STRUGGLE: The Lawrence family
THEY EMERGED from a grilling about the murder of Stephen Lawrence snarling, spitting and throwing punches at a hostile crowd held at bay by police. It was a warm Tuesday morning, June 30, 1998, and I was standing outside Hannibal House, in Elephant and Castle, south London, when murder suspects Gary Dobson, Neil Acourt, Jamie Acourt, Luke Knight, and David Norris came out from their “arrogant and dismissive” appearance at the Macpherson Inquiry.
The five young men looked every bit the racist thugs a secret police film had shown them to be a year after 18-year-old Lawrence was stabbed to death just because he was black.
Stephen’s close friend, Duwayne Brooks, who was a victim of the same attack, has laid bare the appalling policing that led to the men walking free for almost 19 years.
He vividly recalled how officers at the scene refused to take the dying teenager to a hospital that was just a couple of minutes away.
Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, later powerfully said the reason was “because they just did not want to get their hands dirty with a black man’s blood”. In a heartbreaking account of the murder in his book Steve and Me, Duwayne wrote: ‘The police were supposed to stem the flow of blood, but they didn’t turn Steve over to see where the blood was coming from, which is basic first aid. They kept asking me the same dumb questions. “Are you sure you didn’t start anything?” “Why would people attack you out of the blue for no reason?”’
On the night of the April 22, 1993, murder I was in Glasgow chairing a Scottish trade union meeting to drum up support for the voluntary funded Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA) that I had founded two years earlier. My diary of the time reveals that I was a delegate at the National Union of Journalists’ annual meeting the following morning when staff at the ARA’s central London office got a call saying there had been another racist murder in the Greenwich area. It was St George’s Day. The previous slayings of Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal and Orville Blair, in what we dubbed ‘the racist murders capital of
Britain’, meant our small team was working flat out. The ARA was also spearheading a campaign to rid the area of the British National Party’s headquarters, which spread murderous hatred among white local people, like those who yelled “What, what ni**er,” before slaughtering Stephen.
INQUIRY: The five suspects in 1998
A black female activist I knew and respected asked me to help Doreen and Neville Lawrence start a campaign for justice. So I called a south London solicitor friend, Michael Reid, for advice before telephoning the Lawrences and sending two trusted staff to meet with them.
On the evenings of the following four days, at their request, I visited the Lawrences’ Llanover Road, Plumstead, terraced home, which was full of people comforting them. On the Wednesday I introduced them to lawyer Imran Khan. Recommended to me by the ARA’s legal officer, Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, Khan had been qualified as a solicitor a couple of years and had worked for the anti-racist Newham Monitoring Project. He agreed to help the Lawrences for free.
Having a lawyer meant the Lawrences were professionally represented in dealings with the police – something the murder squad detectives did not like, being used to having control over a victim’s family whom they could wheel out for news interviews that put the police in the best light.
On Wednesday night I went on Tony Sewell’s Choice FM radio show with Rolan Adams’ father, Richard. I was aware that other families needed our help as well as the Lawrences, although, in the end, they took up most of our time.
At 4pm the next day I joined Doreen and Neville for a wreath-laying at the spot in Well Hall Road, Eltham, where Stephen received his fatal knife wounds. At 7.30pm the ARA, helped by other Greenwich organisations, held a candlelight vigil, attended by hundreds of grief-stricken people. Two hours later I was back at the Lawrences’ home to plan ahead.
I suggested a twin-track political and news media strategy to win public support for a Justice for Stephen Lawrence campaign, aimed at getting his killers jailed, and highlighting the scourge of racist attacks.
On paper, this should have been a cause célèbre that would easily get national attention. But it was an uphill struggle. Lack of interest was not confined to the mainstream. When I contacted the editor of a leading black newspaper about the campaign I was rebuffed with the feeble response: “We’ll wait and see if it’s taken up by other newspapers first.”
I was bitterly disappointed, not least because Doreen and Neville rightly could not understand why the horrific racist murder of their beloved son was not big national news.
Veteran BBC reporter Nick Higham wrote in an article online, that I, a former Thames TV reporter/presenter and Fleet Street journalist, ‘saw an opportunity in their personal tragedy to convey to middle England just how horrible and widespread racism was in parts of Britain’, and was ‘determined to present the Stephen Lawrence case differently [than previously ignored cases] and to break through the indifference of the tabloid press towards black victims of racism’. I highlighted the fact that Stephen wanted to be an architect, that he was law-abiding, diligent and respectful. We were saying to white society: Stephen was just like you.
KILLED: Rolan Adams banner held during a protest
On May 4, I held a news conference at Greenwich Town Hall, attended by Doreen and Neville, local Labour MP John Austin-Walker, Councillor Vicky Morse, Councillor Kanta Patel, Imran Khan, Peter Herbert, Palma Black (whom I had seconded to the Lawrences from the ARA to lend support), and Doreen’s sister Cheryl Sloley. The media turnout was disappointing. It was the next day when a major breakthrough happened.
Nad Pillay, an African National Congress contact, called to ask if I would like him to arrange a meeting with Nelson Mandela, due in London the following day. Of course, my answer was a resounding “Yes”.
Escorted by the ARA’s security chief, Glenroy Dinal Allen, I picked up the Lawrences at 9.25am and drove them to the Athenaeum Hotel, in Piccadilly, where we met Nelson Mandela for 20 minutes. He was friendly, informal and attentive.
