Twenty-six years ago this week, Stephen Lawrence, 18, was murdered in cold blood by a gang of young men who targeted him in a racist attack in south east London, stabbing him to death.
While two people were convicted of his murder nearly ten years later thanks to DNA evidence, their accomplices were never brought to justice.
Stephen’s murder, the resultant case and its aftermath marked a watershed moment in the history of British race relations. In a grossly mishandled case, the abject failure of the police in securing justice for Stephen and his family sparked a public inquiry that laid bare the extent of institutional racism in the police force.
The twenty-sixth anniversary of Stephen’s death on Monday (April 22), marked the first official Stephen Lawrence Day, announced by the government last year to commemorate the young man whose life was violently cut short by racism.
London mayor Sadiq Khan called Stephen Lawrence Day “an opportunity to celebrate Stephen’s life as well as the great work that is now being done in his name to inspire schoolchildren to ‘live their best life’.”
“The murder of Stephen Lawrence was a horrific racist crime that shamed our country – and led to the Stephen Lawrence Public Inquiry,” he said. “This was a landmark moment in the history of British race relations. But as well as reflecting on this legacy, we most also remember Stephen’s life.”
“Stephen was a talented young Londoner who dreamt of becoming an architect but tragically never had the opportunity fulfil his true potential.”
Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, said much more had to be done to combat racism through education.
“If we are to encourage future generations to build a better society, free from discrimination, I believe that we must teach tolerance and inclusion from an early age,” she wrote in a letter to the Guardian this week. “Education is a powerful way of inspiring young people, and I would like to see British schools put the values of respect and fairness at the heart of the curriculum.”
Unite executive council member and bus driver James Mitchell – who has long been an advocate for anti-racism education in schools – agreed.
“Lady Doreen Lawrence is 110 per cent correct,” he told UniteLive. “The only way we can effectively tackle racism is through early intervention. Show Racism the Red Card, an organisation that Unite has long supported has done just that, by going into schools and educating our young people about racism, using football as an educational tool.”
But Mitchell warned that such education will require the necessary funding.
“Show Racism the Red Card and other organisations like it have faced significant cuts in government funding. It’s all well and good for the government to say it wants to tackle racism but it needs to follow up its words with action.”
Mitchell went on to slam the government for cutting funding to youth clubs and other services for young people.
“It’s a scandal that twenty-six years after Stephen’s death, knife crime has skyrocketed in lockstep with government cuts to youth services. Young people must feel like they’ve been given a stake in society – they must be given something to do. Otherwise we will continue to see this knock-on effect of escalating youth crime.”
‘Youth and equality’
Mitchell said that it was important to mark Stephen Lawrence Day this week because his story “really represented a turning point in our history”.
“It’s devastating that an innocent young man had to die for change to happen, but the inquiry truly brought about a monumental change – it forced the establishment to reckon with racism within its own ranks.
“Marking Stephen Lawrence Day is critical for us as trade unionists because at the heart of our union is youth and equality – we can only grow as a union if we support our young people and it is only through our dedication to equality that we create an even playing field that allows all people, no matter their race, creed or sexuality, to realise their full potential.”
Unite national officer for equalities Harish Patel agreed.
“Unite welcomes this year’s first Stephen Lawrence Day – we believe it is vital to pay tribute to an inspiring young man whose life was tragically cut short by the violent racism that still blights our society today. But our tributes must be coupled with the action we must undertake every day of the year to fight racism and violent crime.
“This includes the work Unite does day-in and day-out with its support of organisations like Show Racism the Red Card and other union-led initiatives to stand up to racism in whatever form it takes – whether it’s on the streets, in our workplaces or in our institutions of power.”
Speaking ahead of a Show Racism the Red Card School Competition Awards at the Etihad Stadium tomorrow (April 25), Unite general secretary Len McCluskey hailed the work of the organisation.
“Unite is a proud supporter of Show Racism the Red Card and its tireless work in schools across the country,” he said. “The work of Show Racism the Red Card is vital in educating young people and ridding racism from our football pitches, terraces and communities. All the entrants and winners in this year’s awards should be proud of their work which demonstrates that unity can overcome division and discrimination.”