Illustration by Hannah Robinson
On April 22nd, 1993, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by white supremacists whilst waiting at a bus stop in South-East London.
On the 28th April 1996, a man finished his lunch in a café in Port Arthur, Tasmania. He stood up, reached into his bag and, using a semi-automatic rifle concealed within, proceeded to murder 35 people and wound 23 others.
On the 25th of February, Ahmaud Arbery left his home in Georgia, U.S.A, for his customary jog. Arbery was shot three times and killed; suspected of a robbery he may or may not have committed – but presumed guilty as a ‘black male running’.
These three incidents, on three different continents, are united in tragedy. But there are also key themes that tie these incidents together. The killings of Stephen Lawrence and Ahmaud Arbery have both involved police cover ups.
The MacPherson report of 1999 apologised to the Lawrence family for “institutionalised racism” within the London Metropolitan Police. And a new investigation was opened in 2015 into police corruption on the original investigation. One of Arbery’s killers, is a former police detective and investigator, in the county he and his son killed Arbery in. Both Lawrence and Arbery were killed in scenarios where all available evidence indicates that the colour of their skin decided their fate.
The most profound similarity, and the crux of this article, is not in the events themselves but their impact. Following the Port Arthur shooting, Australia outlawed automatic and semi-automatic rifles as well as pump-action shotguns in the National Firearms Agreement. 640,000 weapons were handed over to authorities.
In Britain, after a Public Prosecution had been abandoned for insufficient evidence, and a private prosecution had collapsed due to inadmissible evidence, the double jeopardy legal principle was dropped in April 2005 for certain crimes when new evidence was found.
In January 2012, two men were (finally) found guilty of the Lawrence murder and given life sentences. The Macpherson report has been described as creating “the strongest battery of anti-discrimination powers to be found in Western Europe”. These changes came too late for Stephen Lawrence, and his parents Doreen and Neville. They came too late for the victims and relatives of Port Arthur. Yet come they did.
Which leads us to America, and to differences. Because for Ahmaud Arbery, read Oscar Grant. Or Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Terence Crutcher. If you are black and American, you are more likely to die at the hands of a policeman than from pneumonia and influenza combined.
U.S cultural stereotypes of ‘Black Criminality’ contribute to this. Likewise, the political culture in which the President describes white supremacists as “very fine people” acts as a motor. Little seems to have changed in the 50 years since Bob Dylan sang “if you’re Black, you may as well not show up on the street, unless you want to draw the heat”.
Arbery’s alleged killers argue they were abiding by Georgia’s “stand your ground” statute. Sounds familiar? George Zimmerman, the security guard who shot teenager Trayvon Martin, used that defence in Florida. There is no equivalent law in the UK.
In very few other societies, lives can be weighed in opposition to laws. In a battle pitching rights against lives, Australia veered to the latter. It has seen no mass shootings since Port Arthur. America sees one every fortnight (the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of schools across the world, meant that March 2020 was the first month without a school shooting in the US, since 2002).
Yet when Barack Obama hailed Australia’s gun restrictions, the National Rifle Association (N.R.A) fired back in a piece entitled Australia: There Will be Blood. It began; “A spectre is haunting America- the spectre of gun confiscation”.
No right should be unqualified; yet the Right to bear arms is sacrosanct to many. This includes the US Supreme Court which, in D.C v Heller 2008, ruled that any laws requiring safe storage of guns, was unconstitutional as it violated this right.
The ‘Lives v Liberty’ debate has a new focal point during the COVID-19 crisis. Legislators around the world are tasked with balancing fundamental liberties with the imperative to save lives. Yet until more balance is achieved regarding gun ownership, we can only expect more deaths. Until actual lives are prioritised over absolute rights, I don’t hold out much hope that Arbery’s name won’t just be added to a list filled with commas but with no full stop in sight.
In framing the constitution, America’s Founding Fathers agonised over what would be too much power for any individual to hold. Lawmakers since, have not considered what may be too much power for every individual to hold.
If the American Dream is self-made prosperity, then this oversight is a uniquely American tragedy.