John Sentamu: Twenty years on, the lessons of love from a brutal killing

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LET me begin by telling you about Stephen, a mature intelligent man of 38, a successful architect, with a wife and children of whom he is very proud. A man loved and respected by his wider family and the community where he lives and in which he is a blessing to many.

This is one of the real possibilities that the future held for Stephen Lawrence who was murdered 20 years ago this Monday in an unprovoked racist attack by a gang of white youths in Eltham. An attack whose devastating effect not only tragically denied Stephen a future, but also reverberated through many lives, causing pain which cannot be calculated this side of the grave.

As we remember Stephen’s death at this time, we need to renew our determination to rid our communities of racism, hatred, fear, ignorance, stereotyping, and the advantaging or disadvantaging of others because of their colour or ethnic origin.

But at the same time, as we look back over those 20 years, we can recognise the gains that have come from grappling with that pain and fighting the evil of racism; and give thanks that some progress has been made away from the ignorance, fear of difference and stereotyping, which were hallmarks of this crime and its investigation at the time.

Much of the progress that has been made stems originally from the determination and courage of Stephen’s parents. His father Neville and his mother Doreen fought tirelessly for justice for Stephen.

For the first four years, their fight seemed to be doomed to disappointment. First, the police failed to respond promptly, with clear determination, to the information received from the public, giving names of suspects. This led to the disappearance of scientific forensic evidence, so that the investigation was inconclusive, and charges against five arrested suspects were dropped. They even failed to take up the floorboards when they received information that knives were hidden below. Early arrests would have yielded incriminating evidence.

Then the private prosecution brought by the Lawrence family ended with charges against two suspects being dropped, and the acquittal of the other three suspects. The inquest called in February 1997 brought in a verdict of “unlawful killing in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths”. But there seemed to be nothing further that could be done, until five months later the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, took the bold decision to call a public inquiry.

As a serving Bishop for Stepney, with my Ugandan experience as an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda and a member of the Judiciary, I was appointed as an advisor to the inquiry where it became clear that the Lawrence family had been ill-served by our justice system.

The “canteen and occupational culture” of the Metropolitan Police had resulted in what the inquiry described as “institutional racism”, a concept which was clearly discernible in the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Our conclusions and 72 recommendations called on all organisations to address the cultural and organisational failings that the inquiry highlighted. The government, on receiving the report, endorsed the recommendations, and subsequently not only police forces across the country, but also other public and private institutions – including the Church of England – committed themselves to an examination and improvement of their own attitudes and practices.

Another positive outcome of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry – in terms of achieving justice for Stephen – was the proposal that the “double-jeopardy” rule be set aside in the case of murder, if fresh and viable evidence, which could not have been found at the time of the trial, later came to light. Everyone will now be aware that the implementation of this recommendation has resulted in the retrial and conviction of Gary Dobson who was “acquitted” in the private prosecution, and of David Norris whose charge had been dropped in the same prosecution. The force of justice may be slow, but it is sure.

I believe the progress which has been made has not only been in these practical results, but can also be seen in a general change in perception of what is acceptable in our communities, and in our attitudes to our neighbours, whatever their ethnic origin, colour or culture.

The elimination of racism remains a serious task for all of us. For racism is like an invidious and devastating cancer in society, attacking community structures and all its components. We may congratulate ourselves that it has been eradicated in one place and we can relax, but sadly it often turns up somewhere else, with slightly different characteristics – this time perhaps focused on asylum seekers, or Eastern European workers. Wherever it is found, it must be fought.

As we remember Stephen Lawrence at this time – 20 years after that senseless, racist and cruel attack; as we mourn the violence done to him, the loss of his future, and of his potential – strong feelings are never far away. There may be grief, righteous anger, deep regret, fear of the violence which may still lie in wait not only outside, but within our communities.

Indeed, Stephen’s parents were wise to arrange for him to be buried in Jamaica because, in the years following his murder, the memorial plaque marking the place of his death on Well Hall Road has sadly been desecrated several times.

In response we must find a way of understanding and rebuilding lives which are damaged. We must find a new attitude, a new readiness to approach one another as human beings. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said: “In a free society, all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

We need to recognise the need that in justice there must be truth, restoration, and reconciliation. The only true principle for humanity is justice, inspired and nourished by love and true compassion. True peace isn’t merely the absence of tension, it’s the presence of justice.

Stephen’s mother, Doreen, has devoted the past 20 years of her life to social justice and equality, and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust set up in his memory by his family continues to promote justice and opportunity for young people.

At the inquiry, Doreen Lawrence ended her statement with these words: “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.”

As Stephen’s father Neville said: “This is a very small place, this world of ours; we have to live together, and now we have to say, let us put the past behind us, join hands and go forward.”

So, let us remember Stephen Lawrence today with more determination than ever that his legacy will be one of true love and justice, so that peace may flower in our country. May Stephen Lawrence, in the company of the faithful, Delight in the Grace of God and Rise in Glory.

Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.