Stephen lawrence day: A tragic incident that shifted police’s attitudes to the Black British community
For decades, the British police and the black British community never had a comfortable relationship. Actually, I am putting that lightly. They both despised each other equally. Black people in Britain, especially those from the Caribbean, did not trust the police, and the police didn't trust them.
As I explore in some detail in my first novel, A Prophet Who Loved Her, the British police, particularly in the 70s and 80s, made life very difficult for many black British people, especially young black people. All of the major riots during the 80s, the Brixton riots, the Broadwater Farm riots and the Handsworth Riots were all caused by police constantly harassing black people daily.
A major house fire in New Cross (an event I also examine in my novel) in 1981 where 13 black teenagers died in a suspect arson attack by white racists in the area was a significant turning point for the UK's burgeoning black community at that time. It was the first-time black people realised that not only did the British police harass them, but they didn't even care about their lives. If black kids die in a racist attack, then so be it. The police figuratively and literally shrugged their shoulders.
But the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 changed everything.
Suddenly, the police had to start listening.
And it had been a long time coming.
Black British people had become to be reckoned with
For those readers who might not know, Stephen Lawrence was a 19-year-old black man, born to Jamaican parents who immigrated to the UK in the 60s. On his way back to his home with his friend, Stephen was confronted by a group of young white men who brutally murdered him in an unprovoked attack. According to his friend who was with him at the time, Duwayne Brookes, the men had said “What, what nigger” before engulfing Stephen and killing him. It was a racially, motivated attack.
I was quite young, maybe no older than 13, when I was taught about Stephen Lawrence's death in London. In the time we are in now, the idea of a white man killing a black man in a racial attack on London's streets is almost unbelievable.
Believe me; it was not always that way.
I recall, when I was around the age of 11, a few years after Stephen Lawrence's death, my younger brother and cousin were chased by a group of white boys in Canning Town. They had confronted us in the park and called us "niggers."
As we were outnumbered, myself, my brother and my cousin fled the park and ran as fast as our legs would allow back to my cousin's house while these young white boys were chasing us. Fortunately, we made it back to my auntie's home safely. Sometimes, I do wonder what would have happened if we had not. Would one of us have suffered the same fate as Stephen Lawrence? Thankfully, we never had to find out.
While the death of Stephen Lawrence did not eradicate racism in London or the UK, it transformed how police treated black people. Unlike the New Cross Fires in 1981, the British police could not just silence the family of Stephen Lawrence.
Of course, the Met did try to sabotage Stephen Lawrence’s friend and discredit his family, but their shameful tactics failed. The murder of Stephen Lawrence gained massive coverage in mainstream media. Such widespread media coverage would never have happened in the 80s and 70s. But what was unusual about the media coverage was that it was sympathetic. In the past, British tabloids would always shift the blame of any tragedy that had befallen black people back to black people, or they would ignore it entirely like they had the New Cross Fire tragedy 12 years earlier.
As we remember the anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death today let us acknowledge that his death finally forced the British police to be held accountable to the black British community. Suddenly, the death of a black man at the hands of racists deserved justice.
It had been a long time coming, but black lives finally mattered in the UK.