Tuesday was a day of mixed emotions. Relief at the news that two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers had finally been found guilty. But any satisfaction at the verdict is muted by how long it has taken to get here. I was 18 when Gary Dobson and David Norris were part of the gang that killed Stephen. It took another 18 years, and then a little bit more, for these two vile individuals to be taken off the streets.
It’s not just their dignity which impresses, but the sheer hard work and determination that Doreen and Neville Lawrence put in over the years to overcome a lack of interest from an insular, complacent – if not outright corrupt – police force. Along the way, they forced the government and public services to examine their own attitudes. None of this can ever bring their son back, and there is a long way to go, but we live in a better country for their efforts.
For a generation of south-east Londoners – those of us who are now in our mid- to late-thirties, the case has cast a long, long shadow. Stephen was in the year below me in our shared sixth form. Our paths only crossed briefly, although a number of my friends knew him. I never heard a bad word of him. A few of them are planning to meet up on Wednesday and have a quiet drink in his memory, taking a break from the careers and families that Stephen never lived long enough to enjoy for himself.
But events in Eltham and elsewhere of the early 1990s certainly shaped my view of the world, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Stephen Lawrence was not the only victim of a racist murder. Rolan Adams, 15, was killed in Thamesmead in February 1991. Back in Eltham, 15-year-old Asian schoolboy Rohit Duggal was murdered the following year only a few hundred yards from where Stephen would die. The Macpherson report would later record evidence that Rohit Duggal’s killer was one of the same gang responsible for Stephen’s death.
Lurking in the background of all this was the presence of the British National Party. Its “bookshop” (in reality, its headquarters) was a couple of miles away in Upper Wickham Lane, Welling, and it was actively recruiting in Thamesmead and the outer suburbs. In October 1993, oafish policing ensured a demonstration against the “bookshop” would end in disarray and violence. After Bexley Council took action through its planning department, the BNP slunk off a couple of years later.
Nearly two decades later, how much has changed? It’s worth remembering that it was the community in Eltham who gave up the names of Dobson and Norris in the first place. It was the local Metropolitan Police who decided that the death of a black man wasn’t worth investigating properly, not the people of Eltham.
Yet SE9 remains a soft target for those who seek to stir and divide people. The cameo role played by racist outsiders in the aftermath of the riots was a reminder of that. A couple of months ago, a friend told me the scenes of white men attacking a bus containing black men had convinced her she wouldn’t be sending her children to school out that way.
Even a more “respectable” politician sought to play on the area’s reputation. Failed Conservative parliamentary candidate David Gold – who on Tuesday described Eltham as “a good community, overshadowed by events of 18 years ago” – tried to whip things up himself during the 2010 election.
But it would be unfair to single out Eltham – a suburb with a royal heritage, once home to Frankie Howerd, Bob Hope and Herbert Morrison. If you look within the narrow borders of the London Borough of Greenwich, it certainly sticks out – mostly ungentrified, predominantly white, full of semis rather than terraces or flats.
Eltham’s bad reputation merely reflects a wider issue in the outer suburbs, to which it really belongs rather than the inner London borough which it forms part of. In fact, the problem has probably moved further out over time. Three years ago, a Bexley Council by-election in Welling saw the BNP come within eight votes of victory. Remember the Boris Johnson event in Bexleyheath last year, when a former member started trying to whip up false rumours about a stabbing? Could they get away with that kind of thing in Eltham now? After the trauma of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, I’m not so sure.
Until politicians and others – both nationally and locally – stop whipping up tensions, suburbs like Eltham will never totally escape the spectre of racism.
It’s not the only place in London with a high street that’s seen better days, and has kids hanging around McDonald’s day and night because there’s nothing else to do. But if ever somewhere needed a bit of local pride – that doesn’t involve standing outside the Rising Sun with pints in hand waiting to fend off imaginary rioters – then here’s a candidate. Who’ll step forward and champion Eltham?
There remain at least three killers who have – so far – evaded justice. With Tuesday’s verdict, at least the area can begin to go some way towards healing a scar that’s been raw for nearly two decades. Neville and Doreen Lawrence lost more than we could ever imagine that night. We owe them a lot for their tenacity and determination, which has helped changed our society.
I can’t help thinking, though, that this won’t be over until the others are also behind bars. We’ve come a long way, but there’s some distance to go yet. In too many ways.