Stephen lawrence day: A tragic incident that shifted police’s attitudes to the Black British community
For decades, the British police and the black British community never had a comfortable relationship. Actually, I am putting that lightly. They both despised each other equally. Black people in Britain, especially those from the Caribbean, did not trust the police, and the police didn't trust them.
As I explore in some detail in my first novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her, the British police, particularly in the 70s and 80s, made life very difficult for many black British people, especially young black people. All of the major riots during the 80s, the Brixton riots, the Broadwater Farm riots and the Handsworth Riots were all caused by police constantly harassing black people daily.
A major house fire in New Cross (an event I also examine in my novel) in 1981 where 13 black teenagers died in a suspect arson attack by white racists in the area was a significant turning point for the UK's burgeoning black community at that time. It was the first-time black people realised that not only did the British police harass them, but they didn't even care about their lives. If black kids die in a racist attack, then so be it. The police figuratively and literally shrugged their shoulders.
But the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 changed everything.
Suddenly, the police had to start listening.
And it had been a long time coming.
Black British people had become to be reckoned with
For those readers who might not know, Stephen Lawrence was a 19-year-old black man, born to Jamaican parents who immigrated to the UK in the 60s. On his way back to his home with his friend, Stephen was confronted by a group of young white men who brutally murdered him in an unprovoked attack. According to his friend who was with him at the time, Duwayne Brookes, the men had said “What, what nigger” before engulfing Stephen and killing him. It was a racially, motivated attack.
I was quite young, maybe no older than 13, when I was taught about Stephen Lawrence's death in London. In the time we are in now, the idea of a white man killing a black man in a racial attack on London's streets is almost unbelievable.
Believe me; it was not always that way.
I recall, when I was around the age of 11, a few years after Stephen Lawrence's death, my younger brother and cousin were chased by a group of white boys in Canning Town. They had confronted us in the park and called us "niggers."
As we were outnumbered, myself, my brother and my cousin fled the park and ran as fast as our legs would allow back to my cousin's house while these young white boys were chasing us. Fortunately, we made it back to my auntie's home safely. Sometimes, I do wonder what would have happened if we had not. Would one of us have suffered the same fate as Stephen Lawrence? Thankfully, we never had to find out.
While the death of Stephen Lawrence did not eradicate racism in London or the UK, it transformed how police treated black people. Unlike the New Cross Fires in 1981, the British police could not just silence the family of Stephen Lawrence.
Of course, the Met did try to sabotage Stephen Lawrence’s friend and discredit his family, but their shameful tactics failed. The murder of Stephen Lawrence gained massive coverage in mainstream media. Such widespread media coverage would never have happened in the 80s and 70s. But what was unusual about the media coverage was that it was sympathetic. In the past, British tabloids would always shift the blame of any tragedy that had befallen black people back to black people, or they would ignore it entirely like they had the New Cross Fire tragedy 12 years earlier.
As we remember the anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death today let us acknowledge that his death finally forced the British police to be held accountable to the black British community. Suddenly, the death of a black man at the hands of racists deserved justice.
It had been a long time coming, but black lives finally mattered in the UK.
As someone who loves history (I sometimes wish I had studied it at Uni), I try and see how the past has knitted the fabric of our present and possibly our future to.
Take Brexit. If you’ve been following it (how could you not, it’s bloody everywhere), there has been much discussion around the Irish backstop. I am not going to go into detail (you can learn about it here) but the significance of the Irish backstop is rooted in the British colonisation of Ireland.
When you look at the history of the world, particularly that of British colonialism, you notice a familiar narrative. I've been looking into Nigerian's modern history (for a book I plan on writing one day), and it's striking how the colonisation of Nigeria (or more accurately, the British lumping together of various ethnic tribes in the Niger River) and Britain's settlement in Ireland bare three striking similarities.
1. Both countries divided into two opposing regions because of British colonisation
During the Berlin Conference in 1884, the prominent European nations, overexcited by imperialism like it was a new hobby, carved up the continent of Africa like they were sharing a pie, albeit one filled with resources like oil. In this ‘Scramble for Africa,' Britain effectively took control of the Niger River region, ruled it indirectly and split the various indigenous groups into two – the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate.
By dividing Nigeria like this, Britain unwittingly created an unbalanced country. The South became richer, boasting a mostly Christian populace consisting of the Yoruba and Igbo ethnic group (although they are various other ethnic groups.) By contrast, the North, which is dominated mainly by Islam, is poorer, consisting of the Fulani and Kanuri ethnic group who speak Hausa. The Muslim-dominated North, some critics argue, was much more resistant to European influence because of their firm adherence to Islam.
Since becoming independent in 1960, there has been much civil unrest and conflicts between Nigeria’s Northern and Southern tribes, stopping Nigeria from fulfilling its potential. Because the British haphazardly created the country with little regard to the very different ethnical groups, a united Nigeria was always going to be difficult to achieve.
Centuries before Nigeria’s creation, Ireland was Britain’s first colony. Before British colonisation, Ireland was staunchly Roman Catholic. To increase its control over Northern Ireland (known as Ulster), Britain sent Protestant English and Scottish men to settle in the area and eventually they outnumbered the Catholic Irish.
