Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder 30 years on — what’s changed?

by Isai Marijerla, Socialist Party Black and Asian group

30 years ago, on 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence, a Black 18 year-old waiting for a bus in South East London, was brutally murdered by five thugs in a racially motivated attack.

Some events spark mass movements, like the killing of George Floyd in the US in 2020 reignited the Black Lives Matter movement globally. Similarly, Stephen Lawrence’s murder was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was an uproar of mass anger and demands for justice. The anti-racist movement that took place following his death exposed capitalism’s institutionalised racism.

Stephen Lawrence
Stephen Lawrence
Photo: Wikimedia /CC

Stephen Lawrence had the ambition to become an architect but his life was unfairly cut short. He was the fourth person to be murdered because of his race in the area in two years.

These attacks were correctly seen to be closely linked to the British National Party (BNP)’s divisive campaigns that saw an increase in racism in the area. Its headquarters were near Welling, south East London, and they were actively encouraging racist attacks.

There was a growing mood to fight the racist BNP, and two weeks after Stephen’s murder a demo was organised, demanding the ending of racist murders and the closure of the BNP headquarters. The Socialist Party, through the Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) campaign, co-organised the demo along with Panther UK, a socialist Black organisation. 8,000 people of all backgrounds took part in the demo that marched past the BNP headquarters. A few months later, YRE, the Anti-Nazi League, other organisations and trade unions called another march. Nearly 60,000 took part.

The demonstrations and campaigns by the community, anti-racist activists, socialists and trade unionists forced a defeat of the BNP activities.

The YRE also organised community defence campaigns, and we launched a ‘jobs, homes, not racism’ campaign to cut across the divisive rhetoric of the far-right. We also campaigned for more youth centres and for real opportunities for young people of all backgrounds.

The BNP’s only national public activity – a paper sale in Tower Hamlets, East London — was closed down and they lost their only councillor at that time. Within two years the BNP’s headquarters had been shut.

There have been multiple inquiries into Stephen’s murder that resulted in no convictions. Under pressure, including from the mass movement, in 1997 a public inquiry was launched by the newly elected Labour government, led by retired High Court judge Sir William MacPherson. 88 witnesses and over 100,000 pages of statements and documents were heard as evidence.

The report concluded that Stephen was let down by the institutions — that there was a “combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership”.

It took until 19 years after his death for two of the thugs to be found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The MacPherson report of 350 pages ended with 70 recommendations. Some of those recommendations were on improving the community’s confidence in the police force, recruiting more Black and Asian police officers, and the overall elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage. Also to promote fairness in all aspects of policing.

According to the Home Office, at its 10th anniversary, 67 of the 70 recommendations have been implemented. But racism, particularly within the police institutions, is still very alive.

The gap between Black and white adults’ confidence in the fairness of policing is persistent and has widened in recent years. Stop and search is used more disproportionately against Black people now than it was two decades ago. There are many more examples of racism that affect the lives of Black and Asian people in the UK.

30 years on, there has been various reports and inquiries with any number of recommendations: the Race Disparity Audit, the Lammy Review, the McGregor-Smith Review, the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, and so on. But since Stephen’s killing, nothing has fundamentally changed.

There have been more and more examples of hate crimes, racist killings and police brutality. In 2021-22, the number of racist hate crimes exceeded 100,000 for the first time. Police forces recorded a total of 155,841 hate crimes in the year ending March 2022 — up 26% from the previous 12 months.

Instead of addressing these issues, the government is looking at ways to reverse even the small gains made through the MacPherson inquiry. Ministers are pushing police to deal with fewer ‘non-crime hate incidents’ and for the police to record fewer hate crimes. This is part of Suella Braverman’s ‘common sense policing’ campaign. This will mean that racist comments and actions that are deemed ‘non-threatening’ will be allowed.

At a time when more actions are needed to fight racism, the government is renewing its efforts to create an acceptable level of racism. Racism is used as a tool by the bosses and right-wing politicians to attempt to divide communities and encourage working-class people to blame each other rather than the capitalist system.

The capitalist system is failing. We can’t trust right-wing governments or the police to fight racism. No number of recommendations can solve the underlying crisis that exists within this system. There are already more high-profile Black killings that are being investigated, including at the hands of the police, like Chris Kaba and Oladeji Omishore.

No racist comment or remark can be tolerated. Socialists and trade unionists played a key role to get justice in defeating the BNP and in the fight against racist killings in the aftermath of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. The Socialist Party has continuously campaigned for the trade union movement to be the backbone of an anti-racism campaign to defeat the government’s divisive policies.

As long as capitalism exists, so must the fight against racism. The central point for socialists is that to end racism, we need a mass movement armed with a socialist programme. A programme that meets the needs of all, so that we can ultimately end all oppressions based on race, gender, sexuality, etc.

We remember the events 30 years ago, we remember Stephen Lawrence, all those who were affected, and all those killed at the hands of the state. We also fight for a society where such events don’t take place, that means fighting for socialist change. If you agree, join us.

Read more: