Rodney King, Stephen Lawrence and the limits of the cause celebre
Runnymede Blog blog post is written by Kam Gill, research and policy analyst at Runnymede
The announcement that Rodney King had died aged 47 prompted much comment about the impact the King case had on both race relations and policing in the US. King became arguably the world’s most famous victim of police brutality after three of the officers filmed beating him on the sidewalk were acquitted by an all-white jury, with the fourth being released following a mistrial. The trial sparked widespread rioting across LA, during which more than 50 people were killed.
In the 20 years since the LA riots Rodney King developed a totemic status for those who suffered from police aggression, particularly in the US but also in the UK. Over the same period, policing in the UK has had its own race scandals, most notably the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence. Similar to the King Case, the Lawrence murder sparked an inquiry into policing in the UK which allowed Black and minority ethnic communities to air grievances that had festered for decades.
One of the most prominent issues coming to light was stop and search. The massive disparities in the use of this power prompted Lord Macpherson, who led the inquiry into the police response to Lawrence’s murder, to conclude that institutional racism was embedded within the Metropolitan police service. Much like the King case, the Lawrence inquiry was considered to have exposed the facade of post-racial or colour blind policing, allowing the ugly truth to be faced and dealt with.
Latest statistics indicate that black people are still stopped at 7 times the rate of white people in the UK, a level of disparity even greater than that when Stephen Lawrence was killed and Rodney King was beaten. In the last year, the number of stops carried out by the NYPD of young Black men in New York was greater than the whole Black male population of the city meaning many people are being stopped multiple times. Violence against minorities by American police officers remains a serious issue, and over the past year in the UK we saw two prominent deaths at the hands of the police in London alone. The deaths of Smiley Culture and Mark Duggan are both yet to be fully investigated and may never be so. Mark Duggan’s death at the hands of the police in August of 2011 prompted riots to break out across the country which were branded the largest public disorder event for a generation.
Yet in terms of changes to policing, despite promising noises, few concrete changes have been delivered. According to research by the charity Inquest, since 1990 there have been 1432 deaths in police custody in the UK, of which the Met alone accounts for just under a quarter. The vast majority of these deaths attracted little or no attention in the media, and for most no charges were brought.
This is the reality twenty years after the pivotal King trial and Stephen Lawrence murder. The problem with campaigns around a cause celebre, such as those around King or Lawrence is that they can provide a catharsis that obscures the deeper issues which remain unresolved after the cameras have moved on or the report has been published.
So what is the solution? Clearly it is not sufficient to rely upon the temporary momentum produced by individual scandals, no matter how significant. Instead, meaningful changes require a continual multi-pronged approach. By all means, reformers should be prepared to talk whenever opportunities arise for a conversation about policing (and it is tragic that these opportunities are so often tied to violence against young Black men). However simply capitalising on a headline will not alter the legal structure which allows such violence to take place. Legal challenges to oppressive powers and laws are useful for correcting specific wrongs and altering the framework in which the police must operate. However, without a sustained grassroots campaign they can do little to alter the culture of an institution or prevent hard won victories being reversed by the courts. In New York, Communities United for Police Reform provides an excellent example. This alliance of grass roots and civil liberties groups is steering several bills mandating increased accountability and monitoring through the legislature via a sympathetic councillor, while at the same time organising pledge drives and publicity campaigns to demonstrate the popular demand for change. The campaign has put Stop and Frisk at the centre of a forth coming mayoral debate and forced Mayor Bloomberg to defend his record in a manner that simple legal challenges or protest marches alone could not.
In the wake of Rodney King’s death it is right to reflect on the impact of his case, but it is also vital to recognise the limits that any one person’s experience can have on an issue as large and vital as racism and policing.