When I heard that Ade Sofola, the leader of the Youth Act project at the Citizenship Foundation, was going to take young people from Lewisham and Eltham away together on a Youth Act residential, it brought back sharp memories. I only need to hear those two London place names mentioned together and I’m back in 1993, when Lewisham, with a large black population, and Welling, largely white, and home to the BNP, collided. Eltham was where it happened.
I used to get off at the next bus-stop up from the one where Stephen Lawrence was killed, several times a week, to meet my boyfriend Tom. Tom had a knife held to his throat once at the cinema opposite that same bus-stop when we were doing nothing worse than walking down the road looking happy. I was thumped once in Blackheath for trying to stop some drunk men bullying a Chinese family. Although we felt we led sheltered lives, and it was nothing like as bad as the postcode warfare that blights the lives of so many young people today, like any teenagers, we were not entirely safe. But the last thing we were going to do was tell our parents or teachers. They’d have stopped us going out. We valued our freedom more than our safety. But when Stephen Lawrence died, and even more, when the police failed to find his killers, it changed our neck of South East London, and it changed all of us.
I would probably never have thought to join anti-racism societies at university had I not seen my stamping grounds turned into a battleground. When I saw certain political groups in the student union try to claim it as their issue as they went round the residences, recruiting supporters, I slammed the door in their face. It was my neighbourhood, our life, that they were using to score points with. I hadn’t been angry at the time, I didn’t even know how to talk about it with my own friends properly. It only made me angry afterwards that we had been so let down that people, young people, turned on each other in violence. Angry that we didn’t know who to believe or to trust. Angry that a young man had died on our streets and people I met claimed they knew who killed him, but would not name names.
We weren’t scared, we were too young to know what scared meant. We enjoyed the tactics. Meeting my boyfriend and his mates and mapping out which side streets we would use to avoid the gangs we had heard were over from Lewisham for the night. Discussing matter-of-factly with my best friend, who is mixed race, whether we would be safer walking together or separately. The weekend after the killing when I stood by the river, looking at the hill going up from Greenwich towards Eltham, and seeing unexplained fires I had a feeling of threat – but also the exhilaration of not being dead. Then the rumours. Being told by a man we met in the pub that it wasn’t a racist killing, ‘just’ gang warfare. Then as we waited by a bus-stop at the end of the night, seeing that same man face a bus, scratch his armpits and dance from foot to foot, making monkey noises, directed at a black man inside the bus. Then he had gone. It was sickening. A racist telling me that something was not a racist killing.
I believe that we all have the seeds of violence inside us, and that we have the tools in ourselves to make sure that those seeds do not grow. I know that those of us who were in our late teens in South East London in 1992 will not forget what happened. I think if there had been a project like Youth Act there, then, we would have had more of a means not only to make our streets safer, but to talk to each other, and to the police, and the MP, and everybody. We could have maybe seen for ourselves if we thought the police were institutionally racist. Perhaps people would have felt safer in speaking to those police about what the gangs were doing, or we might have known if they actually were on the streets, or were rumours by people who like to frighten other people. Perhaps we would have let our parents know that we thought we might be in danger, but was there still some way we could go to hang out with our friends. Maybe we could not have saved Stephen Lawrence. But we owe it to the memory of every young person who has died in the battles on our streets to bring peace wherever we can.