Brian Cathcart: The Lawrence case is not about bent coppers. It's about racism

Denying the race motive, detectives ignored an entire line of inquiry
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The Independent Online

The appearance before the Stephen Lawrence inquiry of John Davidson, the former police officer now accused of corruption, was memorable in a number of ways. One was that he twice had to be calmed down by the chairman, Sir William Macpherson, after deciding he was too scandalised by barristers' questions to continue.

Another was a formula he used when discussing his view that the Lawrence murder wasn't racist. "It was thugs attacking a poor young innocent lad," he said. "Had he been black, white, green, blue or yellow he would still have been attacked and killed."

It turned out that most of the officers in the Lawrence investigation shared Davidson's view. The inquiry panel, and most of us watching the proceedings, found this baffling. The assailants and victims were unknown to each other, so there was no grudge or gang war. Nor was there evidence of any other motive. Yet of the five people waiting at the Eltham bus stop, only the black ones were attacked, and one of the attackers shouted the word "nigger". What more could you need?

Davidson saidthe suspects were also believed to have knifed white boys, and he just couldn't see that that wasn't relevant.

None of this figured in last week's dramatic BBC documentary, which concentrated on the case against the five notorious suspects and culminated with the allegation that Davidson had received money from the criminal father of one of them. Sensational as that allegation is, even if it were to be confirmed as true in court, it would still be far less important than what Davidson revealed at the inquiry about his attitude to motive.

What gives the Lawrence case its historic importance is the lessons it teaches about race. If a bent copper was involved as well then certainly he must be brought to account, but it would be a terrible mistake if we allowed that to obscure the role of racism.

The denial of the race motive appears to have caused detectives to ignore an entire line of inquiry. No file was opened about the suspects' attitudes to black people. So no one found out, for example, that two had been thrown out of a youth club for writing racist graffiti, or that two others had been accused of attacking black boys - information that might have contributed to a successful prosecution. More significant is why officers denied the race motive. Macpherson's conclusion was bold: it was one of the symptoms of "unwitting collective racism".

When family liaison officers treated the Lawrences' friends and supporters with suspicion, that was another symptom. When an officer assumed that Stephen had been involved in a fight, that was another. And when a senior officer moaned that his patience with the Lawrences and their complaints about the police was "wearing thin", that was another.

Eight years ago, it was a novelty that a judge should accept that this sort of stuff - depressingly consistent, miserably petty - had a reason, and the reason could be racism. Davidson and his fellow detectives were not, so far as we know, malicious racists of the BNP kind. They didn't hate black people. But when confronted by the Lawrences, many displayed a suspicion, a condescension and a deaf ear that Macpherson recognised as racism.

Even in playgrounds now, children have a shrewder view of what is involved in racism than some of the police officers who testified before Macpherson. That is the great legacy of the Lawrence case.

Brian Cathcart is assistant editor of the 'New Statesman'. He is the author of 'The Case of Stephen Lawrence'