Why we will remember Stephen Lawrence

Posted on 6 January 2012

The murder of Stephen Lawrence shocked a nation. Sunder Katwala reflects on his own experience of living on Eltham’s Well Hall Road, where a memorial marks the place where Stephen died, and asks if the unusual alliances for justice have changed us for the better.

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Stephen Lawrence has now been dead for just longer than he was alive. He was five months short of his nineteenth birthday when he was stabbed to death, waiting for a bus, in April 1993, it has taken another short lifetime to bring two of his killers, at least, to justice.

There was new forensic evidence – especially one tiny bloodspot which, despite the initial botched investigation, could still provide an indelible trace of contact, a sinful stain of involvement, and ultimately a proof of guilt.  But mostly, this trial could hardly reveal new news. The jury was shown the dramatic police surveillance video of the obsessive knife-play and racist tirades of the accused which had been on our television screens over a decade before. The chronology of that murderous night in Eltham has been played out in inquests and inquiries, in prime-time TV interviews with the prime suspects, even on the stage, making it part not only of our national conversations but of British social history too.

It was a murder that came to shock a nation, eventually. But I had my own, personal reasons for thinking about Stephen Lawrence almost every day, back in 1999. When the public inquiry findings dominated the national headlines that February, I was living on Eltham’s Well Hall Road, at number 324, barely ten yards from the simple plaque in his memory, by the tree where Stephen, having tried to run and escape, had fallen  and died.

I was 24, three years out of university. My girlfriend (now wife), Stacy, and I had bought our first place together the previous year: a small end terrace in Winchester, while I was working for a publisher in Basingstoke. Relocating towards central London for work probably meant zone four where houses cost about the same, though figures of around £90,000 still seemed pretty daunting then. We agreed to exchange on a renovated terrace in Plumstead when the developer sold it to somebody else. So we were shown the Eltham house and liked it. I had definitely been following media reports of the Lawrence inquiry more closely than most people, and obviously knew that was Eltham, but had not fully absorbed the precise local geography. I doubt that was a ‘selling point’ that the estate agent was likely to want to mention either. So we only made the link to just how close by the infamous murder had been about a fortnight before we completed the purchase. We made a few further inquiries about the area, and decided to carry on.

So, over the next few years, we lived there, then half a mile around the corner on Shooters Hill, though with a couple of years in Plumstead in between. We now live a couple of miles away, between Eltham and Bexley around those blurred boundaries which have always left me unsure where it is that London ends and Kent begins. Now that we have young children, it helps that we are only a short hop through the Dartford tunnel to grandparents in Essex.

So we had been on the Well Hall Road just a few months when the public inquiry reported, cataloguing the failures of the initial police investigation. There was more embarrassment for the police locally too. White paint was splashed across Stephen’s memorial on the day of publication, and it turned out that the surveillance camera overlooking it was simply a dummy, containing no tape.

That stable door was bolted with a full-time police presence guarding the scene the following week, giving our house a permanent doorstep policeman somewhat in the style of 10 Downing Street. If that symbolised the Met leadership’s “learning lessons” mode and its commitment to atone for its past mistakes, even after the hearings, the ranks were still not on message, as  local coppers openly expressed a sense of grievance about the scale of the kicking which the police were taking from all quarters.

Our doorstep copper did get something to do when Stacy accidentally locked herself out, and he resourcefully got her in through the backdoor without a key. He then radioed developments – “cuppa at number 324” – to colleagues patrolling up the road. Gathered in our kitchen, they talked about their sympathy for the Lawrences about the shocking crime. But they were sure that the police had sincerely tried to solve it. It was the media who had blown this case up into something political, so the police had become the fall guys. Their defensiveness in part reflected an obvious discomfort at the finding that the police had failed because they were racist – any intended nuance in calling that ‘institutional’ racism hadn’t made much difference there – but the sense of grievance, even that other unsolved crimes didn’t get the same level of attention, offered too strong an echo, on the beat, of the attitudes which the McPherson inquiry identified as central to the initial failures.

