Stephen Lawrence Day
‘I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.’
On the night of 22nd April 1993, Stephen Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks were waiting to get a bus home. Stephen and Duwayne had been playing video games at Stephen’s uncle’s house and left around 10pm to get back to Lewisham. When they realised that their usual bus the 286 would get them home too late, they decided to take the 161 or 122 instead. Duwayne later recounts, “if we had known the bus was going to take so long… the 122… to come… we would have just jogged it.” While waiting for the bus, Stephen walked across the middle of the road to see if the bus was coming. From this point, the Macpherson inquiry notes that ‘Mr Brooks called out to ask if Stephen saw the bus coming.’ A group of five or six white boys were on the other side and Duwayne heard them call out “what, what n*gger?” With that, the group charged quickly toward Stephen and Duwayne. Within a matter of seconds, the attack was over. Stephen had been stabbed multiple times while Duwayne managed to get away. Stephen managed to get to his feet but only made it a few yards before asking his friend “what’s happened?” as he collapsed to the ground bleeding heavily — dying. The group of white murderers had disappeared, Stephen had died and all that was left was Duwayne Brooks hysterically trying to get help for his friend and make sense of what had just happened. The pathologist later testified that Stephen succumbed to one of the many stabs in his shoulder and neck which had severed his arteries, in fact, ‘it is surprising that he managed to get 130 yards with all the injuries he had…it is therefore a testimony to Stephen’s physical fitness that he was able to run the distance he did before collapsing.’
Within mere moments, the murder that changed Britain for ever was over. Neville and Doreen Lawrence had lost their first born son at only 18 years old. Duwayne Brooks had watched his friend be brutally murdered, in an entirely unprovoked attack.
Before delving any deeper into Stephen’s murder, I believe it is important to take a look back at the context in which his murder occurred. What sort of world was Britain in 1993? To do this, let us go back a bit further, to 1948 in particular. On 22nd June 1948, the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Dock in London carrying some 500 settlers from the Caribbean. The name ‘Windrush generation’ has been given to them and the ensuing Commonwealth citizens who arrived in the UK after the Second World War and before 1973 to help re-build a post-war Britain. There is no definitive estimate of how many individuals came to the UK during this period, however, some academics put the figure at more than 500,000. Doreen’s mother had come to Britain as part of this mass exodus. Doreen believes that her mother left the Caribbean when Doreen was around 2 years old, in around 1951 or 1952. Doreen herself came to the UK when she was 9 years old, after her grandmother died, to join her mother here in Britain.
From this point onward, immigration became a highly politicized and in fact, racialized issue. Somewhat ironically, The Evening Standard met the passengers with the banner headline, ‘Welcome Home’ when in the next few decades the citizens were made to feel further from home than ever before. The ensuing years saw riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 as concerns grew over the rise of ‘too many coloured immigrants’ coming into Britain. Signs began appearing in shops stating, ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 heightened racial tension among the British populace. When coupled with reports of ‘teenagers with flick knives’ going ‘n*gger bashing’, this hostile culture made integration for migrants already living in the country even harder than before. Eventually, Parliament passed the 1971 Immigration Act. This Act marked the endpoint of the Windrush generation as it stripped British citizenship away from hundreds of thousands living in the Commonwealth. The 1971 Act also paved the way for the mistreatment of Windrush families and their children. Life in 1970s and 1980s Britain for ethnic minorities became marred by stories of urban violence and unrest. In 1979, Thatcher won the election with a sweeping majority and made the infamous statement on immigration and its impact on British culture: ‘some people have felt swamped by immigrants, they’ve seen the whole character of their neighbourhoods changed’.
