In the Media

How Stephen Lawrence and his family jolted a nation's conscience

PUBLISHED January 3, 2012

Neville and Doreen Lawrence's long fight for justice sent shockwaves across all levels of British society

The Lawrences are rare in modern British history ? an ordinary family with no special connections or wealth, who took on the establishment and made it say sorry. In time they put together a coalition that ranged from those on the radical left, through to trade unions, a New Labour government, and across to the right in the form of the Daily Mail. The story of the Lawrences would mean different things to different people, but all were moved by it.

After Stephen's murder in April 1993, the Lawrences, who had no previous contact with the police, quickly sensed something was wrong with the Met's investigation. Hours after the murder, people in the Eltham area passed names to officers about who might be responsible, yet little seemed to be done to pursue them. There was no wall of silence ? in fact, information, often from working-class white people, flooded in to the police.

It took the direct intervention of Nelson Mandela to embarrass the police into arresting the suspects, when the South African leader, who was on a visit to Britain in May 1993, met Neville and Doreen. But there had been a delay of a fortnight.

Michael Mansfield QC, who has represented the Lawrences since 1993, said grief was "written on their heart".

Neville Lawrence was born on 13 March 1942, in Kingston, Jamaica. Aged 18 he came to London, aware that racism existed, but at first he did not recognise when he was its target. When some white people called him a "coon", he thought it was a nickname.

He met Doreen in 1970. She had arrived in England in 1962 from Clarendon in Jamaica, aged nine. They married in November 1972 and two years later Stephen was born.

Stephen thrived at school, developed a keen interest in art and became an accomplished athlete. He had taken the first steps to realising his dream of becoming an architect, doing work experience at an architectural practice. Friends remember a young man who displayed a passion for life, fun and an appetite for discovery.

As well as displaying a flair for art, he was studying for A-levels in design and technology, physics and English at Blackheath Bluecoat school in south London. He even set up a small business selling T-shirts and baseball caps.

The guiding principles for the family were education, faith, aspiration and self-improvement, with both parents going back into education. On the day Stephen was murdered Doreen had been away on a field trip for a humanities degree. Neville was out of work and helped Stephen, his brother Stuart and sister Georgina get ready for school.

Stephen, concerned that Neville's fruitless search for work as a plasterer was getting him down, asked: "Are you sure you are all right, Dad?" Yes, Neville replied. That ended their final conversation.

The murder case and the injustices that allowed Stephen's killers to walk free slowly crossed over from Britain's ethnic minority communities and into the consciousness of the mainstream. There was something about the way Doreen and Neville spoke and carried themselves, the stark facts of the case, that called out to those who had not been troubled by racial violence. Neville had done some work plastering the bathroom of a Daily Mail executive called Paul Dacre, and this chance personal contact partly influenced the paper. In February 1997 the Mail named five suspects on its front page, emblazoned with the headline "Murderers".


In opposition Labour backed the Lawrences' demand for a public inquiry and picked a former SAS officer and former high court judge, Sir William Macpherson, to chair it. Mansfield was the barrister for the Lawrence family, and said he could see Macpherson being "shocked" by the incompetence exposed by the hunt to catch Stephen's killers.

One senior officer misunderstood his powers of arrest; another was found to have whitewashed police failings in an internal Met review; other officers "stereotyped" Duwayne Brooks, the friend who was with Stephen the night he died, failing to treat him as a surviving victim of a murderous attack.

Doreen and Neville Lawrence struggled to keep their emotions in check. Neville would sometimes be so angry at the police's evidence, he would leave the inquiry chamber muttering under his breath, "That man's a liar." The sadness in Doreen's eyes seemed to grow as the inquiry wore on.

The Met fought all the way, denying any prejudice, but Macpherson's report was a low point for the police, and a vindication for the Lawrences and Britain's ethnic minorities. After years of being disbelieved and ignored, the Lawrences had proved that the police failed to catch the racist murderers because of their own prejudice. Six years earlier that was a view held in the black community. Now it had the sanction of a public inquiry.

Macpherson also urged 70 reforms aimed at tackling racism not just in the police, but in other institutions. Crucially the inquiry rejected the previous establishment excuse that prejudice was down to the occasional "bad apple" and adopted the idea of institutional racism: that is that those with power discriminate often unwittingly by the way they have become used to carrying out their business, and the assumptions they make.

But for Mrs Lawrence, this stunning achievement was still far short of what she wanted, which was someone to stand trial for the murder.


In a Guardian interview in 2000 she told of the price she was paying: "It's like a numbness that's there, and there's nothing you can do to make it any easier. When I think about Stephen, what more can I do to bring some justice for him? I have gone as far as I can go. I don't really know what else to do. Apart from going and arresting those people myself, what can I do? It's as if they're laughing all over again.

"I think about Stephen all the time. If you're watching TV and you see a child at a certain age, you think about what Stephen was doing at that age."

She was balancing the need to fight for justice for Stephen, against that becoming so dominant it crowded out her ability to nurture her other children. Stuart, 34, is now a teacher, Georgina recently finished a course in fashion. In one interview she praised them, saying: "They provide me with a will to live, a will to continue, a will to know that I have to keep strong for them."

There was an acceptance from sections of Britain's white communities about Macpherson's recommendations, bafflement from others about what "institutional racism" meant, and a backlash from others.

The legacy is that it made overt racism, such as racially abusive language, unacceptable in white communities. Lord Ouseley, a former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, the forerunner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said: "People are less likely to be overtly racist, but people will do what they think they can get away with."

Ouseley said government lost focus and will years ago, and the pressure to eradicate racism waned. The 2001 riots in the north of England started to dissipate the pressure for change, but what really ended it was the threat of Islamist extremism and the 2005 London bombings. "Race fell off the agenda ?it changed the landscape. Government saw the big cha
llenge as terrorism and fanaticism," said Ouseley.

Simon Woolley, an EHRC commissioner, said: "We have had 200 years of slavery, 200 years of colonialism, 100 years of extreme racism and then we managed a moment in which the institutions acknowledged racism and after five years they said: 'We're done.'"

The police now have a raft of policies and improved procedures they can point to, and have now declared themselves to no longer be "institutionally racist".

But those disappointed by the decade since Macpherson point at the stop and search figures. According to official statistics, in 1999-2000, a black person was five times more likely than a white person to be stopped by police. A decade later, they were seven times more likely. Michael Shiner, of Mannheim centre for criminology at the London School of Economics, said: "Claims that the Lawrence inquiry's finding of institutional racism no longer apply have a hollow ring when we look at the evidence on police stops."

In a 2009 interview, marking a decade since the publication of Macpherson, Mrs Lawrence said: "Race is just wiped out of all the vocabulary. They use the word diversity; they seem to be more comfortable with it."

For Britain's ethnic minorities, despite society being so acquainted with the Lawrence case and promises of real change, the return has been some things better, some the same and some worse.

It was telling that the Lawrences chose to bury Stephen not in the land of his birth, but in Jamaica. They felt this country failed to give him justice, and in its soil had been allowed to fester and grow the poisons which claimed his life. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds