After Stephen Lawrence died in a 'racist attack', the police ran into a wall of silence.
Can black people expect justice in Britain? Nearly four years after it happened, the murder of Stephen Lawrence confronts the nation's ethnic minorities with that stark question.

They have looked on while high-profile cases such as the murder in Somers Town, north London, of the white boy Richard Everitt by a gang of Bengali youths, or the murder of west London headmaster Phillip Lawrence were brought with brutal efficiency to conviction and sentence. In both cases, the culprits got life.

But in the case of Stephen Lawrence, stabbed to death at a bus stop in Eltham, south London, every recourse has ended in failure and frustration. The Crown Prosecution Service dropped the prosecution of two youths in mid-trial, citing insufficient evidence. The private prosecution brought by the Lawrence family failed last year on the same grounds.

It started out as a strictly south London news story, but each futile trip through the legal system intensified media interest, because there are few things we like more than a real-life soap. But when the case got back into the headlines yesterday at the end of the long-postponed inquest, it was the same old story - unlawful killing, yes; an "unprovoked racist attack by five white youths", no less - the Coroner's jury going way out on a limb in spelling it out so clearly. But no convictions, no sentences, no justice.

We were also treated to the spectacle of the Daily Mail metamorphosing - abracadabra - into a sudden champion of the downtrodden minorities, calling the five white youths "murderers", pure and simple, and daring them to sue the Mail if they denied it was true. This was rare and strange, refreshing or nauseating according to taste, and certainly grabbed the attention. But justice it ain't - neither for Stephen Lawrence nor for those suspected of killing him. In fact, if the Mail's crusade caused a further civil case against the five named youths to be aborted, it would have had precisely the opposite effect to that which the paper claims to intend.

Stephen Lawrence, an A-level student whose parents came to Britain from Jamaica, was standing at a bus stop on 22 April 1993 with a friend when a gang of white youths ran up to them, calling "What, what, nigger?" and one of them stabbed him fatally with what was later described as a 10- inch knife. Stephen and his friend ran 200 yards to try to escape, but Stephen collapsed and died from loss of blood.

It is the police's activity or lack of it over subsequent hours and days that is at the heart of much of the Lawrence family's anger over the handling of the case. Why did the police, who arrived at the scene as Stephen lay dying, not immediately launch a hunt for the killers? Why did they seem more interested in quizzing his family about any possibility of criminality in Stephen's own background (there was none) than in tracking down the guilty? As Stephen's mother Doreen put it in a statement read outside the coroner's court by her sister on Thursday: "Right from the start on the night our son was murdered, it seemed that in the minds of the police, he was only a black boy - why bother?" she said.

Of course, this version of police thinking is vigorously rejected by the police themselves. "Words simply cannot express the enormous sympathy we have for the Lawrence family," Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Ian Johnston said, pointing out that 2,600 people have been interviewed in the inquiry and 70 suspects investigated.

The view that the police were themselves guilty of a sort of passive racism during the investigation, of inertia and lack of ardour in bringing the case to a conclusion, may be quite wrong. We have no way of knowing. But it is thoroughly understandable. And the only way to prevent such a suspicion forming would have been to move heaven and earth to see that justice was done.

There is, for instance, the question of witness protection. The youths accused and then acquitted of the murder, and who the Mail now names as murderers, were members of a gang of white, jobless school dropouts who got their kicks, and doubtless their twisted self-esteem, from assaulting blacks, painting racist graffiti and so on. They fancied themselves as gangsters; two of them, Neil and Jamie Acourt, modelled themselves on the Kray brothers, and like the Krays, their reputation relied on creating a mood of fear within their territory. In this, they seem to have been successful; although they were considered prime suspects in the murder by people in the neighbourhood, nobody had the courage to make a statement incriminating them.

Witness protection is expensive and much in demand, and it is arguable that, because the accused were not serious professional criminals but only nasty young punks, it would have been inappropriate to spend much on protecting witnesses in this case. One witness was protected, at a cost of thousands of pounds, but refused to co-operate further when his name became known.

With hindsight, and considering the damage that has been done by the case to relations between police and ethnic minorities, much more of this should have been done; if it had been, it might have elicited a statement sufficiently damaging to bring about a conviction. Instead, the lack of forensic evidence or sold testimony added to the wall of silence thrown up by the accused since May 1993, caused public and private prosecutions to collapse.

Yet an even more worrying thought is that even if there had been witness protection, Stephen Lawrence's killers might have got away with it. At issue is a subject most of us probably consider too primitive to concern us much - territoriality. Yet if the theory and practice of ethnic cleansing can drag the politics of an ostensibly modern European country such as ex-Yugoslavia into war and catastrophe, then territoriality, mostly unseen, often elaborately genteel in its manifestations, remains a power in our land, too.

In middle-class suburbs, they twitch the lace curtains, spell words out with painful slowness as if their coloured interlocutor were inevitably a cretin. The chatter in the pub dies away when the black man walks in; heads turn, then turn back, and nothing is said.

Evasiveness and hypocrisy are the classic middle-class response to the challenge of a multi-ethnic society; yank little Johnny out of the local school, not for racial reasons, God forbid, but to give him the best possible start in life with those who share his values. Move house yourself for cleaner air, bigger garden, less crime - never, ever, to get away from the festering racial tensions of the inner city.

In the East End, the white working class has fled in huge numbers for the outer suburbs, the Green Belt and the pale wastes of deepest Essex, and race has been an important factor in this Great Trek - hence the popularity of the politics of the like of Norman Tebbit in places like Chingford, where many of them fetched up.

Eltham in south London is another such place. With its ribbon development of 1930s semis, it might look bleak to many people, but to anyone coming here from the tower blocks and mean terraces of the East End, it is the promised land. And Eltham's young thugs have taken it upon themselves to keep the milk and honey for their own kind.

Dr Mark Johnson, senior researcher at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick grew up nearby. "The young working- class white kids in Eltham have seen places north of Eltham such as Deptford going black, and they see themselves as trying to hold the line," he says. "People will tell you 'blacks are buying houses north of the South Circular Road, but not here yet'. These are people who have got out of the East End and gone slightly up in the world, and they want to keep things the way they are."

Young hooligans to the outside world, in their own imaginings they are protecting their community from alien incursion. They are taking the furtive, tacit, disguised territoriality that permeates our society and turning it into a perverted crusade. While some potential witnesses in the Stephen Lawrence murder case may have held their tongues out of fear, others probably did so in a gesture of solidarity.

Certain things have improved in Eltham since that terrible day three years ago. Makhan Bajwa, director of the Greenwich Council for Racial Equality, points to the unit operated jointly by the local authority and the police which investigates all racial attacks in the borough, and whose clear-up rate for racial attacks last year rose from 29 per cent to 44 per cent. A "professional witness scheme" to bring evidence in cases of racial harassment was launched recently, and there is a 24-hour helpline for harassment victims.

In ways such as these, the lives of the self-styled champions of white communities are made more difficult. But the fundamental problem doesn't go away. Stephen Lawrence's killers remain free. Racial incidents in England and Wales rose by three per cent in 1995-6 to a total of 12,222. Whether upfront and rampant and flaunting ten-inch knives, or buried in comfortable layers of self-deceit and obfuscation, the primitive urge for territorial monopoly survives. Until we confront and defeat it, justice for Britain's blacks will remain a scarce commodity.