Remembering Stephen Lawrence

After so long, it is easy to forget how seriously the murder of Stephen  Lawrence, and its aftermath, stigmatised the whole of south-east London, and Eltham in particular. Everyone who lived in Greenwich at the time of the murder will have their own memories, and their own feelings about the long wait for justice. Here are mine.

The conviction of two of the murderers last week is not a cause for celebration – and nor is it the end of the story as several members of the gang of five or six thugs who murdered Stephen Lawrence are still free. But it is a chance to reflect on how the determination of the Lawrence family over 18 years has lead to some profound changes in our society – changes for the better.

My Mum and Dad got to know the Lawrences slightly after the murder, and my sister (who happens to be black) was born just a  few months before Stephen Lawrence and they had a few friends in common. For my family, bearing the brunt of racial abuse in the street in the 1980s and 1990s was an occasional, and thankfully rare, shock. The Lawrence murder was a stark reminder that there were those on the streets who would kill people because of the colour of their skin.

I remember, after the horror of the killing had subsided, above all a sense of burning anger  – and shame that the part of London that I had grown up in could harbour such murderers.

I remember Doreen Lawrence being referred to for a time as “the other Mrs Lawrence”, as at first the murder was given much less coverage than another appalling murder in 1993, of the west London headteacher Philip Lawrence. Now, the police, media and the public are less liable to judge the importance of a murder victim on their race alone.

I remember Eltham being described as a no-go area for black people – somewhere where black people would not buy houses. That has changed, too.

I remember going on a demonstration in late 1993 or early 1994, with some friends from University, against the presence of a BNP “Bookshop” in Welling. The demonstration ended with an angry confrontation at the bottom of Wickham Lane in Plumstead, where the police prevented marchers form proceeding any further. We headed up to Abbey Wood to avoid the confrontation and got a train back towards London, being verbally abused on the way to the station by white youths who saw us wearing Anti-Nazi league badges. “Nice part of London you live in”, my friend told me.

Thank goodness that Greenwich and Eltham are now no longer just thought of as an epicentre of racial hatred, and have been put on the map in so many other, better ways.

I remember talking to a police sergeant at the (now-closed) Westcombe Park police station in the late 1990s, shortly after I first became a councillor. He told me he could not understand what the police were supposed to have done wrong. Such attitudes are never expressed to me now by police officers.

I remember going to one of the Memorial services at Trinity Church at the top of Burrage Road a few months after Stephen’s murder. My daughter now goes to a primary school around the corner from that church. About half of the school’s pupils are of black African origin. Parents at the school gates discuss their jobs, inflation, their children’s progress, the dog fouling problem on the nearby Common – but hardly ever race.

Stephen Lawrence’s death had a huge impact: one of its consequences was the slow (and incomplete) dwindling of racist attitudes and distrust in the 18 years since. That it took such a brutal murder for these changes to come about shows how such changes are fragile – and need to still be fought for.

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