STEPHEN LAWRENCE was not the first young man to die on a London street simply because he was black. Nor has he been the last. But he was the one whose death became a pivotal moment in race relations in England – even if it has taken 18 years, the length of his own life, for him to finally receive justice.
On Tuesday two of his killers were convicted of murder, after a cold-case investigation that uncovered minuscule forensic evidence, including hair and bloodstains, not detectable at the time of the crime in 1993.
Lawrence’s case is all over the English media not because of forensic triumphs, but because of a human one: his parents’ steadfast insistence on justice for their son, and the way their long battle exposed institutional racism in the police force and led to a slew of laws on racial equality.
His mother, Doreen, says now: “Stephen no longer had a voice so I had to be his voice.”
The way the Lawrences carried themselves transformed British attitudes, says the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips. “For the first time the British public saw parents, a family, whose grief was so patent and whose dignity was so clear that everybody could identify with them. White Britain realised that, actually, black Britain and black Britons aren’t really all that different.”
Stephen Lawrence was in his final year of high school, a former Scout who wanted to be an architect, when he and a friend were approached by a gang of white boys at a bus stop. They called him “nigger”. He was stabbed, twice, and died there.
Information poured in to police but no arrests were made until the South African leader Nelson Mandela visited the family several weeks later, embarrassing the force into action.
But a catalogue of police errors – later attributed by a government-appointed inquiry to “institutional racism” within the force – left the case dangling.
A former High Court judge, Sir William Macpherson, later found officers had failed to follow obvious leads and arrest suspects. He also found, explosively, that there was an “unwitting, unintentional and unconscious” racist attitude by police towards people who were not white.
The Met, shaken, radically changed recruitment, training and procedures. Politicians passed the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, forcing public bodies to prioritise tackling racism.
Despite all attempts at social change, being young and black in Britain is still not easy. Today, young black men are 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police. About half of blacks under 25 are unemployed, compared with 20 per cent of white counterparts.
Macpherson had more success with his recommendation that the double jeopardy rule should be abolished. It prevented an accused person from being tried twice for the same crime. Two prosecutions against the Lawrence suspects had failed, and if double jeopardy had not been abolished, there could not have been another trial.
Macpherson said the five prime suspects were “infected and invaded by a gross and revolting racism”. One, David Norris, was filmed on surveillance tape saying he would like to take a black person, torture them, skin them alive and set them alight. “I would blow their two arms and legs off and say, ‘Go on, you can swim home now.”‘
On Tuesday an Old Bailey jury found Norris and Gary Dobson guilty after evidence on clothing they had worn that night linked them to the crime. Police said others would be prosecuted if evidence emerged against them.
For Doreen Lawrence, the verdicts were the end of a long road but nothing she could celebrate: “How can I celebrate when my son lies buried? When I cannot see him or speak to him?”
She says she does not forgive her son’s killers because they showed no contrition: “They don’t think they have done anything wrong. They took away Stephen’s life and there is nothing in their behaviour or anything to show they regret [it].”
She planned to go home
and light a candle for her son:
“I will tell him at long last we have justice.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.