The murder of the teenager Stephen Lawrence at a bus stop in Eltham in April 1993 was to become an important moment in our modern social history, writes Sunder Katwala.
Twenty years on, the case remains an unavoidable reference point in any national conversation about race and opportunity, power and accountability. Ahead of next month’s twentieth anniversary, British Future this week has returned to Eltham, to find out how local people feel about the way in which the area itself has changed, hearing from those who grew up at the same time as Stephen Lawrence and from 18 year olds in Eltham about the challenges that young people face today. We wanted to help to ensure that local voices are heard in our national debate, around this anniversary, about how far Britain has changed, and what still needs to change in the future.
What was it about Stephen Lawrence that he came to play such an important symbolic role?
What shocks, first, is the terrible simplicity of the crime. Here was a young man, with a friend, looking for a bus. Getting into trouble with his parents if he didn’t arrive home by half past ten on a school night should have been his only care in the world. That universal, everyday story suddenly became a terribly particular one. With a shout across the road of “what, what nigger?”, Stephen was, in a sudden flurry, surrounded by a gang of five men, stabbed and left bleeding, to die in the street, simply because of the colour of his skin. For many, the murder itself seemed to belong more to 1950s Mississippi than 1990s Britain. We did not want to think of ourselves as living in a country where such a thing could happen – and then go unsolved, and unpunished.
What resonates, next, is the determination of a mother to seek justice for her son. This is what has held the nation’s attention across two decades. When we think of Stephen Lawrence, we think next of Doreen Lawrence. So we think about family and love, about grief and loss, about the righteous anger which can fuel a restless refusal to accept that a door has been slammed shut. The murder itself speaks to the anxiety about any child that forms part of the condition of being a parent. We see too a price his parents had to pay for seeking justice: that they had to make their own private grief into public property too.
Finally, the media played a crucial role. This murder victim did not remain another statistic. We all came to not only know the name Stephen Lawrence – while many fewer heard that of Surjit Chhokar or Rolan Adams – but also to hear of his hopes and ambitions, to empathise with the struggle of his parents; and, as the coverage intensified, to see the hatreds that motivated his killers; and to follow the trial and finally see the conviction of two men.
Those conversations about what happened to Stephen Lawrence helped to change Britain – and yet there was an element of chance that they happened at all.
Perhaps it was to take the coincidence of all three of these factors – Stephen Lawrence as the archetype of the ‘blameless victim’, killed in the most senseless of ways; the stamina of the family and their grassroot supporters in their dogged refusal to accept the official explanations; and then the decision of those with more power and voice, a newspaper editor and a newly elected Home Secretary, to catapult the case to the heart of the national media and political agenda.
It can be forgotten that there was a long, four-year gap between that south London stabbing in 1993 and Valentine’s Day 1997, when the Daily Mail ran its “Murderers” front-page, provoked by the arrogance of the prime suspects at the public inquest.
Eltham’s MP in 1993, the Conservative Peter Bottomley, said recently “I said to the media, why has there not been a single national media appeal for this young man. ‘Well, you know south London. It’s like that’, I was told … There was an assumption that the death of a young black teenager had to have something to do with drugs or gangs.”
Once the case did hit the national headlines, it could risk trading stereotypes. Footage of the racism of the suspects shocked many people – and was used to caricature everybody in the area with crude generalizations of the views of ‘white estates’.
As Doreen Lawrence told a meeting in Parliament earlier this month: “There were so many people in that area who wanted us to know who the killers of Stephen were. Within 24 hours, somebody walked into the police station and gave the names and addresses.”
The idea of a “wall of silence” from the local Eltham community seemed to provide a convenient alibi for the official line: that the police had done all that could be expected, but had come up blank. But it was never the truth.
The campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence brought people together as rarely before. Few causes can ever have brought together such a broad coalition – ranging from grassroot anti-racist campaign groups and radical lawyers to a Conservative backbench MP, a New Labour Home Secretary and the editor of the Daily Mail.
These also proved contentious issues, capable of dividing people too – over what needed to change in policing and other institutions; over whether recognising “institutional racism” was the key to making progress, or whether conflating intentional prejudice with institutional discrimination could be misunderstood, and make change more difficult.
Living in Eltham when the inquiry reported, I remember how the media coverage seemed to me to only capture part of the story. It was important to see justice done. But that should never depend on choosing whether to deny the existence of racism or stereotype white working-class communities instead.
The scale of public attention to the Stephen Lawrence case did make a positive difference. It confronted many people with choices: politicians set up an inquiry and changed a law; police and prosecutors sought new DNA evidence. Many Britons re-examined certain assumptions about the country we live in.
Twenty years on, it is still striking that Middle England in the mid-1990s seemed almost to surprise itself by wanting its views about fair treatment, crime and justice to matter just as much in the case of a young black teenager as anybody else. It was a moment when the nation held its judgments up to the light and examined what they felt was right.
What emerged was a gradual realisation both about Britain’s growing diversity, and a Britain that represented and protected all its citizens equally.
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future. British Future will be publishing a new report on integration and public attitudes to race in Britain later in April.
Watch our short video below from the event: