I was twelve years old when Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered by a gang of racists in Eltham, South London. I remember watching the news about the case at the time, in April of 1993, and reading the various newspaper reports.
I also remember the fear I felt. I'm a South Londoner; Eltham isn't too far from where I lived at the time. How many other racists were wandering about looking for a young black person like myself to kill, I wondered. I certainly had no desire to venture into Eltham and even to this day, when I go back to London, I still avoid the place.
For some time afterwards, as I would stand and wait for my bus to school, I would think "Stephen Lawrence was standing at a bus stop when he was set upon and stabbed to death." If something had happened to me, my sister or my cousins, would we too receive the same terrible treatment as Stephen had? I was well aware that I too could have been a Stephen Lawrence.
Then came a shocking series of police bungles that created mayhem around Stephen's death and that led to the acquittal of those who everyone in the country knew had killed him. It was heartbreaking. Not just for Stephen, not just for his family, but for all of us. It was a stain on England, and deeply upsetting for those of us who saw that this was just yet another instance in which a black life was considered to be second class by the very authorities who were supposed to protect us. How could it be that despite an inquest jury's statement that Stephen Lawrence was "unlawfully killed by five white youths", those five youths - whose names and faces everyone knew - remained on the streets?
The Stephen Lawrence case is so memorable because it's the biggest case of my lifetime as relates to the treatment of a black British citizen at the hands of the police, a stunning indictment of the vestiges of discrimination that permeated through British society. As a young person, I suddenly was made very aware that the country in which I was born and raised was not interested in protecting people like me and, in fact, for those like me, it was a case of guilty until proven innocent. My view of England was changed forever.
The McPherson report, published in 1999 as a result of the case, laid bare what the Lawrence family and black Britons had known all along: that the police force was "institutionally racist" and that their own prejudice had led to serious error judgements resulting in a lack of justice for the crime.
So much has happened in the 18 years since Stephen's death and I myself, as an ordinary Brit, have many memories of the related incidents, reports, controversies, cover images - particularly the Daily Mail photo of the five accused, calling them murderers - and headlines of those years. Goodness knows what it must have been like for his family and friends. However, despite their pain, the Lawrence's never stopped fighting for justice.
Today, some justice has finally been served as Gary Dobson and David Norris have been found guilty of Stephen's murder. Finally, hopefully, the Lawrence family can find some peace. Finally, Duwayne Brooks, who was with Stephen at the time can also feel a sense that justice has been served.
This guilty verdict also sends out a message that no longer is it OK in England for people to commit such crimes and to get away with them. Yes, it has been 18 years, but even after 18 years, you can still be found guilty. I can finally feel more confidence in the country of my birth's ability to protect all of its citizens, regardless of their racial background.
However, this is not the end. More work must be done to ensure that no other such case ever takes this length of time, nor entails such complex processes on the part of the victims to come to a fair judgement. 18 years for justice is both a blessing and a travesty.
However, today was a victory for Stephen - who would have been 36 now - for his family and friends, for black Britons, for law abiding and non-racist Britons and for social and racial justice.
Rest in peace Stephen Lawrence.Suggest a correction