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‘Black people need a bulletproof vest to survive in Eltham’

REMEMBERED: Lawrence plaque in Eltham

FOR YEARS, my thoughts of Eltham had brought a slight feeling of fear. For me, it was a ‘no go’ area of the capital. I held this view due to knowing that it is the place in which teenager Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered in a racist attack.

It was an area where hatred of black people was seen to be the norm – a place near where the far-right British National Party was based, Welling, and drew many of its recruits with its ‘rights for whites’ campaign. I vowed that I would never set foot in Eltham because of this.

At the time of Stephen’s murder I was primary school age. But during my teens I, and most of my friends, was very aware of the huge press coverage. I remember there being a universal feeling of shock and sadness among most of the people with whom I talked about the case.

So now, almost 19 years after his death in 1993, I wondered how the area had changed. 


MURDER: Bus stop where Stephen was attacked

When I told friends and family members that I would be heading to Eltham to speak to the locals as a Voice reporter, their responses only heightened my fear about visiting the area.

A lot of people I spoke with also avoided the area because of what happened to Stephen Lawrence.

“Be careful, because you know they don’t like black people there. Make sure you go in the daytime. At least people will be around if anything happens,” and “Are you out of you mind? I would never go there! Black people need a bulletproof vest to survive in Eltham,” were just some of the things that were said.

IMPACT

Nevertheless, I plucked up the courage and dragged a colleague along with me for moral support. Were these comments and my own fears justified? Did Stephen’s death have an impact on the area? Was the Kent border town’s label as the ‘racist murder capital of Britain’ justified?

As I made my way along Eltham’s busy high street, I was quickly struck by the number of black people going about their everyday lives. When I spoke with them, I found that they had mixed feelings about the area in which they lived and worked.


SAFE: Jennifer Carniffsen

Uche Ezedinma, a 29-year-old charity fundraiser from north London, confessed he had been “a little apprehensive” when he began working in the area.

He said: “I didn’t know what to expect. But since I’ve been here I haven’t had any problems. I’m relieved about that.”

However, Marly Santos, originally from Brazil, said that the time she has spent in Eltham has not been pleasant.

“There are lots of Brazilian friends of mine that moved here, and they have experienced hassle and racial abuse.  We are very familiar with these issues,” she said.


OPTIMISTIC: Tobius Thomas

Santos, 53, said that after witnessing her friends being racially abused in the streets on a number of occasions, she did not feel safe.

HISTORY

“The experience was very scary. I have been living here for seven years and I didn’t know about the history [of the area]. Unfortunately, I bought a house here and cannot leave.”

I also spoke with Gwendaline Tag, 67, who has lived in Eltham with her husband, Alan, for more than 24 years. She said: “It bothered me to think people could do something like that, but I’ve just tried to put it to the back of my mind and carry on. Let those people who did this live with themselves. They have to live with what they’ve done.

“As far as Eltham’s concerned, I think there are more black people living in Eltham now. I haven’t had any issues with anyone [in regards to race]. We have a university here. If it was such a bad place people wouldn’t send their kids to study here, would they?”


APPREHENSIVE: Uche Edezinma

When asked if she has suffered any racial abuse in Eltham, she replied: “Not really. The only time I can remember was when a bunch of kids on the bus shouted something racist, but they soon shut up when I said I was an off-duty policewoman.”

Her opinion echoed that of 63-year-old Jennifer Carniffsen, who said: “I moved here nearly 10 years ago and I really don’t have a problem with the people around here. But I ignore whatever attitude people may have. I haven’t had any racial abuse. I feel safe moving around. I shop here [on the high street] quite often. I don’t have any problems.”

She added: “What happened to Stephen, we can’t deny that it was racism and it was unprovoked.

Unfortunately, he is gone but I think we [the local community] have learnt a lot of lessons from it and I hope things continue to progress.”

Also optimistic was 19-year-old media student Tobius Thomas. He said: “Visually, Eltham hasn’t become more diverse – the black community here is still small. But racist attitudes have slackened. There is not as much prejudice. This is a good thing because it means that now the two communities can work better together.”

After my experience of visiting the area, I can honestly say that I’m not as afraid as I had been previously. Although, given its history of racist attacks, I can understand why friends still feel the way they do.

But after seeing for myself what Eltham is like today, and what the local people had to say, I believe the area has changed for the better since Stephen’s death. Although some people had experienced racial abuse, the majority of people I spoke with had not, and I think that speaks volumes about the impact that the Lawrence family’s campaign for justice has had.

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