Shyam Bhatia in London
At a time when racism seems to be part of a more distant and less pleasant era, an ongoing trial in London has reminded Indians and other non-white members in Britain just what it used to mean to have a different type of skin.
For many British whites in the 21st century, racial discrimination, including slurs and jibes, is now an obscene and totally unacceptable form of social behaviour that is firmly rooted in the past. All mainstream UK political parties seem to have endorsed this stand against racism. It is quite evident from the current tough legislation against racial abuse and creation of institutions like the Commission of Racial Equality.
But the trial of the two white men accused of killing a black teenager 20 years ago has revived uncomfortable memories of the past when racial bias was prevalent in London and other parts of the UK.
‘Paki’ and ‘nigger’ were common epithets used to describe south Asians and black people. Many Indian journalists and NRIs from those earlier days will testify to the ‘no blacks or Asians’ signs that used to appear on the windows of rental accommodation. Gary Dobson and David Norris, two white men now in their mid-30s, are alleged to have been part of a gang that stabbed and killed 19-year-old black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 as he waited for a bus in the south London suburb of Eltham.
Stephen, who was studying design and technology and physics at school, was the son of a carpenter, Neville, and his wife, Doreen, a teacher. Both parents fully supported their son who wanted to be an architect. One of the witnesses at the time heard a gang member shout, “what, what nigger” before crossing the road and stabbing the unfortunate teenager. Stephen tried to escape by running away, but he collapsed after covering a short distance.
The pathologist report commented: “It’s surprising that he managed to cover 130 yards with the injuries he had. Also, the deep penetrating wound of the right side caused the upper lobe to partially collapse his lung. It is a testimony to Stephen’s physical fitness that he was able to run the distance he did before collapsing.”
Dobson was one of the members of the gang who was arrested, but never convicted for the murder, prompting an inquiry at the time to conclude that the London police had mishandled the investigation and that the police force itself was ‘institutionally racist’.
However, nearly two decades after the tragedy, and following discovery of new evidence, Dobson is one of two men on trial for Stephen’s murder. Some of the evidence includes sensational hidden black and white recordings from a secret police camera hidden inside Dobson’s London flat.
The video tape records him as saying, “If I was going to kill myself, do you know what I would do ? I would go and kill every black, every paki, every copper, every mug that I know, I’m telling you.”
He goes on to say, “I would go down to Catford and places like that, I am telling you now, with two sub-machine guns, and I am telling you, I would take one of them, skin the black alive, mate, torture him, set him alight. I would blow their two arms and legs off and say, ‘Go on, you can swim home now’.”
Dobson has told the court he is “disgusted and ashamed” by what he has seen of himself. Whether the jury believes him and his plea that he is not guilty of the Lawrence murder remains to be seen.
The Lawrence trial coincides with the recently released video footage of other, more recent incidents of racial abuse in the UK. Compared to 20 years ago, however, they seem to be less common than they used to be. One of the videos recently shot on a London bus is of a middle-aged and apparently drunk white woman who screams, ‘I’m a great white c***’ before adding: ‘Do you know what, I really don’t know whether you’re afro-bian, Caribbean’.”
Another example is of a white woman on the London underground who confronts a non-white male passenger and screams, “Learn the lingo and then think about coming back you ******* r*****”. She goes on to screech, “We have got enough of you ******* muppets in our country, stealing out jobs, ******* taking the English jobs.”