“Stephen Lawrence lived for 18 years, 7 months and 9 days,” writes a Twitter user named ‘@ColAdam’, from Glasgow, “It took 18 years, 8 months and 12 days to bring his killers to justice.” The news quickly became a top trend on social networking sites, as people from across the country hesitated between celebration and reflection. Such was the reach of the Stephen Lawrence case, it became a symbol of our society for not only a community, but for an entire generation.After years of grief, uncertainty and struggle, the family of Stephen Lawrence finally won some justice yesterday, when Gary Dobson and David Norris were both found guilty of his murder. Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother and a tireless and dedicated campaigner for justice since his death, spoke on the steps of the Old Bailey, and asked, “how can I celebrate, when my son lies buried?” In a blistering indictment of the police force that have failed her family for so long, Doreen said that yesterday’s results “could have come eighteen years ago.”
In 1999, the Macpherson Inquiry examined the initial Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation into Stephen’s death, and made several recommendations for reforms within the police. Most notably, it stated that the police were ‘institutionally racist’, and was seen by many as a defining moment of black oppression in the UK. Cressida Dick, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, yesterday said that “no murder… in the whole history of the Met, has ever had the impact of the killing of Stephen Lawrence”, and that “the recommendations [of the Macpherson Report] for policing were wholeheartedly accepted and implemented by the leadership of the Met and brought about fundamental changes to policing in the UK and internationally.”
It could be argued that Cressida Dick, herself responsible for the police operation that led to the death of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, is missing some crucial facts. In a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in July 2009, entitled ‘The Macpherson Report – Ten Years On’, Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, argued that “there is still a major problem to deal with in relation to stop and search.” The point was raised that whereas “in 1999, a black person was six times more likely to be stopped and searched under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; in 2006/07 it was seven times.” In 2010, the government quietly scrapped a section of the ‘Stop and Search’ forms, specifically introduced after the recommendations of the Macpherson Report. It seems that in some sections of society, the lessons of the Report were quickly forgotten. Or, never learnt in the first place.
As Michael Mansfield, who has represented the Lawrence family, wrote yesterday, “It would be easy to view the Stephen Lawrence verdicts as some kind of definitive line in the sand.” Words of sympathy were forthcoming from the police, the government and the opposition. But whilst it is easy to condemn racist attacks that took place eighteen years ago, it is not so politically convenient when they are here and now. Stephen Lawrence was murdered by members of the public with racist beliefs, but those beliefs were not born in a vacuum. The fact that young people, and particularly young, black people now feel more marginalised than ever will only be compounded by the failure to bring justice to other families like the Lawrences, who have waited, and demanded, for too long.