Everyday, at Eltham station, I could pick up a newspaper to read intrepid investigations about fear, loathing and racism, just around the corner on the Progress Estate. Eltham and Greenwich did have an unenviable history of racist violence in the early 1990s, stirred partly by the efforts to rachet up tensions of the nearby Welling headquarters of the BNP, as well as by the strutting of the now infamous Acorts and their racist gang. That was clearly an important part of the truth about Eltham, but it was not the only truth. If there were fears that a community would close ranks, with witnesses not saying what they knew, the Lawrence inquiry also showed how many people wanted the suspects caught, and their reign of local terror and violence to end, which is why the suspect’s names poured into the police inquiry from every direction within 72 hours.

But our Eltham offered a different, everyday story of suburban south London. For me, it was the routine of the daily commute. As I walked those few hundred yards from Eltham Station home each day, it was impossible not to think about what had happened to Stephen as he looked for a bus which might get him home to Plumstead. So I could never stop being bewildered at the contrast between that blur of hatred which had killed Stephen in a few frenzied seconds, and the mundane normality of this busy road, with its local co-op supermarket and competitive selection of local curry houses, kebab shops and newsagents, as well as the once grand and fading old-style Coronet cinema on the roundabout, where we went just once before it closed its doors and lay empty.

Eltham felt safe to me, despite the shadow of this history. After nine o’clock, I would take that very short cab ride from the station rather than walking home. I wasn’t sure that was always necessary; it was worth the £3.50 fare to avoid reopening that debate at home. I had one direct experience of overt racism. Getting off the bus at the top of the Well Hall Road, by the Shooters Hill police station, I caught the eye of a track-suited youth by the bus doors, already drinking his can of Fosters, not too long before Saturday lunchtime. “Why don’t you lot go back to where you came from?” he spat. I didn’t think he meant Winchester. A decade earlier, in a school playground, I might have offered a sarcastic riposte, but I just got past him, and off the bus, to return with my shopping to where I had come from, home, by then, number 45 Shooters Hill.

Eltham was pretty white, by London standards, certainly by contrast with Plumstead and Woolwich, though not markedly more so than posh Blackheath a couple of miles up the road. Some pubs seemed a much better choice than others to watch Premiership football. There was also a sense that England was changing in the late 1990s. I had felt differently about the St George’s Flag after it was so happily reclaimed as an inclusive symbol of celebration in the great footballing summer of 1996. What it meant draped outside a South London pub on a cold winter’s night in the late 1990s retained some ambiguity. Stacy found that she had pretty mixed groups of kids, aged four to sixteen, for her classes teaching dance and drama, in venues whose names evoked the area’s sense of pride in those who had gone on to broader fame, with lessons at the Frankie Howerd Hall and performances at the Bob Hope Theatre. Those teenagers who choose to spend Saturdays and evenings singing and dancing were doubtless a different cohort to knife-wielding gangs, but she was always struck by their confidence and their lack of interest in racial difference; their easy friendships just being an everyday fact.

I guess that what those teenagers believed – and what I needed to believe – was what Stephen Lawrence had believed too. Growing up and going to school in Blackheath, he was aware of racism. Against his mother’s worries he had, aged fifteen, insisted on going to Thamesmead, where racial tensions were running high, to attend a protest at the racist murder of 15 year old Rolan Adams, who Stephen had known a little. So Stephen Lawrence knew about race but he didn’t want race to be everything.

Brian Cathcart captures this central point in his excellent and authoritative 1999 book ‘The case of Stephen Lawrence’ on the investigation, inquiry and its consequences.

