Stephen Lawrence died 20 years ago today, and as I remember that period my chest is again hollow with fear. You see, the thing is with Stephen Lawrence was that it actually happened, that thing you were always afraid of as a kid. You were always worried that, no matter how pleasant and patient and courteous you were, someone whom you filled with fury just by being black would come after you. And it actually happened to him. I cannot imagine the terror when he first realised that they were giving chase.
I grew up in the town of West Drayton, which is a place many if not most people have never heard of. It is the last station in Zone 6 on your way out of Paddington, near Hayes and Hounslow. Back then, in the early to late Nineties, racism was a problem both visible and tangible. I’m not one for taking photos, but the one snap I regret never taking was that of the wall of the local car park, next to the Tesco supermarket. There, overnight, a team of graffiti artists had sprayed a racist tapestry ten metres high by forty metres across. The scale and detail of their work takes my breath away, even now. There were stencils of red stars, within which were emblazoned the letters “KKK”. There were long thin black paint trails, proclaiming NF. On the way down to the train station, you could find stickers on the traffic lights next to Barclays Bank, with the warning “Pakis Beware – West London C18 in the area”. One time, a BNP flyer, printed over in Welling, came through our front door.
How big was the presence of racists in West Drayton? Sometimes I felt like I imagined it. After all, that BNP flyer was for a by-election in which the BNP and NF combined only narrowly got more votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party – 410 votes to 396, if I remember rightly. On the other hand, it’s striking how well I recall the fear. The fear was not about the raw statistics of racial prejudice. The fear was that one day, like Stephen Lawrence, you would be subjected to the chase.
Perhaps I was an unusually paranoid teenager. At one point, I would walk the long way home, looping back on myself so it would not be readily apparent where I lived. One time I noticed that a pub on one side of the railway bridge had what appeared to be a swastika chalked on its walls. A few years later, having left West Drayton, I found that the far-right band Skrewdriver had played there. Maybe the threat was more transient than I thought it was – you never quite knew. But all I can say for sure is what I thought at the time if I was ever approached by those who hated foreigners. “You’re black. Be strong, or be quick.” I was never strong, so I tried to make sure that, if needed, I would be quick.
I was never that quick of stride, but I was thoroughly watchful. I will never forget one particular afternoon. I was walking with my sister to the opticians one summer afternoon – it was T-shirt weather, it must have been about 2pm – and we walked past an otherwise nondescript man who was wearing a heavy jacket, which must have been unusually uncomfortable in that heat. We made brief eye contact and something about him gave me an inner shiver. We walked past him under the bridge, and I told my sister that when we came out of the opticians we should cross straight over the road and walk back on the other side of the street, so as not to brush past him again.
I think she might have been bemused by my insistence, but we did so.
We came out of the appointment about twenty minutes later, crossed over the road, and went back under the bridge and towards the train station. No sign of the man. We then got on the double-decker bus to Uxbridge, since we wanted to do a bit of afternoon shopping, and as we came out of the station, back to towards the bridge, we saw the man. He had been looking for us. He looked up to the top floor of the bus, saw us, and smiled wryly, widely at us. He had been waiting in almost exactly the same spot where we had passed him on the way to the opticians, tucked behind one side of the railway bridge just across from Heff’s Bike Shop. And then he opened his jacket.
From armpit to armpit, the lining of his coat was a patchwork of swastikas. All different sizes and colours, carefully stitched into its fabric. There was one that was purple, black and yellow, that’s the one I recall most clearly. I even numbly wondered if I could see one in the traditional red, black and white, and I eventually found it, tucked away low in one of the corners. I had never seen racism with such care, such craft. The man, grinning now at the discomfort he had caused us, turned and walked away back under the bridge.
In the end, of course, the chase never came for me, but it came for Stephen Lawrence; just another black kid who was just going about his business. Still, twenty years later, my eyes water with the horror of it all. I’m not going to say anything as pithy as “never again”, because even as I write this there are young black boys just like Stephen somewhere in the world who are alert to the threat of the chase. I suppose I am just writing this because I heard this morning that it had been twenty years since Stephen Lawrence died, and I thought I would give my most immediate and honest response to that news.