Two young men with their whole lives ahead of them. One stabbed to death while waiting for a bus – for being black. The other abducted, stabbed repeatedly, doused in petrol and set on fire – for being white.
We all know about Stephen Lawrence. His murder, his parents’ long and tireless fight for justice, and the institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police that was uncovered by the two inquiries into the handling of his case, will never be forgotten. Especially now that Theresa May has announced that an annual memorial day has been established in his honour. From 2019 onwards, 22 April each year will be “Stephen Lawrence Day” – a day dedicated specifically to the teenager’s life and legacy.
But how many others, I wonder – like me – had never heard of Kriss Donald? How is it that his brutal murder in 2004, at age 15, does not attract the same level of attention? How is it that his name can be forgotten so easily? Why – as many people are demanding on social media – is there no annual day dedicated to his life and legacy?
The obvious answer, of course, is that his death, while horrific and deplorable, did not leave the same legacy because his killers were brought to justice relatively quickly. His mother did not have to spend years fighting for her son’s death to be taken seriously by a police force that has since been found to have been institutionally racist. Despite the fact that three of the men responsible for Kriss’s death tried to escape justice by fleeing to Pakistan, they were arrested, brought back to Britain, tried and convicted within 2 years of the murder.
Contrast that to the 18 years it took for any convictions to take place in the case of Stephen Lawrence – and even then, only two of the five alleged killers were found guilty. It was the long and tireless fight for justice by Stephen’s parents – and the subsequent investigations into police corruption and institutional racism within the police force – that ensured Stephen’s case remained headline news for so long. And who can forget the Daily Mail’s front-page accusation and invitation to the alleged killers to sue them?
But if “Stephen Lawrence Day” is truly about the impact that his murder had on policing and society, then why do we not have a memorial day for other shocking murders that have similarly had a permanent impact on our laws and society?
Take the Dunblane massacre, for example. In March 1996, 16 children and one teacher were killed by a single gunman, Thomas Hamilton, who then turned the gun on himself. The massacre shocked the local community and the entire country, and led to a permanent change in British gun ownership laws. In February 1997, Parliament passed a law banning private ownership of any gun over .22 calibre, and in November 1997 this was extended to all handguns. There has not been a school shooting in the United Kingdom since.
Or the Soham murders in 2002, in which two 10 year-old schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, were abducted and killed by the paedophile Ian Huntley. The discovery that Ian Huntley had previously been investigated for sexual offences, yet had still managed to get a job working as a caretaker at the school that Holly and Jessica attended, led to the introduction of a host of new child protection measures and a permanent change in the way data was shared between police forces via the national police database.
And what about Milly Dowler? The manner of her death, and the time it took to identify and convict her killer, were distressing enough – but far worse was the revelation that an investigator for the News of the World had hacked her mobile phone voicemail messages during the time that she was missing, even deleting some of the messages, giving false hope to her parents that she may still be alive. The revelations led to the Leveson Inquiry, which had permanent repercussions for press freedom.
So why is there no annual “Milly Dowler Day”? No annual “Dunblane Massacre Day”? No annual “Holly and Jessica Day”?
I suspect what it boils down to, is that nobody has thought to ask for such a day. Just as nobody has asked for a Lee Rigby Day, or a Damilola Taylor Day, or a day to commemorate any of the other shocking and senseless murders of young people that take place in Britain on what feels like an increasingly regular basis.
Ultimately, it comes down to the victims’ families to decide if they wish to be left alone to grieve and to try to move on with their lives, or if they wish to dedicate their lives to campaigning to ensure their children are never forgotten.
Most families – once their son’s or daughter’s killers have been brought to justice – choose the former route. Doreen Lawrence – largely due to the fact that she had to fight for so long to even get any kind of justice for Stephen – has clearly chosen the latter.
It is inevitable that the singling out of Stephen Lawrence for a special day of commemoration has provoked mixed reactions. I admit my initial reaction was disbelief – how, I wondered, could the government so blatantly single out one murder victim over and above all others? How could this not be a red rag to those who believe that we have a two-tier justice system that simply does not acknowledge racism against white people? Or to those who believe that our media and justice system are too much focused on issues of race, and not sufficiently focused on tackling equally important issues such as knife crime, gang violence, terrorism and paedophilia, all of which account for far more murders than does racial violence.
Kriss Donald’s mother, to my knowledge, has never asked for a national day of commemoration for her son. She has repeatedly refused to engage in any attempts to use her son’s murder as an excuse to stir up racial hatred – appealing for calm in the days following his murder and asking people not to target the Asian community in response to the actions of “five men, full of hate”.
If a national day of commemoration is what allows Stephen’s parents to finally move on with their lives, then I am all for it. I just wish the announcement had been presented with a bit more thought as to how it would be received by those who do not automatically see why his death, above all others, should receive so much attention.