Afterwards, on the pavement outside, with Doreen and Neville beside him, Mandela made a monumental statement: “The Lawrence tragedy is our tragedy. I am deeply touched by the brutality of the murder – brutality that we are used to in South Africa, where black lives are cheap.”
Suddenly, media interest was ignited. That evening, the BBC’s flagship programme Newsnight did a 15-minute special report on the Lawrence case.
Doreen commented in her book written with the renowned Margaret Busby: ‘It struck me as incredible that a foreign dignitary as important as Nelson Mandela had made time for us, whereas there had been no statement by any British Conservative government official about the death of our son.’
At last, a full fortnight after the murder, arrests were ordered. The secret police filming of the suspects caught on camera their sickening racist rants and stabbing gestures with a large knife similar to the one that was used to kill Stephen Lawrence.
GRIEF: Doreen Lawrence with lawyer Imran Khan
Another turning point came with the big-selling Daily Mail. Prior to direct contact with its formidable editor Paul Dacre being made by Neville Lawrence, a carpenter who had once done work on Dacre’s house, the right-wing voice of middle-England maliciously claimed black militants had hijacked the Lawrences Dacre now ordered his journalists to give the family positive news coverage.
A black journalist, Hal Austin, whom I knew well, contacted me about doing a sympathetic full-page interview with Doreen and Neville. At 8pm on May 10, it took place at the Simba community centre, in Woolwich, south London. I sat in on the interview to support the Lawrences.
At 3pm on Sunday, May 16, the ARA arranged a ‘Human chain for justice’ in the road where Stephen was murdered. Conservative local MP Peter Bottomley, John Austin Walker MP, Greenwich Council leader Len Duvall, and hundreds of others attended. This time lots of news media, including TV, covered the event.
Meanwhile, the ARA was busy helping the family of Ruhullah Aramesh, a 24-year-old Afghan student, murdered by a racist gang in Thornton Heath, Surrey, in July 1992. We organised a national demonstration on a Saturday for the family. I went to the Dorchester Hotel to meet with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to request that he attend, which he did. I brought the Lawrences to the march too, although Doreen was at first reluctant. Understandably, she thought that campaigning should be just about her son's case; it caused problems among my hardworking colleagues when she sometimes objected to the ARA getting publicity that it needed to be an effective pressure group.
The road outside Plumstead Methodist Church was crowded on Friday, June 18, when Stephen Lawrence’s funeral was held. Rev David Cruise said during his rousing sermon: “Racial hatred is in our midst and we ignore it at our peril.”
With the rest of the congregation, I walked past Stephen’s coffin and saw his peaceful face. I was overwhelmed by emotion. Stephen could have been my son.
On July 29, while Doreen and Neville were in Jamaica burying Stephen, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced it had dropped charges against the accused men because of “insufficient evidence”. Immediately, the ARA issued a statement condemning the decision: it was proof that ‘there is something rotten at the heart of the Crown Prosecution Service when it deals with racist murders’.
The ARA organised a picket outside the CPS headquarters to protest.
In April 1996, the Lawrences began a rare private prosecution against the initial two suspects and three others: Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight. The family could not get legal aid, so a fighting fund was set up to pay for the analysis of forensic evidence and the cost of tracing witnesses.
ATTACKED: Duwayne Brooks
Then a bombshell dropped. The charges against Jamie Acourt and David Norris were dropped before the trial due to lack of evidence. The three remaining suspects were acquitted when the judge ruled as inadmissible identification evidence from Duwayne.
David Norris and Neil Acourt were jailed in 2002 for a racist attack on a black plain-clothes policeman. In November 2007, Stephen Lawrence case detectives confirmed they were investigating new forensic evidence. Three years later, in July, Gary Dobson was jailed for five years for drug dealing. Dobson and Norris were arrested in September 2010.
In November 2011 they were put on trial, accused of killing Stephen Lawrence.
The Acourts and Knight are still at large.
It has been 16 disappointment-filled years for the Lawrences and their supporters since the last court case. On a positive note, the ARA succeeded in getting leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Bindman to draft a groundbreaking bill, to make racial harassment a specific criminal offence rather than leaving it to the victims to take out civil court action. Years later our proposals actually became law.
MEETING: Nelson Mandela
Have British race relations got better? Some commentators say the Lawrence public inquiry headed by retired judge Sir William Macpherson brought about a dramatic change in policing. Macpherson robustly stated that the Metropolitan Police force was ‘institutionally racist’, and this was at the heart of why investigating officers had been incompetent and committed fundamental errors, including:
• failing to give first aid when they reached the scene.
• failing to follow obvious leads during their investigation.
• failing to quickly arrest suspects.
Macpherson found that recommendations of the Scarman report, after the 1981 Brixton riot, had been ignored. The Macpherson report’s recommendations for reform included changes to the Civil Service, local government, the National Health Service, schools, and the judicial system, to deal with institutional racism.
But, on many fronts, race relations have not improved. The high number of deaths in custody of black people is a national scandal. Young black men are still disproportionately stopped and searched by police. Combined with unemployment and poverty, these factors have been cited as fuelling the August 2011 riots.
Despite increased recruitment of black police officers there have been high-profile racism cases brought against the service – including by senior members such as ex-chief inspector David Michael and Commander Ali Dizaei. A clampdown on racism throughout British society has slowed since Macpherson reported in 1999 and must be kick-started back into action.
But, for many people like the Lawrences and me, the greatest prize would be the jailing for life of the cowardly thugs who butchered defenceless Stephen Lawrence in an unprovoked racist attack.