But Britain’s colonisation of Northern Ireland created a region divided between the Protestants (loyal to Britain) and the Catholics (who wanted an independent Irish state). Similar to Nigeria, where the Christian-dominated Igbo and Yoruba Southern tribes had a better quality of life than Islam-dominated Northern tribes, in Northern Ireland, the Protestants had better jobs and better opportunities than Catholics.
In 1921, 39 years before Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, and after many battles and bloodshed over hundreds of years, Ireland gained its independence from Britain by effectively splitting into two countries – Republic of Ireland (an independent nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK). But while 78% of the Republic of Ireland is mainly catholic, Northern Ireland is almost evenly split between Catholics and Protestants, creating hostility and resentment, similar to the Christian and Islam divide in Nigeria.
2. A major civil war has taken place in both countries which can be linked back to British Colonisation
The bloodiest and fiercest civil war in recent Nigerian history was the Biafran War that lasted between 1967-1970. When Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, it was a country loosely glued together by Britain and fraught with rivalries between its various tribes. There was a period of tribal tensions followed by a military coup in 1966 by the Igbo, leading to another counter-coup from a northern-led rebellion and then subsequent massacres of the Igbo people. Against this blood-stained backdrop, an Igbo-majority declared its independence from Nigeria, claiming Biafra as their new home. The prospect of Nigeria splitting into two, in a fashion similar to Ireland, resulted in a civil war between the Nigerian army (later supported by the British Army who supplied weapons) and the Biafran army. Although Nigeria was victorious and the country remained unified, there were over 100,000 military casualties, and between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians died of starvation.
When it shaped Nigeria, Britain had ignored the ethnic composition of the various tribes within the Niger River region, inadvertently planting the seeds that would become of the roots of Nigeria's most tragic civil war to date.
Although Northern Ireland’s civil war, ‘The Troubles’, was not as cataclysmic as the Biafran War, it is no less tragic. Lasting between the late 1960s and coming to a fragile truce in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement, The Troubles, like the Biafran war, was territorial rather than religious. It was a battle between the unionists, who were mostly Protestant and wanted to Northern Ireland to remain as part of the UK, and nationalists, a Catholic minority who wished for Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland thus uniting Ireland. Causalities from the war, mostly concentrated in Belfast although it did spill into England, exceeded 3,600 with as many as 50,000 suffering serious injuries.
"Similar to Nigeria, where the Christian-dominated Igbo and Yoruba Southern tribes had a better quality of life than Islam-dominated Northern tribes, in Northern Ireland, the Protestants had better jobs and better opportunities than Catholics. "
Unlike Nigeria, Ireland was ruled directly by the British through the insemination of Protestant Brits and Scots. But this divided the region, causing conflict over centuries as the Irish Catholics effectively became marginalised in their own land while the Protestants prospered. It is not surprising that the Irish Catholics could not cooperate with Protestant unionists as they fundamentally wanted different outcomes for the future of Northern Ireland, with the former wanting a complete separation from Britain. Nigeria had a similar scenario with the Southern Igbo tribe fighting for a united Biafran republic that was separate from Nigeria - a country manufactured by the British.
3. There are still ongoing divisions in both countries because of British colonisation
During my recent trip to Belfast for a Christmas party (side note: I don't think you'll ever taste a pint of Guinness as smooth and pure as they come in Belfast), I took part in a tour showing the locations that played a significant role during The Troubles. I was startled that the division between Protestant and Catholics, while no longer inciting outright violence against each other, was still present in the hearts and minds of the populace. There remains a physical manifestation of the divide with the "peace walls." These are 25-feet steel walls that stretch across the neighbourhoods in Belfast, separating the Nationalist Catholics and the Loyalist Protestants living in the area, mitigating any hostilities.
In Nigeria, the ethnic, cultural and religious divisions between the North and the South, Christians, and Muslims, is still evident, leading to current conflicts. The rise of the violent terrorist group, Boko Haram, in Northern Nigeria, is seen as retaliation and intolerance to Britain bringing its Western sensibilities and Christianity to Nigeria.
"It is not surprising that the Irish Catholics could not cooperate with Protestant unionists as they fundamentally wanted different outcomes for the future of Northern Ireland, with the former wanting a complete separation from Britain. Nigeria had a similar scenario with the Southern Igbo tribe fighting for a united Biafran republic that was separate from Nigeria - a country manufactured by the British. "
I am by no means suggesting that if Britain had never colonised Nigeria or Northern Ireland, then both countries would never have experienced any kind of deep-rooted divisions and violence that have blighted them over the past 100 years. That wouldn’t be true. Tribes within the Niger River region were fighting each other and selling each other into slavery long before the British came with their Bibles and rifles. However, Ireland has been stubbornly resisting English colonisation as far back as the 16th century.
If you take anything away from this article, I hope it’s an understanding that the past will always provide a canvas in which the present and future will be painted on. As Northern Ireland faces the prospect of Brexit and Nigeria readies itself for its 2019 General Election, it is essential to look at how these two countries were moulded by British rule in the past, to help us determine how they might shape themselves in the future.
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