It was 20 years ago today 22nd April 1993: that was the day British society was to be fundamentally changed as Stephen Lawrence lay dying on the streets of London.
At the time, I was the national spokesperson for the National Black Caucus. We had been campaigning in Greenwich South East London, particularly in the local areas of Eltham and Thamesmead, since February 1991, a full 2 years before Stephens’s tragic murder.
Back then we had supported a family, who are little known today, compared to the Lawrence’s. Their son was one of the earliest victims of a spate of racist murders that would become an international scandal and lead to the biggest ever, mass moblisation of the anti racist community since the uprisings against police racism in 1986.
First though, it’s important to get a bit of background to understand the climate that existed at the time.
In 1989 I was Secretary of a local black local organisation. The organisation, Southwark Black Communities, had referred Southwark Council Housing Department to the Commission for Race Equality.
The Council had wanted to allocate an all new housing development on the north side of Old Kent Road, to an all white housing association. We opposed that and the CRE agreed and issued a legal Notice of Discrimination.
The result was that all UK local authorities had to stop allocating housing on the basis of race.
As a result of our campaigning, in addition to others, Black and Asian people, were now moving into traditionally white areas, at a time that coincided with rising unemployment and the onset of UK economy entering recession, an important fact to remember as we endure this austerity induced depression.
One incident in Southwark Park Rotherhithe, in the early 1990’s saw a school bus packed with Black and Asian kids, subject to a brutal racist attack by a gang of white youths.
We had organised a march to oppose the attack on our children, that was met with the vilest and overt, vicious racism, I’ve ever witnessed.
White people, young, old, entire communities, and even the disabled, lined the streets to hurl racist abuse at us.
I remember well, Simon Hughes MP opposed the march and stood on a Bridge overlooking us as we passed underneath, alongside racists who spat on us in such volume, it felt like it was raining. The scene was reminiscent of American Deep South in the1960’s. The atmosphere was one of deep-seated hatred and racism spat out like with poisonous venom.
When we reached the park, led there for our safety by the police, we were abandoned and left to fend for ourselves. Police officers simply withdrew from the demo and walked over and joined the swelling ranks of the racists, officers looked back at us and laughed. We were 500 whilst the racists were closer to 2000. The police stood with the racists.
We were confronted by the massed ranks of the BNP, Combat 18 and Millwall fans, plus local racist gangs that wanted to keep Bermondsy white.
They tried every which way, to attack the march. I remember a black woman looking at me and saying,
“Lee, today is a good day to die”
We stood our ground, although completely surrounded and I told a senior police officer that he better understand that we were prepared to die that day. It was clear he was unable or unwilling to control his officers He begged me to hold the demo in check, and to be honest we had no real option but to hold our ground, surrounded by a baying pack of racist thugs.
Once the police knew we were serious and prepared to die fighting, they called for and deployed riot troops and battered the assembled fascists into a bloody broken heap.
There were no arrests, despite the riotous carnage. A black couple that accidently drove into the area close to the mob, were momentarily trapped in as racists swarmed their vehicle. We had to move Black people out of their homes that night, for fear of reprisal attacks, but we never gave in, we never surrendered, even in the face of such vile racism. Racist attacks continued to escalate and we continued to fight back eventually, we won and the racists moved out and moved east.
This was a time, in London and in other parts of the country, when Black and Asian people, were literally fighting for our basic human rights to live, walk the streets and work anywhere we chose.
As many areas were becoming desegregated, reports were flooding in all over the country of rising incidence of racial attacks and so our organisations were already on high alert, because of a succession of racist murders in Greenwich that the Metropolitan Police refused to investigate properly.
Today I often go to London Rotherhide and Bermondsy, as I have family who live in the area. As I walk the streets and see the fantastic diversity that exists there now, I often smile and remind myself of the bitter violent struggle we fought to ensure black people could live safely in these areas.
Then in 1991 the murder of 15-year-old Rolan Adams made my blood run cold in my veins.
There were remarkable similarities between Rolan’s murder and that of Stephens.
He too had been waiting at a bus stop with his brother, some two miles away from where Stephen was to die two years later.
They were approached by a gang of 14 white youths, shouting racist abuse, they were confronted and chased. Rolan was stabbed from behind and his brother escaped, only to return to find Rolan had been fatally stabbed.
His parents, Audrey and Richard Adams understood well the nature of racism in Britain. The police tried to suggest that his murder was nothing more than “a territorial gang fight”.
We knew well he had been killed for no other reason than the colour of his skin. The Adams family was forthright and demanding in their calls for justice, yet they were largely ignored by the white mainstream media, but loved by the black community.
Their battle for justice was strident and uncompromising. While we marched for justice with Rev Al Shaprton whilst the wretched BNP, had held a counter demo calling the killers of Rolan Adams “Heroes of the White Race”,
I felt a real connection with the Adams family. I saw first hand, how they suffered the indignity of a racist and callous police force and a bigoted indifferent media. They had become cast as the “undeserving victims” by the media.
A gang of racists slaughtered Rolan and yet in the end, only one person, Mark Thornburrow was convicted then only for manslaughter, instead of murder, whilst the rest of this vicious mob received a range of light community sentences.