“Most of us think we understand the world we live in and know what to expect of it, but we rarely do. The world that Stephen stepped out into that morning was the one he had known all of his life: the Nightingale estate, the borough of Greenwich, the city of London, modern Britain. Being black gave him a particular perspective on these surroundings in which almost everybody who was powerful or important – from teachers and policemen to government ministers and company directors – was white. But he was used to that. He had his own plans and ambitions, his own networks, his own friends. Colour wasn’t everything, he believed; black people like himself could usually do well and be happy if they were reasonably smart and avoided the obvious traps. And most of Britain, most of white Britain, was only too keen to agree with him and to believe that race and racism were diminishing concerns, and not nearly so bad, say, as in France and Germany. But Stephen was wrong. For him, on that day in southeast London, colour was everything”.

Because Stephen was wrong about that, his grieving parents chose to bury him 4000 miles away in Jamaica. Even in death, they believed that his grave would be safer there.

It is hard to imagine a more tragic indictment of this country.

But didn’t that white paint on his memorial – however quickly it was cleaned up and replaced, again, with flowers – prove that they had a point?

But what Stephen had expected was to be able to live his life, to catch his bus, to have a career and to make his contribution to Britain, as his parents had done, so that he might achieve more from the start that they had given him. Stephen had been born British, in the Greenwich District Hospital.
He did not primarily belong to Jamaica. He should have been, he was, one of us.

So, if Stephen had been wrong, what mattered more than anything else was that he should have been right. And I think that helps to explain why it was that the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence created new and unusual alliances which Britain had never seen before, from the radical to the moderate left, across the centre and political right, beginning with local anti-racist grassroots campaigns, ultimately reaching the pillars of the British political and judicial establishment.

Everything depended, above all, on the dogged campaigning by the Lawrences, assisted by their tenacious solicitor Imran Khan, to prevent the failure of the investigation being excused and ignored. It was to take four years after Stephen Lawrence was killed for the case to be catapulted right to the centre of the national political and media agenda. That is why Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is right to, this week, take immense pride in the brilliant campaigning front-page which did it.

That famous “MURDERERS” headline was published the morning after the closure of the inquest at which five suspects had each claimed privilege in refusing to answer any questions which might incriminate them, at which point the inquest jury had taken just 30 minutes to unanimously decide that Stephen had been killed by “a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths”.

Having grown up with the Daily Mail in our house, the paper of choice of my Irish Catholic, Tory-voting mother, and having formed many of my views as a teenager in opposition to it, I have always felt a strange sort of love-hate relationship with its strident claim to speak for Middle England. But all that can be said about the Daily Mail’s Stephen Lawrence campaign is that it was brave, brilliant and unimpeachable; the best example of aggressive tabloid journalism to pursue the public interest that I can remember. It changed what happened, not just for the Lawrence family in securing at least a measure of justice, but for British society as a whole in the way we talked about who we are and who we should want to be, as the Mail’s campaign itself came to symbolise how the Stephen Lawrence case had become a wake-up call for Middle England, and how it began a broader discussion about opportunity, racism and fairness in Britain, which broke out of at least some of the traditional trenchlines.

So that Daily Mail headline remains, for me, the most important newspaper front-page of my lifetime. The Mail campaign won praise at the time from then Guardian editor Peter Preston and campaigning broadcaster Darcus Howe, even if it ruffled legal feathers. It was to continue to lead this traditional voice of middle England into a series of unusual alliances. The Mail was enthusiastic in backing new Labour home secretary Jack Straw’s decision to open a public inquiry in response to the campaign, so often found itself championing too the outcomes of the efforts of radical left-wing lawyers Michael Mansfield and Imran Khan in their efforts to expose the police incompetence, racial stereotyping or even corruption behind the investigation’s failure.

The breadth of the alliance is what makes the argument put, as the trial began, by commentator Rod Liddle about the Lawrence case particularly strange. This commentary piece was quickly suppressed (except on the newsstands that week) and is now being investigated by the Attorney-General for possible contempt of court, because, although sympathetic to the suspects in worrying about their ability to get a fair trial, the piece revealed details of previous convictions of the defendants which would be kept from the jury.

