‘The Murder that Changed a Nation’: 28 years on.

Who was Stephen, and why is it still possible to draw societal comparisons from the investigation of his murder today?

Merely weeks after a government-issued report in the UK found ‘no evidence’ of systemic racism in the country, we are today reminded of its embedded existence in society, by Stephen Lawrence Day.

Stephen Lawrence is a name most in the UK will have at least heard. That is something minimal I would like to imagine, but perhaps too naïve and ambitious of me even to begin with. Pinning no expectation on this premise, Stephen’s name is actually one of the most well-known, if not the most publicly known name in the history of the UK, regarding the matter of institutional and systemic racism within the police and wider British society, alongside racial hate crime.

“For me, it’s just making sure everybody knew Stephen was killed. Everybody needs to know what happened to my son.”

Doreen Lawrence, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon

Documenting such a layered story up to this present day is extremely challenging, given the repeated failings, missed opportunities, legal complications and so on, involved in the Lawrence family’s exhausting process of achieving dignified justice for Stephen. I don’t wish to simply document it; rather draw from it in reflecting on society as we know it today, to look at what, if anything, has changed.

Stephen, who was murdered at 18 years of age, a year before I was born; was a social, academic, ambitious family man, with a part-time job and aspirations to become an architect. It’s hard not to automatically relate with descriptions of his personality, having grown up experiencing such things in the UK. What I can’t, and could never relate to through experience, is the way in which following his murder, the Metropolitan Police first assumed he was a criminal because of the colour of his skin. As if he’d somehow deserved to be stabbed by racists while waiting for a bus.

One thing that has certainly changed, or rather shifted, as documented by Akala in Natives, is the type of racism experienced by people of colour in the UK, (though explicit, violent racism has undoubtedly not ceased to exist), writing throughout the book about the way racism has not been eradicated, but changed, and manifested itself, or not manifested itself at all, in a lot of ways. Mainly shifting from frequent violent crime to implicit forms, attitudes and double standards often not even known to exist. The most alarming takeaway from this is the amount of UK politicians, statisticians – and members of their publics as a result (who are predominantly White, in this case), who assume and believe that the problem of racism is in the past, and has conveniently ‘gone away’. Just as it did when slavery was abolished.

As The Guardian reported in 1993, Stephen was the fourth Black man in two years to be murdered in the south-east London district of Eltham. Again, while keeping in mind that “race crime” hasn’t gone away in London, or anywhere else where it’s occurred in the UK, the ability to distinguish between violent racist attacks and systemic racism is vital in tackling the issues the latter brings with it. If a community has an Asian shopkeeper, that doesn’t make it a multicultural or happily diverse community in its own right. If I take a taxi and the driver is Black, this doesn’t mean society is integrated and harmonised because a person of colour is doing their job. Conclusions similar to these are often reached on such weak foundations and conscious or unconscious pretences, which makes systemic racism even more dangerous in one sense, because it is so hard to explicitly see, identify, and therefore eradicate. Having spoken to numerous people of colour working in professions such as these local to myself in South Wales, it’s clear to see that explicit racism based around stereotypes is alive and well, without even touching on anything we can’t immediately perceive.

Acknowledging the existence of a problem is a major step in outing it, which the police, a force for good, failed to do in Stephen Lawrence’s case, decade after decade. This lack of acknowledgement of institutional and systemic racism across the country has been highlighted by the government’s recent report, which unapologetically contains the sentence “The UK should be regarded as a model for other White-majority countries”. Tell that to the family and friends of Stephen Lawrence, whose killers were only convicted in 2012, due to previous ‘lack of evidence’ being quoted, as the rest of the gang that killed Stephen walked free and laughed about it.

As told this week by BBC documentary ‘Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation‘, it took the personal involvement of Nelson Mandela for the police to first arrest names that had been spoon fed to them left right and centre, over the weeks following Stephen’s death. His involvement was, and still is half-heartedly denied as a reason or catalyst for police action the very next day, after weeks of inaction.

“The contrast between the failure of British domestic politicians and the willingness of Nelson Mandela to become involved, I think tells its own story.”

Lee Jasper

In the immediate aftermath of her son’s murder, Doreen Lawrence raised an important point which echoed what implicit systemic racism is really about, stating that if the deceased had been White, police would have surrounded the Black communities in and around Eltham, making arrests, and not stopping until they had reached a killer. Though the police were not explicitly targeting people and saying it was because of the colour of their skin (despite stats even today that show a person is over five times more likely to be treated with force in stop & searches by police in parts of the UK, if they are visibly Black), the exercising of the phrase “turning the other cheek” was, and is an enabler for the existence of racism in society. It remains “unknown” to police spokespeople as to why these figures are so heavily weighted on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. This concerning statistic has since been reported to be almost twice as high.

While we’re on the topic of police reports and stop & searches, this sort of implicit and underlying racism has motivated more and more people in 2021 to question everything they hear, applying agency and at least openly trying to acknowledge the existence of bias. Especially following the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the public praising of passers-by, who filmed what they saw as an abuse of power. This active need for question marks now has a place in police reports and internal investigations too.

