So much is known about the murder of Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath, yet so much more remains to this day unrevealed and unresolved. Doreen and Neville Lawrence, their supporters and legal team forced major changes on British society and yet the majority of the gang who killed Stephen still walk free.
A new three-part BBC1 documentary broadcast this week is important.
The first episode covers the murder of Stephen and the immediate aftermath. At the time the police insisted their investigation was being frustrated by a “wall of silence” from the local community.
In the documentary we see how many people, including Doreen Lawrence, gave the names of the killers to the police over and over.
The second episode covers the failure of the police, the subsequent unsuccessful private prosecution forced on the Lawrences and the Macpherson inquiry that eventually followed.
The last episode covers the re-trial of two of the killers and the shocking aspects that have since come to light. For instance, the police’s covert surveillance of the Lawrence family and allegations of corruption.
Much of the footage is heart-rending, particularly the deep personal trauma inflicted on the Lawrence family and Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks.
The Lawrences and those connected with them tell the story straight, as they have done since day one.
Others, particularly the police, clearly take the opportunity of the passage of time to attempt to rehabilitate themselves.
Anyone who attended the 1998-9 Macpherson public inquiry, as I did, will never forget it. Racist opinions, lame justifications and lies tumbled out of the mouths of the police officers giving evidence.
I won’t forget the then Met Commissioner Paul Condon refusing point blank to even utter the words “institutional racism” before the public gallery. I also remember how the inquiry chair blocked any questions by the family’s lawyers seeking to uncover the extensive criminal links between the police investigators and major gangsters connected with Stephen’s killers.
We know so much because the Lawrences shone such a bright light on the horrible circumstances of their son’s death. We know who Stephen’s killers are, we know what the police did and what they didn’t do.
We know how the dynamics of institutional racism played out from the very first minutes of the police investigation. And we know the malign influence of the fascist British National Party had in south east London at the time.
We know of 15 year-old Rolan Adams, stabbed to death by a racist mob in nearby Thamesmead in February 1991. We know of the July 1992 murder of Rohit Duggal, stabbed to death on the very same road where Stephen was felled a few months later.
Rolan’s murder was recorded by the police as gang-related. They refused to admit it was racially motivated.
So when Stephen was murdered we know the police jumped to the conclusion that Stephen was involved in a gang.
The principal witness to the murder, Duwayne Brooks, was treated as a suspect rather than the traumatised survivor he was.
We know all this. But we must never forget it.
At the end of the day the police and the killers shared a similar outlook. That goes some way to explain both Stephen’s murder and the failure of the police to deliver justice for his family.
Oftentimes it is the outsider who has the clearest view. Nelson Mandela, on an official visit to Britain in early May 1993, agreed to meet the Lawrence family in front of the cameras.
When asked for his view Mandela replied “We are deeply touched by the brutality of this murder, even though it is commonplace in our country. It seems black lives are cheap.”