Memories still painful 25 years after stephen lawrence murder uk news the guardian

Life continues near the unobtrusive granite plaque that marks the spot where Stephen Lawrence died, 25 years ago on Sunday. A woman pushes a pram, cars and buses rumble along, people wait at a bus stop perhaps unaware they stand where the aspiring architect was set upon by a gang of racists and stabbed to death.

The murder of the 18-year-old on Well Hall Road in Eltham, south-east London, left an indelible mark on British society, forcing the country to face up to endemic racism which resulted in two men being convicted for his murder but only 18 years later and after a change in the law. But now, a quarter of a century after Stephen was killed, those who have watched the repercussions unfold warn that lessons hard learned are in danger of being lost.

“I get the sense there isn’t the urgency around tackling incidents of racial harassment or racial abuse in the way that there was,” says Clive Efford, the MP here since 1997. “I think as you get further away from an incident as serious as the murder of Stephen Lawrence it has dulled the senses.”

The landmark anniversary brings back painful memories for people in this quiet suburb, including the moment they realised they lived in such a deeply divided society. “We were horrified; no one I knew had ever thought about that type of thing. We hadn’t needed to – no, we hadn’t appreciated that we needed to,” says Judy Smith, a long-time community organiser and part of South Greenwich Forum.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock. There were a spate of violent incidents before the murder: Rolan Adams, 15, was killed in February 1991 in Thamesmead; in July 1992, Rohit Duggal, 15, was stabbed to death by a white youth, also on Well Hall Road.

When retired civil servant Cecil D’Cunha moved in 30 years ago, it was a very different place, he says. He remembers running from a group of white men and hiding in a bush until they had gone. “There was a lot of casual racism,” he says. “But people are more knowledgeable now; they’ve been abroad, there are all sorts of people here.”

As recently as 10 years ago, the area was intimidating, says Olufemi Adeniji, sitting behind his desk at the Best Value Home Care Services in Well Hall Road, just metres from where Lawrence was killed. “There was this fear. The fear was always there that you could not walk freely at night,” he says. Asked if he still feels like that, he shakes his head: “I think it has improved.”

But the area has struggled to shake off a reputation for racism. Three people, including a 13-year-old girl, were found guilty of attacking two Muslim women in Eltham last year. During the London riots of 2011, police clashed in the town centre with racists from the English Defence League, who Efford insists came from outside the area. “It was incredibly frustrating. It is as if these people felt they could come to Eltham and express their racism and be at home,” he says. “They thought this is a place where everyone is racist but they don’t know this community.”

He admits you wouldn’t have to wait long – even now – to hear racist conversations in certain pubs. “But that is true of everywhere,” he says. “We live in a culturally and racially divided society. Eltham isn’t perfect, but it isn’t particularly racist – it’s just that in Eltham the rock was lifted up. Do the same in any community and you’d find the same issues.”

It also shone a harsh light on the Metropolitan police, describing the force as “institutionally racist”. Macpherson undeniably lead to change – its 70 recommendations brought public bodies under race relations legislation, pushed police to investigate hate crime more vigorously and contributed to the creation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission – but critics argue that the work has, at best, stalled.

“It’s 25 years since Stephen Lawrence’s death and 20 since Macpherson and yet […] we still find ourselves with very little progress being made,” says Janet Hills, the president of the National Black Police Association. Is the force is still institutionally racist? “The data suggests, yes, it is,” she says. “They should be more accepting of that. The constant push back around not wanting to accept the label doesn’t allow for progress to happen.”

The legacy of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry has been squandered, says Lee Jasper, a former Greater London Authority policing and equalities director. “The Metropolitan police were so keen to lift the yoke of institutionalised racism from them that they have ended up abandoning everything,” he says. “It is not a learning organisation and it never institutionalised some of the great practice and community initiatives that were put forward.”

Political appetite to challenge racism has gone, says Herman Ouseley, who became head of the now disbanded Commission for Racial Equality four days before Lawrence was killed. He argues that the subsuming of the CRE into the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which subsequently had its budget slashed, has thwarted change. “We have policy that has lost its heart and soul,” he says. “Perhaps we are better able to cope than in the early 90s, but we are going backwards in many ways.”

All but one of the five suspects in the murder of Lawrence lived on the Brook and Progress estates, minutes away from where the teenager was stabbed. The local authority’s “sons and daughters” tenancy policy is now long gone – as is the dominance of an almost exclusively white working class. The houses, built in 1915 to house the workers of the nearby Royal Arsenal munitions factories, have a desirable cottage charm and three-bed terraces are on the market for £425,000.

Sitting among the buggies and pushchairs in one of the bright new cafes that have sprung up in the area, Efford reflects on the change. “We are more diverse and cosmopolitan than we have been in the past; we’re an inner London borough in a way we weren’t 20 years ago,” the MP says.

Efford says there has been no significant increase in hate crime in Eltham and, according to Greenwich council figures from April- November 2017, hate crime was down 12.6%. But across the country as a whole, hate crimes leaped by 41% in the month after the vote to leave the European Union in 2016 and surged again by 29% in the 12 months to March 2017 in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks. There is no room for complacency, says Efford, especially for somewhere with Eltham’s history.