Remembering Stephen

Nick Ryan - 22 04 18

The murder of Stephen Lawrence marked a watershed moment in British race relations. It shocked a nation. It was also a stain on our national conscience.

Some think it forced policing to change ever since. Others say not enough has changed.

The murder destroyed a family and cast a grim light on the Metropolitan Police and what would later be termed ‘institutional racism’. It took from the world a bright and studious young man who wanted to become an architect. 

The Murder

As a young child, Stephen was good at most subjects at school, but loved to draw and paint and favoured art and maths. By the age of seven he had resolved to become an architect, a dream he was pursuing at 18.

At 16, his interest in design led him to set up a small business with a friend, designing and selling T-shirts, caps and jackets of well-known bands, rappers and politicians such as Malcolm X. He loved music, particularly soul and R&B.

At one time he worked as a film extra alongside actor Denzel Washington in the film For Queen and Country. He also excelled out of the classroom. He was an active member of the Cambridge Harriers Athletic Club and once ran for Greenwich.

As a Cub, then Scout, he won badges for everything from cooking to sailing.

He was studying for his A-Levels when, waiting with his friend Duwayne Brooks at a bus stop, he was accosted by a group of white youths, stabbed, and despite managing to run for 200 yards, collapsed and died.

Brooks, who also managed to run, claims he heard one of the five or six white youths shout “What, what nigger?” at them, before attacking and stabbing Stephen twice. It was a testament to his fitness that he managed to run as far as he did before collapsing.

Yet instead of swift justice, a bungled police investigation, allegations of corruption and racism dogged the resulting attempt to bring Stephen’s killers to justice.

Slow Wheels of Justice

Doreen Lawrence featured on the BBC documentary ‘Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation’

It is a phrase you hear sometimes, but loses none of its power for repeating: no parent should have to bury their child.

For her determination to achieve justice, it made Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Doreen (now Baroness), a national heroine, but she said this week that if she could take back everything that’s happened since and have her son back, she would.

And who would not?

It would take 18 years to convict just two men of Stephen’s murder and only then after a dogged campaign by his family, involving (among others) a high-profile meeting with his parents by Nelson Mandela in 1993.

In a BBC documentary series out last week, Stephen Lawrence: The Murder That Changed A Nation, Stephen’s cousin Matthew Bickley describes the run-up to Stephen’s murder as a reminder of what it felt like after Brexit. That feeling of minority communities suddenly feeling like they were “the other” again. 

The landmark anniversary brings back painful memories for people in the quiet south-east suburb of Etlham. 

I can picture Stephen lying on that ground there, its painful that I wasn’t there to help him.
– Neville Lawrence 

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock. There were a spate of violent incidents before Stephen’s murder: Rolan Adams, 15, was killed in February 1991 in Thamesmead; in July 1992, Rohit Duggal, 15, was stabbed to death by a white youth, also on Well Hall Road.

The Lawrences endured unimaginable pain as they tried to find out what had happened to their son, and waited for years for his killers to be caught and tried.

Just two men were eventually sentenced, and that only after huge effort and a change in the law. Gary Dobson was jailed for a minimum of 15 years and two months, and David Norris for 14 years and three months in January 2012.

Three others were publicly named as suspects but police have said fresh prosecutions are unlikely unless new evidence is found. The Daily Mail printed a front cover of all the suspects in 1997.

The Daily Mail published a front cover naming all Stephen’s murder suspects

The day after Stephen was killed a letter naming suspects was left in a phone box.

In May and June 1993 police arrested five suspects and charged two, but the charges were dropped a month later with police saying ID evidence from Stephen’s friend Duwayne, the only witness, was unreliable.

The following year the CPS again refused to prosecute suspects, despite new evidence being brought forward.

Stephen’s angry parents launched a private prosecution against Gary Dobson, Luke Knight and Neil Acourt, but it failed in 1996 when Duwayne’s ID evidence was declared inadmissible.

In February 1997 an inquest ruled that Stephen was killed in a “completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths”.

Changing Britain

Windrush Generation arriving in Britain (courtesy of Diane Abbott/Twitter)

25 years after he died, has Britain changed that much?

Cressida Dick, now-head of the Metropolitan Police, says the force has changed enormously since the dark days of 1993 and the official findings, later in 1999, that it was “institutionally racist”.

After a 1998 inquiry into the Met Police’s handling of the Lawrence case found there was mass incompetence and institutional racism in the force, an internal inquiry was launched.

A task force hunted down officers accused of racism but the CPS said there was not enough evidence to prosecute. The anger this generated, and the Lawrence family’s own drive for justice, would eventually lead to a wide review of policing in Britain.

While British society has been changing in the quarter century since Stephen died, a government audit last summer found that racial inequality is still rife. The Racial Disparity Audit showed significant disadvantage for black and ethnic minority communities, and a postcode lottery in school performance.

Black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded from school at three times the rate of white British pupils. But the audit also made clear that among the poorest children in the country, white British pupils do worst at school. Among that group, just 32% reach the expected standard of reading, writing and maths at 11.

Our own Fear and HOPE polling since 2011 and more recent YouGov poll focusing on the public’s attitudes to multiculturalism and integration has shown that hostile attitudes towards immigrants have, mostly, softened.

50 years after ‘Rivers of Blood’, HOPE not hate’s YouGov poll revealed changing attitudes to multiculturalism in Britain

Young people, those living in the cities, the more highly educated, are all more accepting of others. A quarter of Londoners have said they’ve had relationships with someone other than the same ethnicity as themselves.

Just as positively, our poll found that 60% of people thought that immigration had been good for Britain, up from 40% when people were asked the same question in 2011 and 50% when people were asked in January 2016.

The older, particularly older Leave voters, have shown more resistance, however. And negative attitudes towards Muslims are hardening after the recent terror attacks, even as the public has become more accepting of black and other minority communities.

The Pain

Neville Lawrence, featured in the BBC documentary ‘Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation’

After the blow from the failure of the prosecutions attempts, Doreen and Neville Lawrence’s marriage ended.

Neville said he had to move to Jamaica to escape the painful reminder’s of his son’s murder.

He said: “Being back in Jamaica, here, has helped me a lot. I don’t concentrate on the tragedy as much as when I’m there [England].

“At one stage I couldn’t drive down the road it happened on, there were so many reminders of the racist murder of Stephen.

“I can picture Stephen lying on that ground there, its painful that I wasn’t there to help him.”

“I would like to be cheerful now. It’s time to move on now and look about me and my family and my grandchildren, so I can spend more time, positive things.”
– Doreen Lawrence 

What parent cannot imagine his and Doreen’s pain.

In her last ever TV interview, Doreen said it was time to move on as she focuses on herself and her family.

She said: “The support I’ve had over the years from family and everything, I think that’s the drive.

“I want to now spend some time with my family, spend some time on me, that’s important, so I can look forward at the next chapter of my life.

“I would like to be cheerful now. It’s time to move on now and look about me and my family and my grandchildren, so I can spend more time, positive things.”

The Change

Dwayne Brooks, featured on the BBC documentary ‘Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation’

For a whole generation, Duwayne Brooks says, the effect of the case was seismic.

“For a lot of people, Stephen Lawrence was the first time they saw the system as a whole. How it all connected, the police, judiciary, politicians. And it was also exactly the moment they lost trust in it.”

He has not spoken to Doreen about that fateful night ever since.

Neville has said he’s forgiven his son’s killers. He said they “made my son into a legend” and the impact the death had on British society was “amazing”.

He added: “It has helped me because in a sense it is helping others.

“Although I’ve lost Stephen I’ve gained something else in that my son is not going to be forgotten.”

The 1999 Macpherson report issued 70 recommendations to tackle an “institutionally racist” Metropolitan police force. Huge changes have taken place. The Met has introduced neighbourhood panels, community liaison officers, and independent advisory groups.

Yet on the BBC documentary about the murder aired last week, one now-retired senior detective involved in the case called the Macpherson report “a kangaroo court”. 

Just 6% of officers are from an ethnic minority background, compared with the national average of 14% (in 1999 the figure was just 2%). Meanwhile, in New York, more than 50% of officers are from a minority background.

Many would say the cultural and social landscape has shifted in those 25 years since a young man was so brutally snatched from his family, and his future. And there are signs for optimism.

Windrush generation

But as the heads of the Commonwealth gathered in London last week, the British government was reeling from its shameful treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’, British citizens from the Caribbean, threatened with deportation, loss of jobs, refusal of healthcare and benefits under a “hostile environment” immigration policy.

Our multicultural voyage is still very much underway and has had an uneven roll out. It very much needs protecting, not taking for granted, in a fast-changing Britain. And that, for me, is part of Stephen Lawrence’s legacy – to spur us onwards, not back.


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