Monday, 21 Sep 2020

The Stephen Lawrence case shaped my understanding of institutional racism

I do not remember exactly how old I was the first time I heard of Stephen Lawrence. 

I was a toddler when he was killed, and I would have been very young the first time I saw the photograph of him that anyone even loosely familiar with his case would recognise.

Eventually, I learned that he was a man who was killed because he was Black. And this week, after nearly 30 years, the investigation to find his murderers was moved to the inactive phase. 

Those first few years when I saw updates on the case, watching the Channel 4 news with my family, an hour or two away from my bedtime, that well-known photograph of Stephen looked so much like a grown-up man to me.

The whole case felt very much like adult affairs and far removed from my life. 

I was a child looking at a picture of a man; now I am a woman and I see a child. I was young enough when Stephen died to have been his child, then his younger sibling, then his older sibling.

Before long, I will be old enough to have been his mother and eventually his grandmother. 

I have a younger sister who is 18, the same age Stephen was when he died. While I acknowledge that she is an adult, she is my baby, just as Stephen was his parents’ baby. 

There are so many things he will never see or do or be; he is frozen in time in 1993. Forever 18. 

In 1999, the Macpherson report determined that the Metropolitan Police were ‘institutionally racist’. At this point, I was still in primary school, but I knew what racism was and had experienced it first-hand. 

I wasn’t cognisant of the history behind it and I wasn’t intellectually or emotionally sophisticated enough to understand its nuances. I certainly couldn’t grasp what ‘institutionally racist’ really meant but I knew it must be bad. 

I knew that it was worse than ‘the usual’ racism because I recall that phrasing being repeated many times, and the emphasis of the word ‘institutionally’ by the news reporters on television. 

All those issues that felt far removed from me as a child, I have had to confront and process as I have gotten older and finally understand terms like ‘systemic’ racism.

I have always cared about justice and fairness; it’s a key reason for my pursuit of a career in law. 

It is not my area of practice, but I learn from the experiences of my colleagues in criminal, public and human rights law who regularly encounter the disproportionate treatment Black people face in the criminal justice system and I have also read the statistics. 

I know that Black people are three times more likely to be arrested. I know that Black people account for 8% of deaths in police custody despite being 3% of the population.

We all would like to believe we have progressed way beyond a system that was found be racist from the inside out but there is still a way to go. 

When Gary Dobson and David Norris were convicted of Stephen’s murder in early January 2012, after following the case, I felt a wave of relief that Doreen Lawrence was finally winning her long-fought battle. 

It seemed it could only be a matter of time until the rest of Stephen’s killers were also convicted and imprisoned, and I was hopeful. 

So, my first thought when I saw that the inquiry into Stephen’s murder was being moved to the inactive phase was of his mother.

For over two decades, Doreen Lawrence has fearlessly and relentlessly fought for justice for her son with a level of grace that would almost be unimaginable to me had I not witnessed it for myself. 

Despite the utmost composure, there is a deep grief and sadness behind her eyes, a reminder of the pain that she will live with forever. I thought of Stephen’s father, I thought of his siblings and I thought of all those that knew and loved him. 

I am cautious to not be too pessimistic but it feels like the end of a long and rough era and that ultimately, the rest of Stephen’s killers will never be brought to justice and Stephen’s family will never get the final piece to the complicated and painful jigsaw of their closure. 

What a sad indictment of a system that did not take the investigation seriously during those crucial, early days and failed a young man and his family.

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