The murder of a young black man 18 years ago and the inquiry that followed exposed the reality of institutional racism, helped shift public attitudes on race and transformed individual lives
It was hard to know what to think of Gary Dobson and David Norris as they sat in court 19 of the Old Bailey. Are they the hate-filled loudmouths depicted in the police surveillance film of the 1990s or older, wiser figures brought down by a lamented history? Certainly they seemed bewildered as barristers discussed the science and the new policing techniques that made the trial possible. Over 18 years, as both progressed in a way Stephen never could, the world changed; and today that fact caught up with them. There is irony here. On that dark night in Eltham, their brutal malevolence helped to change it.
Think of Britain before that night in Eltham. More to the point, ask someone black what it was like. You might talk about relations with the police as they then were ? a state of ongoing conflict punctuated by occasional outbreaks of warfare. There might be a conversation about discrimination in employment, where the snubs were overt and unapologetic. One might discuss what was a paucity of minority figures in public life and in public administration. But the most profitable conversation would be about attitudes.
Prior to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the events thereafter, particularly Sir William Macpherson's public inquiry, we were actors in a farce as enduring and repetitive as The Mousetrap. Black communities would repeatedly complain that we didn't get a fair shake in terms of policing, the criminal justice system, in the jobs market, in the way we were treated by the whole range of public authorities.
And the establishment, both political and social, would say that we were making the whole thing up, or at least exaggerating. Two generations of black people, apparently with chips on their shoulders.
But that unreality couldn't survive the first weeks of the Macpherson inquiry, as the shoddy treatment meted out to one black victim and one black victim's family by the police ? that lightning rod for wider society ? tumbled into public view. A shock for middle England; catharsis for all whose complaints and warnings had to that point gone unheeded.
The earlier decision of the Daily Mail to label five suspects, including Norris and Dobson, "murderers" had been seismic, but the paper limited its concern to this specific case. It wasn't opposing discrimination. It was raging against criminality on its own terms. It took the inquiry and the doggedness of Stephen's parents to show that the attitudes the Lawrences encountered were those that had bedevilled race relations in Britain for many years. There has never been such a bias against understanding since.
"It was seminal," says Imran Khan, who represented the family at the inquiry. "People forget what it was like living in Britain in 1993.
"There had been three or four racial murders in south-east London. I was working in the anti-racist field and what I was getting constantly was this brick wall from police officers and other agencies saying 'look, this is not about race'. It was almost impossible to get those in authority to accept that race existed as a problem.
"What the Lawrence case did was it made race mainstream. It made it something people had to recognise, acknowledge and accept. Before that, it was something that the left and liberals talked about as a fringe issue. Now suburban England had to accept that race existed."
Khan says the effect of that is felt everywhere. "It pleases me that someone from Big Brother who is said to be a racist causes a furore; that footballers can be admonished in the press and thought of badly because there is a hint of racism. That would never have started in 1993."
Let's not overstate it, he says. "I'm not saying that racism has gone away. There was an expectation, even on my part, that overnight we would get rid of racism. It's changed in the way it is espoused and the way it deals with minority communities. It may be more secret.
"But what we have now is an acceptance within mainstream society that racism is a problem, that people can complain about it and that there is legislation that allows you to do something about it."
John Grieve, a former deputy assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, ushered in a raft of policing changes as a direct response to the Lawrence case. He headed the racial and violent crimes task force.
Now retired into academia, he too says the case prompted a fundamental rethink. "It influenced the governance of policing, the way police are supervised, the way complaints are investigated. It influenced investigations, family liaison officers, the first hour at a murder scene, the independent advisers. It influenced the leadership of policing; we changed a whole layer of how leadership was trained to think as a direct result of some of the evidence Mr and Mrs Lawrence gave."
The effects, he says, were also international. "A lot of people copied the family liaison system. It also changed the law on racially aggravated offences: hate crime is still a big agenda item ? this government is still driving that. It affected double jeopardy ? the way people are tried in court.
"You can point to some things and say we haven't gone far enough. There are still issues, not in policing but in other institutions around institutional racism. I have grave doubts about whether the education establishment picked up the recommendations. Stop and search hasn't gone far enough. But I would argue there was a paradigm shift."
