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31 years on, there is still no justice for the murder of Stephen Lawrence

This week, the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that four retired detectives who ran the first Stephen Lawrence murder investigation should not face criminal charges for their mishandling of the case. 

Stephen Lawrence, a young Black man, was murdered while waiting for the bus in April 1993 in a racist attack by a group of White youths. After the initial police investigation, five suspects were arrested, but none were convicted at the time, although two were later jailed, 19 years later, in 2012. 

His mother, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, has been seeking justice for Stephen’s murder for the past 31 years. In response to this week’s ruling, Baroness Lawrence said, “The decision today means – as things stand – that not a single officer will ever be held responsible in any way shape or form for the obvious and unforgivable failings in Stephen’s case.”

This announcement marks another notch in a series of faults by the justice system. The landmark 1999 Macpherson report, the result of a public inquiry into the mishandling of the initial police investigation, found that the investigation was “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers." The report accused the Metropolitan police of institutional racism and made 70 recommendations for improvement, particularly in improving police attitudes to racism.

The cross-party Home Affairs Committee, which scrutinises the work of the Home Office and its associated bodies, has reached a sobering conclusion: “the Macpherson report’s overall aim of the elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage and the demonstration of fairness in all aspects of policing has still not been met twenty-two years on, and we have identified areas where too little progress has been made because of a lack of focus and accountability on issues of race… commitments have been made in the past that were then not delivered. This time needs to be different or confidence may be permanently undermined.”

What now?

One of the popular protest phrases that came from the US following the continuing spate of murders of Black civilians by police officers is “abolish the police.” While this phrase sparks controversy, it’s worth understanding what it means: the acknowledgement that just reforming policing is not enough and that systems must be radically transformed so that the police are no longer required to exist as an institution.

One example of why people are calling for such an approach is the continued over-policing of Black communities – in the last year, among ethnic minorities (excluding white minorities), Black people were often the most over-represented throughout stages of the criminal justice system. The statistics become even more staggering when looking at children in the criminal justice system: although just 5% of children in the UK are Black, they make up 30% of the child prison population.

The decades-old call for abolition was spearheaded by scholars and educators such as Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba. Check out this video for a fuller explanation of how it differs from solely reforming or defunding the police. Some of the tenets of abolition include:

  • defunding the police in order to invest that money directly into programmes for local communities, like Reclaim the Block in Minneapolis; 

  • divesting power from the police to specialists who are trained in areas the police currently have responsibility for, such as welfare checks; and

  • decriminalising things that are currently considered a criminal offence but are not inherently unsafe, like certain kinds of drug use - we’re currently seeing examples of this around the world through the decriminalisation of marijuana. 

What’s key about abolition is that at its core, there is both hope and imagination. 

There’s hope in the sense of something we put effort into as a practice and a discipline. Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba write that “Sometimes we expect the energy and feelings that we need in order to build movements amid crisis to flow naturally as though they were embedded in our personalities. That is the influence of individualism. Just as patience is a practice, rather than a feeling, hope and grief are not simply things we feel but things we enact in the world.”

This is useful when considering the way movements, such as after the murder of George Floyd, have a tendency to wane. Outrage is not a long-term mechanism for enacting change. But the consistent belief that things will change – and the resulting actions we take in mobilising and holding institutions to account – is.

And there’s imagination in the sense that we need to be able to visualise exactly the kind of world we want to live in because it’s easy to say “we don’t want this.” But it’s much harder to say “we want that specific alternative” instead. Some of “that” already exists and is being actively practised in local communities: for example, scholars like adrienne maree brown talk about transformative justice as an alternative to punitive justice. 

It’s worth thinking about the immediacy of your own situation. What are the details of the world you want to live in, starting with what the day might look like from the moment you wake up, to the moment you go to sleep? If there was a fight on your street, how could it be handled in a way where both parties change their behaviour? If funding was freed up from policing, what community programmes would you like to see enacted in your neighbourhood with that money?

The takeaway from the ruling this week – and all the failures before – is that we as individuals, within our own communities, need to get serious in our practices of hope, imagination, active listening, and working with grassroots activists to make change happen ourselves. Because it’s clear that the powers that be aren’t going to change.


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