Tuesday, 3 January 2012
The murder of Stephen Lawrence
I was working an afternoon shift, and the environment correspondent, Nick Schoon came up to talk to me. 'I've got a story for you,' he said, 'and it's a bit unusual. It's a crime story.' The story he outlined was terribly sad. A teenager, stabbed to death on a London street. Racist motivation suspected. It was the kind of story that I'd have thought of as suitable for a local rather than a national paper. It wasn't even that uncommon - as Nick's report stated, this was the second racist murder in the area in a matter of weeks.
Nick was offering the story because Stephen's father Neville Lawrence had worked for him as a plasterer and had rung him the night of Stephen's death, in tears, asking him to write about his son's murder. His death did not make the front page of any national paper, and many did not run it at all. I asked Nick to write 400 words which I placed on page 4. This was his report. I didn't expect to hear much about it again, perhaps a news-in-brief paragraph saying that someone had been charged and later convicted. (Nick's memories of his report are here)
Well, I was wrong, and so was almost everyone else. The killing of Stephen Lawrence was described today by a senior police officer as 'one of the most significant cases of its time.' Two of Stephen's killers were finally convicted today - an extraordinary 18 years after his death. The Metropolitan Police's original investigation into his death was appallingly incompetent. Neville and Doreen Lawrence never ceased in their battle for justice for their son, backed by another paper, the Daily Mail, whose editor, Paul Dacre had also, I believe, employed Stephen's father. Their efforts eventually led to a public inquiry which revealed the Met's institutionalised racism - a racism that reached beyond the police and into wider society. The case changed the UK in many ways - summarised here - but I believe that not enough has changed.
In his recent book, Out of the Ashes, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, recalls telling the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown about mothers from his constituency, feeling helpless to stop their sons getting caught up in the violence. "What are we doing for these women?" he asked the Prime Minister.
"Tax credits," replied Brown.
Things haven't changed. In the aftermath of this summer's riots (riots which overwhelmingly targetted property, not people), the current Prime Minister David Cameron pledged £1.25 million to fight gangs in London. As Lammy pointed out, that sum wouldn't buy a house in many London neighbourhoods.
The trial which has just ended was also notable for exposing the trauma of young people who witness murder. Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks was quizzed about differences in his account in court and his original statement s to police. Mr Brooks - now a councillor - giving evidence just after the death of his father, explained that he had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after Stephen's murder. From the BBC's court report:
Mr Brooks' original eyewitness statement was read back to him, and he was asked: "Did that actually happen?"
He replied: "I made a statement some months after when I began to remember other parts of the incident which for some reason I couldn't remember because it was too distressing, it was too scary to remember and it was very upsetting."
Stephen Lawrence and his family got some justice today, but the slaughter of young men on the streets of London goes on, and the vast majority are black. Of course, not all are killed in racist attacks, but - as Stephen's mother pointed out this afternoon - some are. Others are victims of gang and random violence.
Stephen's family have set up a charity in his name which works for criminal and social justice: '
fostering positive community relationships, and enabling people to realise their potential. Through creative methods the Trust addresses the causes of urban decay; youth disaffection and educational underachievement and supports young people by developing pathways into aspirational and sustainable employment.
I do believe that if white, middle-class teenagers were being killed on our streets at the same rate as poorer black children are, far more would be done about it. Supporting the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is one place to start.