For the next week, I will be running 5km every day in memory of a black person who died too soon, writing a story biography of that person on this blog, and making a donation to a relevant charity.
My first run is in memory of Stephen Lawrence. I am writing about Stephen first because his death was – not the first time I’d witnessed racism, obviously, but – the first time I realised that someone could hate the colour of a stranger’s skin so much that they wanted them dead.
Stephen was three years older than me, lived five miles away from my childhood home in Beckenham and went to sixth form college with my ex boyfriend. I think maybe this tenuous link between us was part of the reason why his death has stayed with me so vividly. Our lives were similar on the surface, but couldn’t have panned out more differently. Stephen was a hard working teenager who loved running and dreamed of being an architect. He was British, born in Greenwich in 1974 – his parents had emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s, and he had two younger siblings.
22nd April 1993 should have been an ordinary day for Stephen – he hung out with a friend, visited an uncle and went to the shops. But on his journey home, Stephen and his friend decided to change buses in Well Hall Road (at the very same bus stop where I would later catch a bus to visit the aforementioned ex boyfriend) and this is where they encountered the group of racist youths who killed Stephen. His friend recalls a racist remark aimed in their direction, and then they immediately set upon Stephen, knocking him to the floor and repeatedly launching a knife at him, severing his arteries and penetrating a lung. Not realising how badly Stephen was hurt, his friend shouted at him to run, and Stephen somehow found the strength to run a hundred metres with four severed arteries before collapsing and bleeding to death on the pavement in front of his terrified friend. When the police arrived, they made no attempt to assess Stephen’s injuries or administer first aid but instead asked witnesses about “the fight” (it was not a fight; Stephen and his friend did not fight back) and treated his devastated friend like a criminal. When the police broke the news to Stephen’s parents, they felt that they were looking for something Stephen had done to provoke the attack and that they were treating him as the aggressor and not the victim.
The murder was discussed a lot at our sixth form college and I remember lamenting that no one had been caught for it. A fellow student retorted that he knew who did it, everyone knew who did it and proceeded to reel off a list of names. “Why don’t they tell the police?” I said naively. Of course, the police knew who had done it as well as the common room at Orpington College did. They had been given the names the very day after the murder. Somehow, it took eight years, three trials and a bold move from the Daily Mail (of all people) to get the perpetrators where they belonged. There was no lack of evidence, barely any attempt to conceal their guilt and no possibility of any other suspects, and yet it seemed impossible to get justice for Stephen. Would it have been so difficult if the victim had been white and the perpetrators black?
“I would like Stephen to be remembered as a young man who had a future. He was well loved, and had he been given the chance to survive maybe he would have been the one to bridge the gap between black and white because he didn’t distinguish between black or white. He saw people as people.” – Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother