Stephen Lawrence Day, an opportune time to continue the conversation on race.
Today is the inaugural of the national day commemorating the life and legacy of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence which will take place every year regardless of the government of the day. Stephen Lawrence Day is a national programme supported by the Home Office, the Department of Education and in collaboration with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust’s commendable ongoing efforts to transform the lives of young people and achieve social change, by providing a focus for communities, schools and organisations to engage in activities that empower and inspire young to live their best life. The aim of the Stephen Lawrence Day, a national day which has been endorsed by major political parties is to provide children and young people with the opportunity to hear about and learn from Stephen’s story. His mother, Baroness Doreen Lawrence says:
“Stephen was denied his voice but the Stephen Lawrence Day will be an opportunity for young people to use their voices and should be embedded in our education and wider system.”
Stephen Lawrence Day therefore will provide an opportunity for schools, youth and community groups charities and others to come together and deliver a range of positive activities including school base activities, programmes to encourage young people to turn their back on the recent increases in serious violence, and activities ‘beyond the school gate’ to promote community integration for young people who are at risk of offending. The day will focus on the theme of “Live Our Best Life”. What does “Live Our best Life” mean and look like? In a nut shell it is supporting early stage social action projects and providing communities with a national platform, empowering communities to respond to issues that matter to them, guided by early intervention programmes related to Serious Crime and Violence and identifying community groups delivering early intervention programmes for all ages. Stephen Lawrence Day is for all ages and individuals from every background.
So, who was Stephen Lawrence? He was born in Greenwich on 13th September to Jamaican parents who had emigrated to the UK in the 1960’s Stephen was the eldest of 3 children born to Neville and Doreen Lawrence. Other siblings include Stuart (1976) and Georgina (1982). Their father Neville was a carpenter and their mother Doreen (Baroness Lawrence) was then a special needs teacher. The young Stephen Lawrence was brought up in Plumstead, South East London. As a teenager he excelled in running and competed for the local Cambridge harriers Athletics Club. He also appeared as an extra in Denzil Washington’s film Queen and Country. Like most young people, he juggled an active social life, school work, family commitments, and part-time employment. But he also had ambitions to use his talents for maths, art and design to become an architect and wanted to have a positive impact on his community. At the time when this promising young man’s life was cruelly cut short in an unprovoked racially motivated attack, he was studying Technology and Physics at Blackheath Bluecoat School and English language and Literature at Woolwich College and aspiring to become an architect. Stephen Lawrence was not able to fulfil all of his dreams and ambitions. His premature death prevented him from “living his best life”.
Twenty six years ago today, 18 year old Stephen and his friend Duwayne Brooks were ambushed at a bus stop in Well Hull Road, Eltham, South East London by six racist thugs. One of whom shouted “What, what nigger!” Duwayne managed to escape his attackers but Stephen was, caught, surrounded and fatally stabbed. The failure of the police to catch the killers in the hours and days following the murder has been well documented. The killers were allowed to escape to their nearby homes, construct alibis, hide the murder weapon (that has never been found) destroy clothing and other evidence and set about intimidating witnesses. They also quite likely colluded through longstanding criminal connections with the drugs trade with a corrupt officer or officers who may well have been bribed to shield the perpetrators from being caught.
To add to the wider context of this racially motivated murder it is significant to note that in 1990, three years prior to Stephen’s murder, the BNP had opened up a shop front headquarters in Welling, South East London, and had began to provoke, encourage and organise racist sentiment against the area’s relatively small black population. The BNP encouraged existing armed gangs of racist young men, linked by family ties and connected to major drug dealing living on the geographically and socially isolated estates, particularly Thamesmead, to greater violence. In February 1991, for instance, 15 year old Rolan Adams was murdered in Thames mead by a gang shouting “Nigger” before stabbing him in the throat. The police treated the incident as a territorial dispute between gangs, in the face of overwhelming evidence that Rolan was the victim of a racially motivated murder. Another 15 year old, Rohit Duggal, was stabbed to death by a gang outside a kebab shop in Eltham in July 1992. His murderer had called Rohit a “ Paki”, yet the police again denied a racial motive implying that Duggal was somehow to blame.
