Race relations in Britain: the Lawrence legacy

Nineteen years after Stephen Lawrence was murdered in south London, Marc Wadsworth tells how he helped the Lawrence family in…

Nineteen years after Stephen Lawrence was murdered in south London, Marc Wadsworthtells how he helped the Lawrence family in their struggle to get the killers jailed

THEY EMERGED from a grilling about the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, snarling, spitting and throwing punches at a hostile crowd held at bay by police. It was a warm Tuesday morning in 1998 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 public inquiry in London.

The five young men looked every bit the racist thugs a secret police film had shown them to be a year after Lawrence, who was 18, was stabbed to death just because he was black.

His close friend Duwayne Brooks vividly recalled how officers at the scene refused to take the dying Lawrence to a hospital that was just a couple of minutes’ drive away. His mother, Doreen Lawrence, later 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, Brooks 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 murder, April 22nd 1993, I was in Glasgow at a meeting in support of the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA), which I had founded two years earlier. Staff at the ARA’s central London office got a call the following morning saying there had been another racist murder in the Greenwich area. The previous slayings of Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal and Orville Blair in what we dubbed “the racist-murders capital of Britain” meant that our small team was working flat out.

The ARA was also at the forefront of a campaign to rid Greenwich of the headquarters of the British National Party, which spread murderous hatred among local white people, including those who yelled “What, what, n****r?” before slaughtering Stephen Lawrence.

Days after his death, Doreen and Neville Lawrence and I laid a wreath at the spot in Well Hall Road, Eltham, south London, where Stephen had received his fatal knife wounds. Later we held a candlelight vigil, attended by hundreds of grief-stricken people.

I introduced the Lawrences to the young lawyer Imran Khan, who agreed to help them for free.

I crafted a political and media strategy to win public support for a Justice for Stephen Lawrence campaign. Its aim was to get his killers jailed and highlight the scourge of racist attacks.

The case should have been a cause célèbre, but getting national attention proved to be an uphill struggle. The veteran BBC reporter Nick Higham wrote that I, a former Thames TV reporter and presenter and national press journalist, “saw an opportunity in their [the Lawrences’] personal tragedy to convey to middle England just how horrible and widespread racism was in parts of Britain”. Stephen Lawrence wanted to be an architect and was law-abiding. We said to white society: Stephen was just like you.

A breakthrough came when an African National Congress contact called to ask if I would like him to arrange a meeting with Nelson Mandela. I took the Lawrences to the Athenaeum Hotel, in Piccadilly, where we met Mandela for 20 minutes. He was friendly, informal and attentive.

“The Lawrence tragedy is our tragedy,” he said later. “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. Doreen Lawrence said: ‘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. Police secretly filmed the suspects, capturing on camera their sickening racist rants and stabbing gestures with a knife.

Stephen’s funeral was held in a packed Methodist church. “Racial hatred is in our midst and we ignore it at our peril,” Rev David Cruise told the congregation.

While Doreen and Neville Lawrence were in Jamaica burying their son, the crown prosecution service in Britain announced that it had dropped charges against the accused men because of “insufficient evidence”. The ARA condemned this decision. It was proof that there was “something rotten at the heart of the service when it deals with racist murders”.

In 1996 the Lawrences unsuccessfully mounted a private prosecution against the suspects.

Finally, this week, Dobson and Norris were jailed for murdering Stephen Lawrence. The other three suspects are still at large. The jail sentences came after many years of disappointment for the family.

Some say that the Macpherson inquiry, by stating that the metropolitan police force was “institutionally racist”, brought about dramatic changes. It said that racism was at the heart of why investigating officers failed to give Stephen first aid, follow leads or quickly arrest suspects.

Others say that British race relations have not improved. The high number of deaths of black people in custody is a scandal. Police still disproportionately stop and search young black men. With unemployment and poverty, these factors have been cited as fuelling the riots in August.

Despite increased recruitment of black police officers there have been high-profile racism cases brought against the force, including those by senior former members. A clampdown on racism throughout British society has slowed since Macpherson reported in 1999 and must be kickstarted back into action.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Voice, Britain’s weekly newspaper for black people, where Marc Wadsworth is a news executive

A ‘terrible and evil’ racist murder

On Tuesday this week, after a seven-week trial, Gary Dobson and David Norris were ordered to serve minimum sentences of 15 and 14 years respectively for the “terrible and evil” racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

The judge said that neither Lawrence nor his friend Duwayne Brooks, who was with him on the night of the attack, had done anything to offend the group who attacked them.

Dobson and Norris, two of the five original suspects in the case, were brought to justice after a cold-case review.

The killing and the fight for justice by the Lawrence family brought major changes to policing, law and politics in Britain. The acting deputy commissioner of London’s metropolitan police, Cressida Dick, says it has had the greatest impact on the police of any murder in modern British history.

The public inquiry into the case identified institutionalised racism within the police force. Police failings, it said, ensured that none of the suspects was brought to justice at the time. – Guardianservice