The sentencing of two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence is being touted as a landmark victory for the Lawrences. However, it is a case, as Mary Evans puts it, that “involves us all”. In this post, Mary Evans talks about the implications of the case and the responses it has received so far. She argues that the Stephen Lawrence case raises questions not only about racism but also about the access of the citizen to redress.
Victories can diminish the degree of struggle necessary to achieve them: rejoicing with the person (or people) who wins leads us to forget the huge difficulties which they may have faced. Yet even in the moment of the successful prosecution of two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence, the mountain that Neville and Doreen Lawrence faced remains intimidating.
Two bereaved parents took on the considerable institutional power of the Metropolitan Police and many powerful others who either expressed disapproval of the very idea of any form of inquiry (a point forcibly made by Hugh Muir in the Guardian) or just hoped that the case would be forgotten. Those age old tactics of delay, vilification or outright refusal were all part of the obstacles the Lawrences faced.
The Lawrence case is primarily about racism in the United Kingdom. But at the same time, and in the present political climate, it also suggests that we might have to consider some of the assumptions that are made about the access of the citizen to redress and to a voice which can effectively challenge powerful institutions.
The recent months have seen planned cuts in the Legal Aid budget and this diminution in the under-pinning of the rights of access to legal representation are just one way in which it would seem that citizens – even as we become re-branded as consumers – are being less, rather than more, enfranchised.
The mantra of choice as the essential right for the citizen/consumer tends to assume that as long as we can choose we do not need to complain nor to question the choices we are being given. Even more problematically, if we are assumed to have ‘chosen’ it would seem that a significant space is created in which the possible negative implications of that choice are our, individual, responsibility and not of those providing (or failing to provide) whatever is required.
One of the quotations cited by Hugh Muir was a remark made by Boris Johnson when he described the Macpherson inquiry as causing ‘hysteria’. That word has, as many people have pointed out, often been applied to aspects of peculiarly female behaviour and certainly to behaviour that causes disturbance and disrupted order. It is a particularly interesting use of the word since in this case it seems to suggest that a complex, entirely legal and certainly careful accumulation and assessment of evidence (the kind of civic and legal process that politicians often like to claim as the very bedrock of ‘our’ democracy) has become a force for civic disturbance.
The suggestion that we are entitled to an examination of the way in which our society and its institutions work was clearly, to Johnson, a troubling one. It is equally troubling to many others that what should be recognised as a central part of a democratic society (a willingness to inspect itself) is somehow constructed as a troublesome problem. All the more reason to recognise the strength of those individuals who continued in their pursuit of investigation into one case, but a case which involves us all.
Mary Evans is a Centennial Professor at the LSE, based at the Gender Institute. She has written on various aspects of gender and women’s studies and many of those publications have crossed disciplinary lines between the social sciences and the humanities. She was a founding editor of the European Journal of Women’s Studies and is presently working on a study of narratives – and continuities – of class and gender.