Then in 1993 Stephen was murdered. When Stephen’s murder is put into the context of Britain in 1993, it creates a clearer picture of the type of environment him and Duwayne were simply waiting for the bus in. The treatment Stephen’s family endured after his murder, was also inextricably linked to this toxic environment. In the days following Stephen’s murder, several eyewitnesses and residents came forward to the police with the name of 5 suspects: Gary Dobson, Neil and James Acourt, Luke Night and David Norris. The suspects were previously linked to other racist attacks in the Eltham area. The police dragged their feet. Neville and Doreen, however, continued to push for justice. On May 6 1993, Nelson Mandela, at his own request, met with the grief-stricken parents. Without this meeting and the publicity it brought, justice may have never been served. It is for this reason that it is important to recall his words at the beginning of this article. Neville and Doreen’s tireless campaign for justice was their “long walk to freedom.”
Following a neglectful initial investigation, Doreen and Neville were informed on 16 April 1994, a year after Stephen’s murder, that the Crown Prosecution Service did not have sufficient evidence for murder charges against anyone. They then launched a private prosecution against three suspects in September 1994. In April 1996, their private prosecution failed. In 1997, a public inquiry was announced. From this, the Macpherson inquiry was born.
The 350-page report concluded that Stephen’s murder investigation had been ‘marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership.’ A total of 70 recommendations were proposed to show a ‘zero tolerance’ for racism in society. The most significant of these recommendations was the abolition of the double jeopardy rule, the common law rule that once acquitted an accused person cannot be tried a second time for the same crime. The recommendation sought for the rule to be repealed in murder cases and that it be possible to try an acquitted murder suspect again, should ‘fresh and viable’ new evidence come to light. The abolition eventually led to the 2012 conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for Stephen’s murder, almost 20 years after his death.
Later came the Race Relations Act 2000. The act was a direct response to Macpherson report following the Met’s gross mishandling of Stephen’s case. It placed a legal duty on public institutions to proactively ensure that racial discrimination did not impact the lives of ethnic minorities. The Act outlawed racist discrimination, making it illegal to refuse service or job opportunities on the basis of skin colour. However, the impact of the act has been inadequate. In 2014, the Met showed no signs of meeting its stated 7% target of ethnic minority officers. As of 2019, black people are still nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.
Where are we now?
In 2020, we all watched as George Floyd’s neck was knelt on for 9 minutes by police officer Derek Chauvin. We saw video footage showing that Mr Chauvin did not remove his knee even after Mr Floyd lost consciousness for a full minute. We heard as Mr Floyd, a 46-year-old man, cried out for his mother during his last moments.
Floyd’s murder sparked a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the Atlantic and here in Britain as black and ethnic minorities rose up against institutional racism once again. Like the riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958, Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, Birmingham in 2005 and so on, 2020 saw us take to the streets to protest, yet again, for better treatment for ethnic minorities in Britain. For many of us, Stephen Lawrence was our ‘George Floyd moment.’ We felt that Stephen could have been any of us. His crime was waiting for the bus while black. There was the idea that ‘his black face could have easily been mine.’ Wrong place, wrong time.
Stephen Lawrence Day
In 2018, then prime minister Theresa May recognised Stephen Lawrence Day to be commemorated every year on the 22nd April. May spoke of how Stephen’s family ‘fought heroically to ensure that their son’s life and death will never be forgotten.’ Doreen wrote “I hope that the first National Stephen Lawrence Day will help to drive forward an important national conversation about how we can all build a fairer and more inclusive Britain. But more importantly, I want this day to inspire our country’s future generation into living their best life — in the same spirit as Stephen.”
Let us take time today to remember Stephen. The Stephen Lawrence Foundation has some suggestions of how you can get involved to show your support. The foundation has created a film in which contributors recite a poem, please watch and share the film here:
The foundation is also inviting people to create artwork around Stephen’s life and death, with suggestions including writing poetry or designing posters. The foundation also asks the public to commit to making a change. They propose 3 challenges you can do on 22 April:
· Do good (a simple act of kindness to help others in your community)
· Get creative (express what living your best life looks like for you through your chosen artform)
· Share the learning (find out about Stephen’s story and share it)