My relationship with the Adams family endured and remains to this day. Had their call for justice had been heeded, and our calls for the police to do their job been heard, lives could have been saved, including that of Stephen.
I believe that, this family’s role in changing the course of British history has been purposely overlooked, because in some people’s eyes they were just “too black and too strong”.
There are no honours for them, no gushing support from white liberals, no monuments, book’s or reams of articles recording their tragic history, just a gutful of pain and profound marginalisation. Dr Richard Stone deserves a special mention here; in later years his compassion, empathy and support for the family was exceptional.
In May 1991, following Roland’s murder, we witnessed the racist murder of Orville Blair, falsely suspected being a burglar he was confronted and killed. Orville’s murderer was eventually arrested and convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Greenwich had become the racist murder capital of Britain. The area was notorious to such an extent that black people literally feared to walk the streets in those areas at night. The BNP had opened a ‘ bookshop’ on Well Hall Road and was spreading their philosophy of violent race hatred. This poison seeped into the estates and schools leading to bloodshed on the streets.
Following the killing of Orville and in the same year, Lee Pearson was stabbed outside a Kebab shop near Well Hall Road, the now infamous scene of Stephens’s death. Lee was so terrified of his attackers who included the Acourts, he refused to testify for fear of reprisal.
But the community knew what was going on, the truth was that local white youth had declared the area a “nigger free zone”
In July 1992, Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death outside the same shop as Lee Pearson. Peter Thompson was found guilty of murder but yet again the police failed to understand that a culture of violent racism was the prime-motivating factor in these killings.
In October 1992 Sher Singh Sagoo was murdered in Deptford Market again his attacker was charged with manslaughter, but the case was later abandoned because of ‘insufficient evidence”
In 1993 Kevin London was lucky to escape with his life, after being confronted by a racist gang including the Acourt brothers.
Then in March that year a gang, including the Acourts, stabbed two more men on Eltham High Street.
Gurdeep Bhangal confronted the Acourt gang outside his father’s Wimpy franchise. He was stabbed with a kitchen knife and barely survived, no one was charged.
That same month, Fiaz Mirza a mini cab driver was abducted beaten and his body thrown in the Thames.
Eventually brothers Mark and Ricky Lee were both given life for murder.
Neil Acourt. the following week, stabbed Stacey Benefield in the company of David Norris.
This reign of racist terrorism promoted by the BNP and enforced by a group of racist thugs left the nation is shock and forever impacted on British society.
So Stephen’s death was important and in response I helped lead 5,000 black youths from across London on a march to Eltham on march of 60,000 to oppose the racist violence spurred on by Nick Griffins BNP bookshop.
I was an avid anti apartheid activist at the time, and had made good contacts with the ANC exiled activists in London. When Mandela walked free, I was able to arrange for him to meet the Lawrence family when he came to London. He issued a statement saying that he thought that “Black lives were cheap” in the UK. From then on the campaign achieved an international profile.
We campaigned for a public inquiry but John Major and his Tory Government point blank refused to engage supporting the police line that racism was incidental to these cases.
We had good contacts with the Labour Party, who were in opposition at the time, and we used all our influences to persuade them to agree to a Public Inquiry should they win the 1997 general election. Jack Straw announced their intent at an Operation Black Vote press conference held at the 1990 Trust offices at SouthBank Technopark that I chaired.
We were also able to strongly lobby for Dr Richard Stone to be on the panel once Blair won the election. We had worked together at the Mangrove Community Association, All Saints Road Notting Hill, throughout the 1980’s.
He was the only doctor we could get to come out at any time night or day to check on black men who were beaten during arrest by the police and supported our efforts to free Frank Crichlow from false arrest, but that’s a whole other story.
I gave evidence to the Lawrence Inquiry as Director of the 1990 Trust and coined the phrase that black people:
“We are underpoliced as victims of crime and overpoliced as law abiding citizens”.
Once in the Mayors Office under Ken Livingstone office, I was able to support the Lawrence’s by ensuring the London Development Agency prioritised the funding of the Stephen Lawrence Centre something that gave me immense personal and professional pleasure as I attended the opening.
So yes I remember Stephen’s murder and in doing so I remember all other victims who preceded him and indeed followed him.
This current Government has squandered the political legacy of Stephen’s death by abolishing all of the various policy forums designed to monitor race inequality. Race is no longer on the Government agenda for now. It will return, as racism in the context of this recession has become amplified by austerity. As welfare benefit reforms ethnically cleanse London, forcing Black and Asian families to live in low rent areas where unemployment is on the increase, I can see the potential for increase community tensions rising again.
Racism always rises during a recession fanned on by sections of the media and government seeking to scapegoat minorities for the ills of the nation.
In a YouGov poll for LBC 97.3 Radio and ITV London published today, confirms my long held view that the problem of institutionalised racism in the police remains a huge problem. Nearly 60% of black people say the police remains racist in their behavior, attitude and in terms of their operational methods.
As for the Adams family whatever happens, they need to be accorded their rightful place in history and as long as I breathe I will strive to make sure that their bravery, courage and leadership is acknowledged and respected.
I say let us remember Stephen but let us not forget Audrey and Richard Adams and their family. Raise them up, for if we don’t, no one else will.