Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation

25 years ago yesterday, a bright and handsome teenage boy lost his life in a vicious and brutal attack on the streets of southeast London. This documentary series, broadcast over three consecutive nights, looked back at Stephen Lawrence's life, his racist murder, the botched and corrupt police investigation that followed, and the long fight by Stephen's family to bring his killers to justice. Two out of the five suspects are now in jail, but it took until 2012 to convict them.

Images stay with you. The photo of Stephen in this black and white jumper, smiling shyly at the camera, a wisp of a moustache above his lip. This picture in turn painted starkly onto a mural outside the inquiry building at the Elephant and Castle; a mural I walked past numerous times after work on my way to eat pizza at Il Castello or do some bad bowling in the ugly shopping mall. And the footage of the suspects leaving that inquiry, pelted with eggs by an angry crowd, responding only with snarls and violence. Sharp teeth, black shades: whatever they said (or refused to say) at the inquiry, they turn from cockiness, from "Bring it on!" hand gestures as they leave the building, to images of pure hatred as their aggressive instinct to retaliate takes over. And then there were the covert police recordings of the suspects at home, spouting vile comments about what they wanted to do to black people and wielding enormous knives with terrifying viciousness and speed. They may only be stabbing the wall as they dance around the living room, but it chills you. Their mother claimed they were just having a laugh: well, if so, it's the sickest sense of humour I have ever seen. The documentary couples their machete swinging with pathology photos of the gaping shoulder wounds on Stephen's corpse. It's unbearable.

And because images stay with you, unfortunately it seems that the suburb of Eltham is still largely known only for Stephen Lawrence's murder. Even though neither Stephen nor his alleged killers ever lived there. Stabbings occur all over the capital but no other murder has left one of its suburbs with such a stain on its character. A friend of mine bought a house there many years ago and one of her concerns was that it was round the corner from where Stephen was killed. It was only seeing the drone footage during the documentary of the area surrounding the Well Hall roundabout that I realised how close she ended up living. Here was the lovely garden suburb where her house lay, the church where her children were christened, the roundabout where you joined the A2 to to Dover, and there the bus stop where Stephen waited in vain to be driven safely home after a night at work. Viewed from above, it's plain that Eltham is not some hideous ghetto - it's just ordinary. And green and leafy. It's nice. It could be anywhere; it could be your street or mine.

In Eltham, another Stephen (Courtauld) had a palace..

Life has gone on since 1993; the road junctions have changed, trees have been felled, the bus service has improved, and thousands of residents have come and gone, been born or died. It's a suburb in flux, like any other in London and too multi-ethnic to be classed in terms of black or white. But the past still lurks. If your kids don't get into the right school, they may end up in a different catchment sharing classrooms with the children of Stephen's alleged killers. Although one would hope that people wouldn't judge (or have to judge) the children by their parents. Neville Lawrence expresses his sorrow that the killers were free to have children at all while he would never see one of his again. Nonetheless, he says he now forgives them.

So how did Stephen's murder change a nation? Did it make us wake up to racism? To police corruption? To other damaged attitudes in the Met? What has been solved, when three of the accused have never been convicted? Did the murder teach us to never give up, to fight for justice, like Stephen's family have over the past quarter of a century, knowing that nothing can bring Stephen back? Does it show that you can never, ever get over the grief of losing a child?

The extent of the police corruption is only really just coming to light. The Macpherson report accused the Met of institutional racism. It seems shocking now that the police officers first at the scene assumed it was some sort of gang or drug-related attack, that Stephen Lawrence, by virtue of the colour of his skin, had done something to deserve it so didn't merit the quick medical attention he needed. Some officers seemed to believe that proper pursuit, investigation and surveillance of the suspects were not required. And even more shocking is that it seems that the father of one of the suspects, a known drug baron, was nestled cosily into all the police stations in the area, buying officers up to protect his family from being punished for their misdemeanours. I guess I was naive to trust that these gangster stereotypes weren't just limited to the plotlines of EastEnders and Guy Ritchie films. Everyone named the same five men as suspects right from the start, in anonymous tip-offs in phonecalls and notes left lying around the area. These people were not eye witnesses, though. The five were clearly notorious in the Kidbrooke area, with their own vendettas and means of rule. But it wasn't until 2010, when a police officer was asked to clear out an office in a police station and he started rereading the paperwork from scratch that the length of the attack that Stephen endured became clear, which enabled forensic evidence that incontrovertibly placed two of the suspects at the scene to be uncovered.

And here - of all people - was an interview with Paul Dacre, the man whose newspaper fuels hatred against immigrants, foreigners and people who are different to white Little Englanders more than any other. Because Neville Lawrence once did some plastering work for him and did it well, Dacre knew what a decent, hard-working and honest man he was, and wanted to help him in his fight for justice for his son. "Would I have done this if I hadn't had this information?" he asks. "Possibly not." Funnily enough, Neville Lawrence is not the only decent, hard-working and honest immigrant who does a good job in this country. But Paul Dacre's paper likes to tell people otherwise.

And here was the woman, now our prime minister, whose policy in the Home Office was to make decent, hard-working and honest immigrants feel as unwelcome here as possible. Her "hostile environment" is making the headlines this week as the scandal of the treatment of the children of the Windrush (and other Commonwealth) settlers unfolds. Doreen and Neville Lawrence, whom Theresa May so admires, are part of this generation. They have made their home here since they were small. They married and had their three children in London. Neville (divorced from Doreen now) has returned to live in Jamaica through choice. And Stephen is buried there, because Britain didn't deserve him. Right now, Britain seems very undeserving of all the Windrush generation, who sacrificed their homes to help rebuild our country in difficult times, only to face discrimination, abuse, horrible living conditions and never-ending rain.

And I am so uneasy about the way Britain is going again, 25 years on, with rightwing extremism now considered normal and hate crime on the rise. Thanks to the (virtually) 50-50 EU referendum result, our nation now feels more divided than ever. 60 people have been killed by knife crime in the capital in this year alone. It has become endemic. Many of those killings will have been race-related. Someone in the film commented that when the economy dives, racism rises. There is now such a gap between rich and poor that can only worsen after the disaster of Brexit. So there will surely be more killings. Are the police now free from corruption and able to solve these crimes without prejudice? Do they have enough resources now that Theresa May has slashed their budgets in times of austerity? I certainly hope so. Only time will tell. But I will never feel at home in a land where hatred and ignorance reign.

No comments:

Post a Comment