The debt we owe and the commitment we must all make

Matthew Collins - 22 04 13

Twenty years ago today the black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in Eltham, south London.

Within days of the murder, Stephen’s parents Neville and Doreen came to believe that their son’s murder was being ignored and that the investigation into his murder was being hampered by the attitudes of the police officers involved.

The Lawrence family believed that their son had been the victim of a racist mob. They had ample reason to believe so too. Stephen was not the first victim of racists in that part of London.

Two years before, Rolan Adams, and his brother Nathan, were standing at a bus stop after going to a local youth club when they were 
confronted by a gang of more than a dozen white youths, between 16 and 26 years old, who hurled racist abuse at them. They then stabbed Rolan from behind. He started 
running, and shouted for his younger brother to run. The two were 
separated as they ran for their lives. Rolan was fatally wounded and did 
not survive the attack.

There were countless other vicious racist attacks too. Rohit Dougal was murdered in Eltham in 1992 also.

For many, one of the defining factors in the murders was not just racism, but also the activities in the area by the British National Party who had opened a bookshop in the area and also glorified the murder of Adams by holding a march near the spot where he was murdered. They would later attack a march that was protestesting at the murder of Duggal.

Doreen and Neville never let up and never let another racist murder be swept under the mat. Through sheer perseverance they raised the matter of Stephen’s murder wherever they could be heard. The family described the attitudes of the police towards them as bordering on contempt.

Nelson Mandela himself came to sit with the family, and then, almost like a steamroller, the Lawrence murder and the resulting Inquiry by William MacPherson, concluded that institutional racism was rife in the police service and in all probability- in other public institutions too.

This of course, did not immediately bring justice to the Lawrence family, but MacPherson’s findings and subsequent report, made the name Stephen Lawrence synonymous with the failings of the police, government and society with dealing with racism. Most sharply, with how the Metropolitan police had so failed the Lawrence family and their son, almost solely because of the colour of their skin. My colleague Matthew Collins, who had been an active member of the far right in the area where the racist murders were happening at the time, also made a submission to the Inquiry.

The whole world it seems demanded justice for Stephen Lawrence. The whole world knows that justice did not come immediately and still has not completely.

The arrogant swagger of Stephen’s killers when they escaped justice hammered home how there were people in our society who felt wholly immune from justice, solely on the basis of their colour and presumably, the colour of their victim.

Twenty years is a long time. It took nineteen years to convict two of Stephen’s killers, the case remains “active” according to the Met Police. Were he alive today, Stephen would be 38. What kind of society he and other ethnic minorities would be living in is hard to judge. A change had to happen, Stephen’s murder did not.

Speaking today, surrounded by the Prime Minister and the mayor of London, Stephen’s mother remarked that there is still more to do.

She is sadly, absolutely right in saying so. But without her and Neville Lawrence, bereaved parents refusing to lie down and accept institutional racism was just an every day part of life, we would never have made a start.

Twenty years on we must a redouble our efforts and keep demanding a just and fair society for all. That so many of us do is the debt we owe and the commitment we must all make to remember Stephen Lawrence.


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