Today is Stephen Lawrence Day. It falls on the anniversary of the teenager’s death – 22 April 1993 – and marks the annual commemoration of Stephen Lawrence’s life and legacy.
Stephen was an 18-year-old A-level student with a bright future ahead of him who was murdered by a gang of white youths in a racially motivated attack close to his home in South London in 1993. Stephen’s story broke national news and the case shocked many, bringing national attention to institutionalised racism. Not only did Stephen lose his life because of racism, but following his murder, he and his family did not receive the standard level of care from either the police or the judicial system when reviewing this case; in fact, they were victimised.
According to reports, the police were provided with detailed information about the gang responsible for Stephen’s death at the time – they were even given the names of the suspects within 48 hours of his murder. But due to a range of failings during the police inquiry, no charges were brought. In 1997 the Daily Mail published a front-page article naming five suspects as Stephen’s murderers. This article ignited an inquiry into racism within the Met Police and led to changes in the law. But it wasn’t until 2012, a full 15 years later, when two of the five gang members, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were identified by DNA and then finally charged and convicted of murder. The other three gang members are still to be brought to justice.
The Lawrence family have fought since Stephen’s death to hold those involved accountable. Despite the challenges, Doreen and Neville Lawrence’s tenacity has kept Stephen’s story alive and it will not be forgotten. Doreen continues to put pressure on Scotland Yard and, through her work with the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation, continues to break down social barriers.
Last week saw the popular BBC TV drama series Line of Duty highlight the issue of institutionalised racism through the story of Lawrence Christopher, in a touching tribute to Stephen Lawrence and Christopher Alder. The drama used a range of details from the real cases. In the episode, DC Chloe Bishop explained that the fictitious Lawrence had been assaulted by a group of white youths and later died in police custody as police officers chanted monkey noises at him. The death was initially thought to be gang-related, but police later discovered that Lawrence was an architect – the profession that the real Stephen Lawrence had aspired to. Officers involved in the case took early retirement, further burying the case. It was great to see the BBC creatively use their platform and this leading primetime series to raise attention to the issue of institutionalised racism of the police.
Just days later, millions around the world tuned into news channels to watch the verdict of the George Floyd murder trial. Throughout the trial, despite all the compelling evidence including very clear video footage of the murder, filmed by a brave young passer-by named Darnell Frazier, the result was not easy to predict. Police officers rarely if ever get convicted of such crimes, especially against a black person. Through the power of social media, George Floyd’s family had President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and many other prominent figures from across the globe in their corner. The white former policemen Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts, but the trial reminded us that justice is not a given. In the case of George Floyd, it was the community who came together to stand up against the police. Their courage paid off and supported history being made.
At a time where politically divisive campaigns have led to bigger gaps in terms of wealth, health, politics and social attitudes, this is a good moment to pause, review and consider how we learn from history and move forward, together.