But the strangest thing about the piece was not even its voicing of “resentment” at the “celebrity” of the Lawrences, nor its retelling of what the author acknowledged were unsubstantiated slurs picked up from the street rumour mill about the character of the victim (with much in common with the slurs that have circulated on far right websites for years). What was odder still was Liddle’s claim that the Stephen Lawrence case had politically polarised the nation. Anybody who was left-wing knew the suspects were guilty, while “anybody fairly right-wing” probably thought they were not, he wrote.

This is probably the first time Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has been accused of being a Trot.

Indeed, in offering this entirely false characterisation of the history of the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence, Liddle seems to me to unfairly libel the entire mainstream democratic political right in Britain, by suggesting that they will all have joined him in cursing the guilty verdict which the jury reached this week. Liddle may be in a smaller minority than he seems to think.

The alliance for justice for Stephen went well beyond party politics. Certainly, Jack Straw and the Labour government deserve credit for establishing the public inquiry, after the damning police complaints authority report. Both Peter Bottomley, the Conservative MP for Eltham when Stephen was killed, and his Labour successor Clive Efford had been important advocates for the Lawrence family.

Indeed, the breadth of an alliance for justice, often stretching right across from the radical black left through New Labour to the establishment right, was bound to contain tensions. There was a shared commitment to convicting the racist killers, but different views beyond that about what the case said about Britain.  In fact, the Mail itself had initially reported on the Stephen Lawrence campaign sceptically, in May 1993, under the headline “how race militants hijacked a tragedy”. After an anti-BNP protest in Welling became violent, the paper questioned how anti-racist groups had “brought in Nelson Mandela on the short path towards the making as a cause”. (The Mandela question aside, the Mail had the backing of the Lawrences, who were also outraged by the Welling violence, quoting their fears of the tragedy being politicised. The Lawrences were working closely with anti-racist activists who they found trustworthy, but also formally wrote to warn some other groups, such as Panther UK, against using and exploiting their son’s name and tragedy for their own ends).

The traditionally pro-police Mail was willing to be vocal in highlighting findings about police incompetence, if also sceptical of the sometimes disruptive presence of the Nation of Islam at the public inquiry hearings. The Mail heralded the inquiry report as Stephen’s legacy – but was often critical of the breadth of the inquiry’s much contested concept of “institutional racism”, though the newspaper does today recognise that the inquiry has helped to change the police and other public institutions for the better.

The conclusion of the 1999 inquiry, before the guilt of two of the perpetrators was proven in court, argued that the questions of social change went beyond those of their guilt or innocence.

“These men are not proved to have been the murderers of Stephen Lawrence. We are unable to reach any such conclusion upon the evidence, and no fresh evidence is likely to emerge against them now. They remain, however, prime suspects. And the nature of them in 1994, and indeed during their limited testimony in 1998, must surely make us all determined that by education, family and community influence, proper policing and all available means, society does all it can to ensure that the minds of present and future generations are not allowed to become violent and maliciously prejudiced. If  these suspects were not involved there must have been five or six almost identical young thugs at large on the night of 22 April 1993 to commit this terrible racist crime.  We must all see to it that such crimes do not and cannot happen again”.

It is very hard to see why that basic point should divide people into partisan tribes.

So the case has sparked many broader reflections about fairness and race in Britain. These have helped to change us for the better, though they have certainly not made Britain perfect.

People may often have a range of different views about which future efforts should be the most important priorities if our society is to offer fairness to everyone, and to seek to ensure that there is no group of people – whether black, Asian or white – who fear that they will be excluded and left behind. But agreement on that overarching aim should help us to isolate any voices whose aim is only to polarise communities and stoke divisions within them, not for us to work to resolve them fairly.

So the broad campaign for justice for Stephen has succeeded, if only in part.

Somebody has still got away with murder.

But the tragedy of Stephen Lawrence changed us all.

More flowers have been placed this week on the Well Hall Road in his memory.

May he now rest in peace.

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.