For example, in this 2021 government report on stop & searches and ethnicity (in England and Wales), why would information on driver/passenger ethnicity not be available for vehicle stops? The reason given under section 2: ‘Things you need to know’ is ‘ethnicity information is not collected during these searches’. But again, why? If police forces in the UK are trying to tackle racism in all its forms, internally and externally, why would such small details be allowed to make such a big difference to results? If what is described as an IC3 male is stopped in his car because of the colour of his skin, why is there no documentation of this moving forward? I’m not saying I’m definitely onto something specifically with this one-time example, but it’d be progressive to uncover reasons behind such details and be inclusive to reveal true representative numbers – and it didn’t take long to find. There is always room for progress.

Repeated failings have often been followed up over time, with repeated admissions (albeit worthless to the Lawrence family) of such failings. Unfortunately, this has historically paved the way for knee-jerk reactions, offering a quick fix to problems that require decades of dedication. It took public inquiries such as the Macpherson Report to uncover the fallings short in the Lawrence investigation.

Conveniently less than one year before this report was published, the police issued an apology in 1998, with Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon admitting there had been failures and apologising to the Lawrence family. Even the public inquiry, which accused the Met Police of institutional racism, making 70 recommendations aimed at improving police attitudes to racism – while it may have made some difference in the way many police officers operate and interact with members of Black communities – did not come close to eradicating the racism it very clearly highlighted. ‘Improving attitudes’ leads naturally to a need for education, which has unfortunately often been embodied by throwaway training courses in organisations, rather than sustained listening, learning and appropriate application. To assume or hope that this tackles racism singlehandedly is more of an insult than a joke.

Let’s consider the case of the disaster of Grenfell Tower – 24 years later and 14 miles across the capital city. ‘Cladding’ was a word with which I’d been unfamiliar, prior to 2017, but now every time I hear or read it, my brain associates it with the failures of a systemically racist society and institutionally racist government. ‘Failure’ could even be swapped out with ‘refusal’, seeing as the government knew, and knows that flammable cladding was, and still is, lining residential buildings housing working class people in the UK, and chose to put the money elsewhere.

The Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 was one of the UK’s worst modern disasters

The point I’m leading up to with this example, is really more of a question. Why does it take the death of people of colour, whether it be Stephen Lawrence, or the 72 people that were killed at Grenfell (including Logan Gomes, an unborn child), for the government or police to issue even the bare minimum, in the form of an apology? This is, bearing in mind, an apology that doesn’t address racism in any form, but general “failings” happening to have the worst effects on people of colour, rather than White people (of the residents who died in the fire, 85% were from ethnic minorities, according to The Guardian).

As soon as the cladding was identified as unsafe and a main contributor to the spread of the fire, the government ruled that all unsafe cladding should be removed from buildings across the UK. Wincingly overlooking the fact that years later, this hasn’t even yet been completed, it begs the same question. Why does it take someone burning in their own home, for the bare minimum to be done – followed by no-longer optional admissions, apologies and quick corrections built on sand?

On Stephen Lawrence Day 2021, it’s important to remember and highlight the unimaginably exhausting experience the Lawrence family had to work through, just to convict two of the four gang members involved in their son’s murder just under 20 years on. Stephen, killed at 18, would have been 38 by the time this happened.

Yes, technological advancements played a partial role in this, with microscopic DNA matching that of Stephen, being found on the clothes of Gary Dobson and David Norris. Yet, as the Macpherson Report alludes to, it wouldn’t have come to this if Stephen were White. This would have been followed up. It could also be said that it was the CPS that refused to prosecute, not specifically just the police. Which is technically true. But not acting upon something plainly put in front of you, and not taking enough care and precision when handling a crime scene, then quoting technicalities – isn’t how policing should work, which is a conclusion that has at least been collectively reached. To form a loose analogy, if you were to bring an old battered up horse to market expecting it to sell at top price, alongside other well-kept, bigger and stronger horses – is it the fault of the auctioneer for not selling it, or that of potential customers, for not having placed a bid? OR is it yours, for not having sufficiently maintained it?

Another sobering comparison can be made with the recent case of teenager Richard Okorogheye, who went missing from his home in Ladbroke Grove and was sadly found deceased in Epping Forest. Critics were quick to make comparisons between the police’s attitude towards the family of Okorogheye, who had sickle cell disease and required regular medication – and that of the police regarding the tragic case of Madeleine McCann. Very different circumstances, but a stark difference in human urgency simply excused by age, without regard for his condition. The 19-year-old’s family was told by police “sorry, we can’t help you”, upon his disappearance, as quoted by his mother.

A detailed timeline of events in the Stephen Lawrence case, put together by the BBC – including evidence of police corruption and spying on the Lawrence family, as well as other explicit racist attacks on the family name, can be found here.

Thanks for reading my reflective thought process on Stephen Lawrence’s case.

#RIPStephenLawrence #RIPRichardOkorogheye #RIPMohamudHassan #RIPMouayedBashir

Written in conjunction with
Race Equality First.
REF offers support for discrimination and hate crime enquiries. For more information click the link above.

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