Thus it was indeed, the growing realisation in the coming months that the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was heading for a failure, with the fear there would now be an escalation of racist attacks and killings in that part of south east London, that catalysed a campaign in support of the Lawrence family and their insistence on justice. Many organisations and individuals rallied to the family’s cause with the trade unions being some of the most consistent. Still it had to take a high profile intervention by Nelson Mandela visiting London in May 1993 that forced the Metropolitan Police to round up the prime suspects in Stephen‘s murder. A succession of botched police investigations led to the landmark Macpherson report in 1999 that is said to have led to a watershed moment in modern race relations in the UK after the report concluded the police made mistakes and were guilty of institutional racism. Published on the 24th of February 1999, the report was hailed as a defining moment in police relations with black and minority ethnic (BME) groups. It highlighted the way in which the criminal justice system had repeatedly let down the Lawrence family through ‘collective failure’ of the murder investigation and ‘institutional racism’. The report’s recommendations sought improved openness and accountability across the criminal justice system and focused on the police and other law enforcement practitioners in tackling institutional racism. That the report’s publication coincided with the onset of Scottish devolution in May 1999 together with the enactment of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, it contributed to a conceptual shift, in which Scotland started to take a more systematic look at the needs and rights of BME communities; and for the first time there was a national race equality plan for Scotland, which provided recommendations for change at institutional levels in areas as housing, education, employment, enterprise and so forth.
Meanwhile there is no doubt that the murder shocked Britain and forced the country to take a hard look at itself. There was concern that we could be living in a country of gestures, a country where the rhetoric of equality outshines its all too uncomfortable reality. We can indeed talk a good game. Yet there was a need for an approach that would analyse the real experience in a society which claimed to be pluralist but in which racial discrimination continued to be legitimised and was often ignored. There was a need for an approach to develop awareness of the interrelationship of the processes of structural oppression. A need to stop ignoring the existence of power relations imbalances in society and that it was not a level playing field. Two decades on after Macpherson and two and half decades after Stephen’s death led to a national scandal, how far have we as a country come? The sad reality is that BME people are still facing unjustifiable barriers to equality across critical areas of their lives – housing, healthcare, education and employment.
The Runnymede’s Trust findings on the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report, 20 Years On, calls for a renewed focus on institutions to continuously guard against policies and practices that would deny fair treatment and outcomes for Britain’s 8 million BME people as recommended in the Lawrence inquiry report. Whilst other recommendations (70 in total) still need attention, including representation in the police (an often overlooked recommendation), is the need for more accurate teaching of Britain’s diverse history and our place in the world. This in effect also calls for a dismantling of some of the artificial historiographical partitions that have oftentimes separated metropolitan race politics in the post-war era from the broader history of empire, decolonization, transnational dialogues and anti-racist movements organised around the pursuit of Black freedom. Runnymede is far more scathing that the report is being undermined by the failure of successive governments especially since 2010, to give full effect to the ‘public sector duty’. Had the duty been working as intended, the worst of the Windrush injustices should not have occurred. The report had said to those at the top of every organisation that they must accept the problem of institutional racism and examine the outcomes of their policies and practices to avoid race inequality. For some, the language - and hence the thinking - moved from discrimination and equality to ‘diversity’, which can involve doing more without sanction for doing nothing. Similarly, a generic catchphrase like “inclusion” can interpreted and emphasised in different ways. As the editor of Black Agenda report, Glen Ford puts it, (albeit in an American context but quite relevant and resonating with Britain too):
“Diversity in the hands of the white power elites - political and corporate is an advertising gimmick. The absence of genuine political content in our national discourse has degraded it to one between racists and people who don’t want to be identified as racists. The only winners in this self-destructive catfight are the big corporations along with elite institutions dedicated to perpetuating the status quo.”