The memorial service commemorating the 25th anniversary of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence was attended by the high and mighty of British society, including newly-weds, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But does this signify a new chapter in British race relations or is it papering over the cracks? By Goodwin Clayton
A month before their wedding, the UK’s Prince Harry and his then fiancée Meghan Markle attended a commemoration service at St Martin-in-the-Fields church by Trafalgar Square to mark the 25th anniversary of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
The young man had been struck down by a gang of white hooligans, dying apparently anonymously on the edge of a forbidding south-east London housing estate.
The forces of law and order treated his cause with a disdain that has become legendary and now the ‘great and the good’ of society, including Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, came to honour his memory. Henceforth, announced the Prime Minister, 22 April, the date of his murder, would become an annual Stephen Lawrence Day.
None of this would have been possible without the dignity and determination of his parents, Doreen (now Baroness) and Neville Lawrence.
The recent television film Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation, showed that in their quest for justice the Lawrences had to face more than just the impenetrable institutionalised racism of the Metropolitan Police. Goodness knows, that was difficult enough. Individual policemen were shown to be in cahoots with, and the local force in some awe of, a drug gangster whose son was one of Stephen’s murderers (for which he and a colleague have been very belatedly sent to prison).
Violence had been rife in the area. Rolan Adams, another black schoolboy, and Rohit Duggal had been killed in similar circumstances. Numerous others, including several white youths – and also my own then teenage mixed-race son – had been beaten up. The suspects were nearly always linked to the same gang, and yet nothing effective had been done until the Lawrences took their stand.
It was around the time of the commemoration service that US President Donald Trump referred to parts of London as resembling a war-zone because of the reported incidents of stabbings – of and by black youths – on the city streets.
That is a considerable piece of cheek considering the gun slaughter mayhem in his own country, and it is not coincidental that at the time he was addressing the National Rifle Association’s powerful pressure group. Even so, the mushrooming violence here cannot pass without comment. It stands in stark contrast to the concept of harmonious, multicultural Britain as portrayed by coverage of the royal wedding.
Celebration of blackness?
The union of Prince Harry and the former Meghan Markle has been applauded as a “celebration of blackness”. Certainly, Africans were represented at the ceremony to an extent that no other royal or state occasion has managed.
Bishop Michael Curry from Chicago, a gospel choir and high-profile guests, from Serena Williams to Oprah Winfrey and beyond, were there. Parts of the service had an “African feel”. No wonder black people here as a whole, journalists and politicians in particular, rejoiced in an event where they could feel represented for the first time.
I am not so sure of its perceived game-changing effect. “An African in the British royal family – awesome” tweeted my wife’s niece from LA . The clue is in the location. It was indeed the wedding of a Hollywood actress in Hollywood style. A good number of those there were African but they were essentially celebrities and American – a world away from the ‘war-zone’ depicted by their president. The princes and the tinsel may depart, but the pain of the bereaved from the violence will continue.
Yet the ethnic symbolism of the wedding was significant in that it showed a country at ease with itself. The edge has been taken off the hatred for ‘others’ generated two years ago. It has not gone but there is greater awareness that all people here are an entity. All sectors of society, generally if not all individuals, celebrated the royal wedding.
More importantly, blacks, whites, Asians, Muslims, Christians, atheists and others have suffered in common from the hands of terrorists and the Grenfell Tower conflagration, which did not discriminate.
Media polls have found that the more people have begun to talk about immigration, the more they have found to their own initial surprise that they quite like immigrants (if not immigration). Among some unexpected results, Magid Magid, a Muslim from Somalia, with unconventional dress appearance and social opinions, has been elected Lord Mayor of the northern industrial city of Sheffield. Such a thing could not be imagined a year ago.
That brings us back, however uncomfortably, to the stabbings and shootings. It isn’t that there is no viable explanation – just too many. Reductions in police and social services have certainly fuelled a sense of alienation and despair. The assailants, who are usually known to their victims, are only too aware that they will be apprehended and sent to prison. The prospect of a future ‘inside’ holds little fear to those who do not see that they have a meaningful future anyway.
When Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993, the concern was about feral white gangs infesting high-rise housing estates. These buildings have been pulled down and replaced, and these gangs are now less prominent. Today it is black gangs that operate in similar high-rise estates. There must be a lesson there somewhere.
Because these attacks are usually made on outsiders entering the territory of a gang, defined by the estate on which its members live, they are known as the ‘post-code’ stabbings. In all societies when people have nothing else – possessions, pride, prospects – they fall back on defending vigorously the one thing that is theirs, namely, their habitat.
The way out of the predicament would be the provision of those opportunities and facilities that potential perpetrators of attacks can identity with, as well as for the government to restore the defunct manufacturing industry to provide meaningful employment. That, however, is heresy to current thinking.
Squaring the circle
Earlier this year I was privileged to speak with Pauline Pearce during her ultimately unsuccessful bid to be elected Mayor of Hackney (an inner-city borough of east London).
She came to public attention by reprimanding inner-city rioters in 2011, waving her walking-stick at them, for trashing their own neighbourhood and its facilities. The so-named ‘Hackney Heroine’, a grandmother, singer and community radio broadcaster from a Jamaican background, has tackled this issue head-on.
Pauline, who has endured cancer and a spell in prison, said: “I got a fresh start – a chance to turn things around. That’s what the borough needs. Everyone has hard times and dark times – that’s called being human – but what makes the difference is how you get up, start again, and decide this time you’ll do better.”
She has used her voice “to speak up about the violence on our streets, the lack of opportunities for our young people, and the massive housing crisis our borough faces”.
How do you square the circle of the wedding festival lauded as a “celebration of blackness”, the violence that is robbing youths of their lives and the country of their potential, and the honour accorded to a young man whose death has become a byword for racial violence and police incompetence/malevolence?
It cannot be done. That is why modern life is so complex. What is the current face of Britain – and which way is the land going? If the wedding was a triumph of representation, the respect for Stephen Lawrence was recognition – belated but, nevertheless, a recognition of humanity, brought about by the determination of individuals and the community. On balance, I believe that the latter was the more significant event. NA