Lawrence becomes black icon

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STEPHEN LAWRENCE, the south London teenager who was murdered by white racists, has become as potent an icon as leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King for black British youth.

Sociologists and human rights groups are comparing the significance of the Lawrence case, in historic terms, with the first migration of Caribbean people to Britain aboard the SS Empire Windrush 50 years ago.

They hope his name will become a marker for change after the conclusion of the Lawrence inquiry in February which is expected to make forceful recommendations to eradicate institutional racism in the police force.

Stephen's blameless life and brutal death has already inspired works of art as well as stage and screen plays, and this week his parents will broadcast about racism at the same time as the Queen's Christmas day message.

The image of the dead schoolboy has featured in the work of Chris Ofili, this year's Turner Prize winner. The Tricycle Theatre, in London, will next month stage a dramatised reconstruction of the major events in the murder inquiry and Granada Television is planning a two-hour drama about his parents' battle for justice.

Stuart Hall, visiting professor in sociology at the Open University, believes that Stephen's case will be a marker in relations between police and black people. "It will stand for the fact that this time we were able to smoke out prejudice," he said. "His name will resonate in a way that no other individual in British black history has done before. The reason for this is his actions were not politicised like that of Blair Peach, for example, who died on a march.

"I think black teenagers identify with him because they are at the sharp edge. They are saying that the police prejudice shown in Stephen's case has been going on for a long time."

Professor Hall said Stephen's image has become so potent because his murder occurred at a point in history when society had become complacent about racism in Britain.

"We have become self-congratulatory on our multi-culturalism, typified by our acceptance of black footballers like Ian Wright. Yet this has not obliterated the tendency to see blacks and Asians as outsiders. If you belong to a white skinhead group in Eltham, then Saturday night is still for kicking the shit out of a black kid.

"The fact is that racists are more deeply committed in this country than ever, because British 'identity' is more under threat than at any other time."

Professor Hall's views are shared by Simon Holdaway, professor of sociology at Sheffield University and a former police officer. He says there has been an unprecedented identification with Stephen on a personal level.

Professor Holdaway also believes the Lawrence case has seriously challenged middle-class faith in the British justice system and the police.

"Other inquiries like Scarman have been dealing with a group incident like the Brixton riots. Here you have a blameless young schoolboy, a typical English lad, getting ready to go to university, who belongs to a respectable family from an ordinary suburb," he said. "All he's doing is standing at a bus stop; then he's murdered by racists. His family expects justice will be done but they are completely let down by the system. The length of the inquiry, which came about because of the incredible courage of his parents, means there was time for it to touch more sections of society."

Peter Herbert, chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, says Stephen Lawrence has become a symbol of something more significant than an individual tragedy. "There has never been a civil rights movement in this country, therefore there has never been something to touch the heart of the community. There has never been a black martyr in this country, but that is what Stephen has become."

However, Ekow Eshu, editor of Arena magazine, believes there is a danger that in turning Stephen into an icon people forget that his experience is one shared by many.

"Stephen Lawrence was an ordinary teenager, although the fact he was murdered was extraordinary. What happened to him continues to happen to other people in varying degrees and we should not lose sight of that," he said. "The important thing about the case is that it highlighted the failure of the police force to understand this and the fact they continue to put racism down to the paranoia of black people."