And it wasn't happenstance. Dr Richard Stone, who sat beside Macpherson as an inquiry panel member, says the mainstreaming of race relations predated those official hearings. He points to "that time when Mr Mandela was in the country and the parents appeared on TV with him. He made this terrible statement that the lives of black people are treated in the same way as apartheid South Africa.
"That shook a lot of white people in this country. It was a defining moment. It made this case the one that would be the defining one."
Macpherson and the panel spent an initial four months reading documents about Stephen's murder. "We couldn't believe that the police investigated murders in general as they had done with the Stephen Lawrence case. There had to be some other contributing factor.
"Insufficient evidence was presented to us to draw the conclusion that it might have been corruption so we were left with one other possibility, that it had to be racism. When you looked at the mistakes, so many of them were linked to the attitudes of police officers."
Stone sees ebb and flow in terms of societal progress since. There were, he says, obvious improvements in the immediate aftermath of the inquiry as a raft of institutions reacted to Sir William Macpherson's recommendations. But over time priorities shift, and those resistant to change have asserted themselves. Look at the dearth of senior minority officers in the Met these days, he says. Look at the running sore of stop and search.
"I think both problems are worse. Something went wrong. You were four to five times more likely to be stopped and searched in 1999. Now it is eight to 10 times. When we talk about equalities now, I feel they have dropped off the agenda. In the main three political parties' manifestos in the last election, none of them menti
oned the word racism. The momentum has gone and I found that very sad."
And yet, he says, there is a definable shift from the 1990s. "I think the Lawrences educated this country in what institutional racism is all about. People say: 'What is institutional racism?' and I say to them: 'Do you think the police didn't try hard enough?' and they say: 'Yes.'
"Why was that? Because the family are black. That's it. That's what institutional racism is about. The Lawrences taught millions of people that black people had a different experience of policing and a different experience of life in this country. Through their determination and basic decency they told people that racism really matters and I think that is the most important thing that has changed in this country."
Still, they had help. There were those who campaigned alongside. Opened doors. Made representations.
Ros Howells was one of them. She sits in the House of Lords as Lady Howells of St David, but it was as Ros Howells that she brought the Lawrence case to the attention of the government. Jack Straw ordered the inquiry, but the first minister to be involved was a Tory predecessor at the Home Office, Peter Lloyd.
Howells remembers: "I said this is a young black family who are married, they go to church, their children play tennis, they have aspirations for their children, and white boys murdered the eldest boy and the police failed to make an arrest. The more I got to know the family, the more I realised that they were the sort of people who didn't get involved in issues as such. They were a very nice family. The horror of what was happening would never have entered their minds until it came into their home. I was saying this is a family where there are no scandals attached. They are hard-working."
An official wrote her a note afterwards. "He said: 'You didn't leave a dry eye in the room.'" Over time, says Howells, the Lawrence case led many on a quest for self-education. "People were anxious to learn. They didn't like the term that they were racist. It is still an offensive one to people. Therefore people were asking for training; teachers, doctors, magistrates. How do we unlearn this?
"Not everyone. I remember, the day after the report came out, talking to someone involved in recruitment in the civil service. He was very arrogant. He said: 'I have my way of choosing my civil servants and nothing is going to make me change.' But many people who went through training said: 'Yes, I have been racist.' I think a lot of people have moved on. For all that, the fight goes on."
This is, at its core, a tale of contrasts. On one side we see those responsible for Stephen's murder; men who have enjoyed freedom and potential, without knowingly making any positive contribution to society. The lot of the fugitive, their lives consumed by a battle for survival.
On the other side of the ledger there is Stephen, cut down at 18, but whose memory has led others to shape public attitudes and to directly change the lives of third parties. This is true on a macro level. Consider the legislation changes and other national initiatives. But it is also true on a micro level.
At the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, the trust set up in his name runs programmes to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter the professions. The initial focus was architecture, the career that interested Stephen himself. One hundred bursaries have been handed out; eight recipients have qualified and got jobs.
The centre runs employment programmes and education programmes. And soon it will provide incubator space for young entrepreneurs trying to set up new businesses. Paul Anderson Walsh, the managing director, says each person assisted benefits from an enduring legacy. "We say if you want to improve your life chances, we are here to help you. We call them the 'Stephens'."