Sunday, January 08, 2012

Racist Murder in SE London

Everybody now agrees that the killing of Stephen Lawrence was a terrible racist crime. The conviction of two men for his murder last week made the front page of all the newspapers, with comments by politicians and senior police officers. Back in 1993 it was very different - Government and media indifference (with some exceptions) and police hostility to those campaigning against racist attacks.

It was a terrible time in South East London, when the borough of Greenwich was named by some as 'Britain's racist murder capital' (Independent, 12 June 1993).  In February 1991, 15-year-old Rolan Adams was killed on the way home from a vist to the Hawksmoor youth club in Bentham Road, Thamesmead.

The Rolan Adams banner on a march to the BNP HQ in February 1992
In July 1992, 15 year old Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death outside the kebab shop in Tudor Parade, Well Hall Road. A white youth named Peter Thompson was later jailed for his murder.

Relatives of Rohit Duggal on a November 1992
demonstration to the BNP HQ in Welling
Then came the murder of  18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in April 1993, also in Well Hall Road in Eltham. As with the Adams and the Duggal cases, the police and Crown Prosecution Service tried to deny the racist aspects of the murder.

Stephen Lawrence's parents at a vigil in May 1993
There were other murders too elsewhere in South London. Ruhullah Aramesh, a 24 year old Afghan refugee, was beaten to death in Thornton Heath by a gang armed with iron bars in July 1992. In October of that year Sher Singh Sagoo, a Deptford market trader, was attacked and killed. And murder was just the tip of the iceberg - between August 1990 and May 1991, 863 incidents of racist attacks and harassment were reported to the Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks alone.

I went on many demonstrations at that time, usually led by the families of murder victims. There was the Anti Racist Alliance demo in June 1993 from Norbury Park to the scene of Ruhullah Aramesh's murder. There was the march against the British National Party demo in Thamesmead in 1991, provocatively called a few months after the murder of Rolan Adams in the same area where he was killed. The police mobilised their forces to stop the anti-racists who outnumbered the BNP ten to one (roughly 1200 to 120).

I remember seeing riot police baton people's heads out of sight of the cameras in a car park between housing blocks on the estate. I took a friend with a head wound to Kings hospital in Camberwell as we didn't think the local casualty department would be a safe place to go.  Incidentally Stephen Lawrence (then at Blackheath Bluecoats School),  took part on the anti-BNP demo that day too.

Welling demonstration, October 1993

Increasingly the headquarters of the BNP in Upper Wickham Lane, Welling, became the focus of demonstrations. The point wasn't that the racist murders were being explicitly organised by them, but that they were spewing out racist poison that was legitimising these attacks.

The biggest demonstration took place on 16th October 1993.  Anti-fascist magazine Searchlight estimated 40,000 people attended, the Independent 25,000 and Socialist Worker 60,000. Either way it must have been one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in South East London. The Unity demo against the BNP started off with a massive rally on Winns Common, before heading off towards Welling.

Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman leads the march
According to Searchlight (November 1993), 'the marchers arrived at the crossroads where one road went to the nazi headquarters and the other [Lodge Hill] was the route imposed by the police. At this point the Unity banner at the head of the march was facing into the road leading to the BNP headquarters. The stewards and Leon Greenman, an 82 year old survivor of the Nazi death camps, tried to negotiate passage through the police line. When it was refused, some of the marchers sat down'. Riot police, including some on horseback, charged the crowd and there were riotous scenes with smoke bombs,  flying bricks, snatch squads and 3,000+ police. At least 56 demonstrators were injured and 31 people were arrested on the day' (Sunday Times, 17 October 1993). Personally I didn't even see any of this until I got home on TV as I had been trapped in the crowd by Plumstead cemetery - like much of the crowd unable to move because the police had blocked both Upper Wickham Lane (towards the BNP HQ) and Lodge Hill (the route the police had earlier said the march would have to take).

One woman reported at the time 'I was sitting on a wall, just trying to avoid the police. A policeman pushed me off. The police charged from a side street. I tripped over a bush and four police just laid into me with truncheons.  I was on the floor and one of them was kneeling on me, just hitting me. Later I saw a man in a wheelchair. The police charged again and again and just knocked him over. He fell out of his chair. My friend - she's 16 - tried to help him up and the police started hiting her' (Socialist Worker, 23 October 1993) 

Anti-Nazi League chief steward Julie Waterson
bleeding after being batoned by police in October 1993

The BNP HQ finally closed in 1995, following action by Bexley Council.

See also: Bob from Brockley, pretty much summing up what I think about the whole affair; 853 - thoughts of a SE London contemporary of Stephen Lawerence, and a reminder  'that it was the community in Eltham who gave up the names of Dobson and Norris in the first place. It was the local Metropolitan Police who decided that the death of a black man wasn’t worth investigating properly, not the people of Eltham'; Ian Bone points out that one of the police officers who mismanaged the original Lawrence investigation is still a Croydon Conservative councillor - David Osland wrote to his superiors in September 1993 that 'Our patience is wearing thin on 3 Area (south-east London)... with the Lawrence family and their representatives'.

[update 11 January 2012 : 'The dad of Stephen Lawrence has passed potentially crucial new evidence on his son's murder to cops, he revealed yesterday. Neville Lawrence, 69, was told a suspect had now confessed to being at the scene of the murder.The development comes after two men were jailed for life last week for the gang murder of Stephen in 1993. Mr Lawrence said: "After the verdict, I met two people in Brockley, London, on Saturday who knew one of the guys that was part of the gang. They mentioned the boy confessed that he was there on the night. They gave me their names and addresses and I passed them on to the police." Mr Lawrence called on the racist pair to tell cops where the knife used to stab his son is hidden. He added: "There is forensic evidence on that knife to convict somebody else.". His plea came as a burger bar worker claimed Norris was involved in a brutal attack on him six weeks BEFORE Stephen was murdered. Gurdeep Bhangal, 41, said he confronted the yob after he banged on the window of the Eltham branch of Wimpy. He said: "I got hold of him and was stabbed by another person." No one was arrested, [The Sun, 10 January 2012]

As Bob from Brockley reminds us in the comments, while failing to find evidence against the killers the police were deploying resources in infiltrating anti-racist groups - and indeed a former police spy has admitted to taking part in attacks on police lines in Welling (see Bob's post on this affair).

2 comments:

Charlie said...

Although from SE London I was a student in Colchester at the time of the Rolan Adams demo and came down in a minibus with some other students. I remember Al Sharpton was there and spoke in the corner of the car park (playground?) where the march gathered. The papers the next day were full of his 'inflammatory' remarks 'stoking' the tensions, but the thing was, with no PA or even a loudhailer nobody heard a word he said except the journalists who'd crowded around him.

bob said...

Worth adding the confessions of a police undercover agent last year to playing a role in provoking violence at the big Welling march see this post of mine from last year.

Here's the Guardian report:
Two weeks later, Officer A took part in a much larger, far more violent, protest in Welling, south-east London, against a BNP-run bookshop that served as the party's headquarters. Intelligence he obtained revealed that the demo was to be far larger than had been expected and that a particularly violent faction was planning to storm the bookshop and set fire to it, trapping any BNP members inside.

As a result, police leave was cancelled for that weekend and more than 7,000 officers, including a large mounted contingent, were deployed. Instead of being spread out along the entire route, police focused on blocking the main roads leading to the bookshop and forcing the march along a route that would take it away from its target. A violent confrontation ensued with a group of hardcore protesters – Officer A among them – attacking the police lines in an attempt to break through. Dozens of police and protesters were injured in the clashes.


Here was my response:
The event was truly terrifying. The police used an extraordinary amount of force to stop the march getting anywhere near the bookshop. Among the protestors, large numbers (but still a tiny proportion of the crowd) responded violently to the police, for example throwing improvised missiles at them, and the damage done was extensive. As Paul Stott puts it,

"At that demonstration police halted the crowd at the top of a hill, before launching a series of baton charges into demonstrators. As few armies in history have won a battle fighting up hill, it was seen at the time as pre-empting violence so the police could have a riot on their terms, not the demonstrators. Perhaps the evidence of 'Officer A' rather confirms this? Where it leaves those convicted of committing criminal offences in those baton charges is of course another matter..."