Yesterday's announcement of the conviction of racist thugs Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 led to a busy afternoon of messages from activist friends and some mixed feelings, including a certain amount of ambivalence that I know others shared.
The phone calls came because Newham Monitoring Project played a key role in supporting the Lawrence family during the public inquiry. In May and June 1998, I remember dashing around the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, organising events, plotting in meetings and, memorably, carrying the massive iconic painting of Stephen (that was placed by the entrance to the inquiry) through the labyrinthine underpass tunnels between the New Kent Road and Hannibal House. However, the person who spent the most time with Doreen and Neville during that period and who worked for the Family Campaign was my old friend Gilly Mundy, who died in 2007 (pictured at the inquiry on the left of the picture above). Yesterday reminded me and his many friends of just how much we miss him and of the satisfaction he may have felt yesterday at news of the jury verdict.
Perhaps satisfaction is the wrong word, though. My surprising ambivalence about the verdict comes from the knowledge that the police had the names of the five suspects within 24 hours of Stephen's murder and that a successful prosecution could have happened years ago if police racism hadn't dismissed Stephen as a probable gang member. As a result of the botched investigation, Doreen and Neville have devoted a significant part of their life to fighting for justice and have paid a heavy price for doing so, including the breakdown of their marriage. The Metropolitan Police, inevitably, has been keen to rewrite history, emphasising that the convictions were the result of "previously unavailable scientific technology and techniques which led to the discovery of the new evidence". They would prefer the public to forget that a prosecution would never have been reliant on evidence from microscopic DNA samples if the original investigation hadn't been handled so disastrously and the subsequent Barker 'review' hadn't been a whitewash. It also has to be said that, considering the way exhibits were handled back in 1993 and the strong possibility of contamination, the CPS were extremely fortunate to have secured a conviction at all.
On top of that, the choice of Deputy Commissioner Cressida Dick as the senior officer speaking for the Metropolitan police yesterday was a particularly poor one: it was Ms Dick who had overall responsibility for the operation that led to the execution of Jean Charles de Menezes and she is about the worst person to praise a bereaved family for "campaigning tirelessly for justice" when the Met has denied any for Jean Charles' relatives. Equally infuriating was the way that certain MPs were so keen to emphasise the 'dignity' of the Lawrences, as if a refusal to express anger and disgust at the way they have been treated for so many years might in some way have been the deciding factor in their search for justice. Here are just a couple of examples:
So, leaving aside any my own hesitance to celebrate, where do yesterday's much-analysed events now leave us? Has Stephen Lawrence's death really 'changed Britain'? I argued in 2008 on the tenth anniversary of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report that the window of opportunity opened up by the inquiry, particularly around stop and search. has now closed. The stereotypical view of black communities within the police that was briefly suppressing after the inquiry's recommendations were published is once again a major cause of complaint, as we have seen in evidence from young people in Newham. And as Doreen said yesterday, racist attacks still continue every day in towns across Britain.
How can I celebrate when I know that this day could have come 18 years ago if the police who were meant to find my son's killers (had not) failed so miserably to do so. These are not a reason to celebrate.
All I now feel is relief that two of my son's killers have finally been caught and brought to justice; relief that these racist men can no longer think that they can murder a black man and get away with it; relief that despite the defence being able to raise issues of contamination, the jury saw through it.
I feel relieved that, to some extent, I can move forward with my life. But mixed with relief is anger - anger that me and my family were put through 18 years of grief and uncertainty, not knowing if or when we would ever get justice.
Had the police done their job properly, I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court.
Anger that despite the police saying that this case was so important to them, the exhibits were treated in such a way the defence could suggest contamination.
This result shows that the police can do their job properly but only if they want to. I only hope that they have learnt their lesson and don't put any other family through what we have been put through.
The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country and the police should not use my son's name to say that we can move on.
Meanwhile, three of the five original suspects - Luke Knight, Jamie Acourt and Neil Acourt - remain free. Yesterday was a victory of sorts - but in many ways it was still a hollow one.