The name Stephen Lawrence always generates mixed feelings when I hear it. I am taken to think acutely about the sorrow of his family and those who knew and loved him. Also when I think of those who continued and continue the fight for justice long after the initial police investigation, a sort of anguished pride starts to glow from within.
So as I reflect about what happened to Stephen on this day in 1993, I return to the sobering thought: “It could have been me”. Around the time of his murder and ever since, that insidious fear has visited many young black people and their parents. The banality of his circumstances made it incredibly chilling. While being black, the simple act of waiting for a bus at night resulted in his killing. It was the eve of St George’s Day, and some youths wanted to celebrate with a lynching.
“It could have been been me” still echoes through my mind. In 1996, I thought it almost was.
It was a November night, I was 14 years old, and on my way home from a youth choir group meeting. I was walking down the long road I lived on, in Mitcham, South London. As I wandered along, I was lost in my thoughts wondering if my voice was so bad that it justified the choir leader to single me out and stop me singing during practice. My preoccupation with the humiliating experience was disrupted by loud voices from across the road. “Oi, Nigger!” Were they talking to me?
“That fucking nigger should get killed”
I tried to discreetly glance across the road and around, it was only me on one side and on the other, these two white guys who appeared quite drunk or delirious with excitement. They were in their late teens or possibly early twenties.
“He should be put in a concentration camp”
They laughed some more, as I imagined my murder being reported in the press. I was just a 2 minute run from my door but I was too scared to run. I remembered when we as a family moved to this area, that my aunt who is of similar age to my own mother, got punched in the face by a random white youth on her own doorstep. My throat dried up as I heard them start shouting “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!”
I thought, where were the people who lived on this street? Realising no-one would come to my defence, I started to mentally prepare myself for a fight that I would pitifully lose. I, chubby bespectacled teenager against two much more athletic built men. The adrenalin started to slow down as I noticed that they started to walk down a side street, giggling to themselves as I ever so carefully increased my walking pace to get inside.
We only moved into that area earlier that year, and I was confused by the Ku Klux Klan stickers with the words “We are WATCHING YOU” that happened to appear on lamp-posts on our road. My mother told me how we were one of the first African families on that street. Though our immediate neighbours were friendlier than what we were accustomed to on a council estate elsewhere. I mistakenly thought back then that the KKK’s form of racism was American history not a London reality. Similar stickers appeared near my friend’s house in Pollards Hill but they had the British flag and the letters “BNP” on it. He explained it to me that they were a racist party and then I wondered if it had any connection with the stickers on my road.
Much later on, I found out that the then leader of the British National Party actually lived in the same area until his death in 2000. I went on to become active in South London’s anti-fascist struggles.
Thanks to Stephen and those who fought in his memory, I have learnt much more about racist attitudes. I have learnt that it isn’t the preserve of the white working class, it is endemic in all classes and ethnicities to varying degrees. The Daily Mail are happy to define Stephen’s killers as racist, but ignore the racism riddled within its own commentary on refugees and immigrants. Macpherson was honest enough to admit that the police and all of Britain’s institutions are racist towards people of different ethnicities and cultures but today even Black and Asian officers in the Metropolitan Police still believe that it is “institutionally racist”.
I have witnessed how Liberal discourse has excoriated structural racism from the public sphere. The lived realities of the discriminated against becomes simplified as individual bigotry, remedied through improved linguistics and education.
We are told that Guardian verified, BBC Radio Four commentary on racial and cultural inferiority are legitimate and non-racist.
We are told that the problem of stop and search is resolved by either scrapping the collation of data or by applying to more white people to “balance” the figures.
We are told by simply gathering more intelligence, adequate justification will be found when a brown or black person is shot by the police.
We are told that it is the fault of poor people if they get themselves into crime.
We are told the Government are there to help us and create equal opportunities.
So forgive me if I question that if the liberal media and the courts are colour-blind, and if the schools simply merit hard work.
When I think of Stephen Lawrence, I think of Rolan Adams whose family never got the endorsement of Nelson Mandela and therefore part of the political establishment. I think of Lakhvinder Reel and many others. Their names will never be on the front page of the Daily Mail. A crime is committed if Stephen Lawrence is collectively thought of as a blip, a single blemish that is being cleansed through the criminal justice system. He is part of the memory of the Britain, that was, is and is yet to come. Things have changed, we march on the streets in memory of the lives taken by racist thugs, but now, more often than not, the racist thugs we march against wear a state-issued uniform.
What are your reflections, thoughts and memories? Leave a comment below.
This piece was first published on 22 April 2013, the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence's murder. Republished with thanks from themulticulturalpolitic TMP