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Gary Younge
Alabama tactics

In 1993 it cost Ali Ibrahim his life. The 21-year-old Sudanese refugee was walking along the road in Brighton with two friends when a white man accused him of looking at his girlfriend. The row spilled into an alleyway. The man pulled out a knife and plunged it into Ibrahim's heart. The man who had fled civil war in Sudan collapsed and died on the streets in Sussex.

Quddus Ali, aged 17, was walking down Commercial Road in Stepney, London, when eight white youths beat and kicked him into a four-month-long coma. He is permanently brain damaged. In the Deep South they used to call this lynching.

Two racially motivated attacks against young men for which nobody has been convicted. Both took place in the same year that Stephen Lawrence was murdered. Yet neither Quddus Ali nor Ali Ibrahim have become household names. There have been no films in their honour nor any handwringing statements from the Despatch Box.

What was it about the stabbing of one young black man almost six years ago which has focused attention on racial injustice and police incompetence? The media have had a great deal to do with it. In this story they had a simple narrative of good and evil that fitted into the framework of their own racial bias and which they felt they could sell to their readers.

On the one side were his alleged murderers - violent, criminal and boorish - as alien and hostile to the respectable mainstream as you can get. 'Racist thugs,' wrote the Sunday Telegraph. 'A gang of racist thugs,' said the Mirror. 'Five lowlife thugs,' wrote the Mail.

On the other side was the Lawrence family and their late son. Unlike Ali Ibrahim, Stephen was not an asylum seeker. He had never been in trouble with the police. He did not have an outlandish haircut, nor was he from a one-parent family.

It is telling that the only thing most people know about Stephen Lawrence is that he was an A-level student who dreamed of being an architect. 'He was young and bright and black,' and 'a hard-working sixth former with everything to live for,' wrote the Daily Mail; he was 'not involved in drugs in any way,' wrote the Sunday Telegraph.

His parents were similarly respectable and accessible. They speak English and are of Christian stock. 'The word most commonly used by friends and neighbours to describe his family was "ordinary",' wrote the Telegraph. 'They were kind and pleasant.' 'Their next door neighbours are white,' the Telegraph explained in another article. 'The Lawrences have white friends.'

So Neville and Doreen Lawrence became Everyman and Everywoman who happened to find themselves in the eye of a judicial and political storm. They were everything that the white establishment had ever demanded black people should be - they could not be explained away with the usual stereotypes.

The very sight of them - Neville is tall and broad; Doreen slight and gentle - evoked a sense of proud, yet solemn reserve. Into this patronising mould was poured their grief. They suffered the loss of their son 'with a dignity that has won them great respect' wrote the Mail.

Their profile in the press was partly due to a political agenda. Marc Wadsworth, former leader of the Anti-racist Alliance, which played a huge role in supporting the Lawrences during the first year after Stephen's death, says he played to the value systems of the newsdesks and the public. 'We were saying Stephen Lawrence was like you. He wanted to be a decent citizen.'

There is a precedent for this in the frail form of Rosa Parks. Parks was the woman thrown off a bus after she refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, sparking the boycott which launched Martin Luther King to fame.

But she was not the first to break the segregation laws. E.D Nixon, who organised the boycott, said: 'We had three other people prior to Mrs Parks arrested.' The others were considered unsuitable. They came from the wrong part of town. One was a single mother.

There is no suggestion that activists in the Stephen Lawrence case were cynical enough to reject other murder victims because they did not have Stephen's popular appeal. But they pitched their campaign in a way that would attract the widest number of supporters.

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