The murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993, and the nearly two-decade campaign for justice that followed it, changed Britain forever.
Stephen was not the first young black man to die at the hands of a racist gang—far from it. But his killing unleashed a tidal wave of revulsion that went far beyond the black community.
Most people were shocked by the singled-minded viciousness of the thugs who wielded the knife. But their anger reached new heights as they learned of the police racism and corruption that so bungled the initial murder investigation.
For the first time, the idea that the state and its pillars in the police and the judicial system were part of a racist establishment became the common sense of millions.
People—black, white and Asian—queued to sign petitions and statements demanding action. Campaign meetings were packed to overflowing and marches brought together thousands from all over Britain.
The police were rightly targeted for their failures. And the more pressure they felt, the more they lashed out.
Five months after the murder, Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Osland, now a Tory councillor in Croydon, announced that he was “losing patience” with Neville and Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s parents.
He suggested that police officers engaged in the murder inquiry should sue the couple for libel. But reactions like his merely fuelled the growing anger.
The police were not the only ones to feel the pressure. The fascist British National Party (BNP), which sought out gangs of racist youths in a bid to mould them into a street army, became a focus for the anger against racism.
Shortly after Stephen’s murder, some 60,000 marched to demand the BNP’s Welling HQ be closed down. Its fascist “bookshop” was just down the road from where Stephen was killed.
The demand for resistance spread into the trade unions, with Neville Lawrence given a standing ovation at the TUC congress and the unions organising a massive anti-racist march in east London.
Even mainstream newspapers were forced to reflect the spirit of the time. The Daily Mail ran a front page in 1997 that branded the alleged killers as “murderers”.
The Labour Party, then in opposition, pledged a public inquiry into the murder and the police response to it.
The hearings were a bombshell. On the day the killers were forced to attend, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre was surrounded by young people from across London who ached for revenge.
Suddenly the swaggering racists were brought down to size as they were jeered and spat at.
The resulting Macpherson Report branded the police “institutionally racist”. It tore strips off the officers who led the initial investigation, the top cops who defended it and the whole edifice of the Metropolitan Police.
In the years that followed, the state and its defenders fought tooth and nail to roll back Macpherson’s verdict.
They talked endlessly of how “political correctness” was preventing them from stopping crime, and how a new generation of black youth was exploiting their weakness.
Even Labour, which had benefited from the outpouring of anti-racist feeling, sought a return to the days before the inquiry. It was as though they wanted to put the genie of anti-racism back into the bottle.
Successive home secretaries urged the police to take a tougher line against inner-city crime. They knew that this could only mean more use of racist stop and search powers, more deaths in police custody and more anger on the streets.
The reaction reached its height during the riots of 2011. Suddenly, the racist language of the 1970s and 1980s we thought we’d banished was back.
Historian David Starkey said the riots were the result of a “violent, destructive and nihilistic” black culture that had corrupted too many of Britain’s youngsters.
“A substantial section of the chavs have become black… Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country,” he ranted on Newsnight.
For a time it seemed as though the gains won through the campaign for justice for Stephen were to be lost. But the groundswell of anti-racist anger that had driven it had not been snuffed out.
In late 2011, as a new trial of two of Stephen’s killers drew near, old memories and anger were rekindled. Those too young to remember the detail were shocked at the revelations, in particular the police’s secret video footage.
Looking back at almost 20 years of struggle, two things are clear. First, determined fighters can win—even when they are battling against tremendous odds.
Second, those who fight bravely can win to their ranks millions of working class people who, once roused, will not easily forget the lessons they have learned.