we urgently need to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
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