Doreen Lawrence: the mother who changed the nation

Posted On: 
17th May 2018

Doreen Lawrence’s life changed forever on the evening of 22 April 1993. Twenty-five years on from the murder of her son, Stephen, the Labour peer has ensured that Britain will never forget his name. But is society in a better place now than it was more than two decades ago? She talks to Sebastian Whale about the police, race relations and the Windrush scandal

Doreen Lawrence is a Labour peer
Credit: 
Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Pride exudes from Doreen Lawrence’s every pore as she speaks about her three grandchildren. With glee, she reels off their latest accomplishments; the man of the match award for one grandson at a recent football tournament, the athletic prowess of another, and the insightfulness of her precocious 13-year-old granddaughter.

Amid her deep joy at watching them grow up is an acceptance that their innocence is not eternal. Understandably, Lawrence wants to preserve their youthful naivety for as long as is feasibly possible.

Her granddaughter though is becoming increasingly curious to learn more about her uncle, Stephen Lawrence. She became aware at an early age that he died before she was born and after two men were sentenced to jail for his murder in 2012, she grew increasingly angry. Concerned, Lawrence took her to one side.

“If you’re not careful you start to develop a ‘them and us’ type thing. I didn’t want her growing up believing that that’s how things are. In everything, it’s a minority of people who do bad things. It doesn’t matter what race you are,” she says.

“So, I wanted her to understand that it’s not the whole of the population that are going around killing people... After that, she seems to have settled down a bit. But she was getting really, really angry.”

She adds: “We’ve never really sat and talked to her about it. She’s young and you want kids to have their childhood. You don’t want to start putting things in their heads for them to start having this hatred. I think that’s wrong.”

It is twenty-five years since Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack by a gang of white youths at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, while travelling home with his friend, Duwayne Brooks. The case was a watershed moment, exposing cultural attitudes to race and highlighting the black community’s relationship with the police. Nelson Mandela was among those to meet the Lawrences and speak out. A recent BBC documentary captured it perfectly; it was the murder that changed a nation.

The heartbeat of the drive for justice, and to ensure the mistakes that followed never happen again, has been Doreen Lawrence. For more than two decades, she has toiled to find answers to what happened to her beloved 18-year-old son, taking on an establishment that at times has proved to be as much of a hindrance as an asset.

The murder led to changes in the law and sparked further reviews, including the landmark Macpherson inquiry in 1999, which concluded that the Metropolitan Police Service was institutionally racist. It also led to the creation of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which aims to transform the lives of young people.

This year’s anniversary of Stephen’s death was marked by a memorial service attended by leading political figures and, among other guests, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Theresa May, who was in attendance, later announced an annual Stephen Lawrence Day on April 22 – the day he was murdered – to commemorate his life.

“That’s something I worked really hard for,” says Lawrence. “It’s a lasting legacy that I wanted to make sure of. I wasn’t going to do another big anniversary again. That’s months of planning and all the stuff that goes into it. It is really hard work to put on something like that.”

Through her perseverance, Lawrence has made certain that, as she puts it, we will “never forget Stephen’s name”.

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We are sitting in Lawrence’s quaint shared office on Millbank, yards away from the Houses of Parliament. She joined the Lords in 2013 as a Labour peer. The baroness picks and chooses her moments to speak out in the chamber, concentrating on immigration, race, youth issues, mental health and education.

“When I first came in, it was very, very nerve-racking. It really was. I’ve never been an MP, never been a councillor. I found it quite daunting,” she says.

“Everybody, when I got here, was really pleasant. People said, ‘I’m glad that you’re here’, and it didn’t matter what bench they’re sat on. That was good, because then I didn’t feel so isolated.

“I also used to sit in the Chamber to try and understand and see how the whole thing works. I did that for a long time. One time, somebody from our benches said, ‘are you alright there, Doreen?’ and I said, ‘I’m fine’. I just wanted to make sure that I have some understanding of what I’m supposed to be doing here.”

It took some time to adjust to the conventions of the House. Lawrence recalls being “shouted at” by her colleagues when she ventured to leave the Chamber while the Lords Speaker was stood up.

In January 2016, she was appointed Chancellor of De Montfort University and has been awarded honorary doctorates elsewhere. She is a member of the board and the council of human rights organisation Liberty.

Lawrence was born in Jamaica in 1952. She moved to London aged nine, travelling on her British passport shortly before Jamaica became an independent country. Living in south-east London, she worked in a bank and was married by 20 to Neville Lawrence, with whom she has three children; Stephen, Stuart and Georgina. They divorced in the years after their eldest child’s murder.

The recent scandal over those from the Windrush generation being threatened with deportation is close to home for Lawrence. Though she stresses that she never received racist abuse while growing up in the UK, she says the issue speaks to a wider societal problem on how people of colour are treated.

“It’s disgraceful. People in the Commonwealth were invited here. They were invited to work on the buses, work on the hospitals, all the jobs that the white English people did not want to do,” she says.

“They came over and even qualified teachers came and couldn’t go into the profession. Nurses couldn’t, even though they were qualified. So, the victimisation and stereotyping started right from there.”

She adds: “It is a double whammy. When they arrived, they were discriminated against and now they’re discriminated against. I have to tell them this is a race issue. It is and nobody will call it as a race issue. But that’s what it is. It’s only people from the Commonwealth who are affected.”

The vexed relationship between the police and the black community has also come back to the fore. The surge in knife crime across England has prompted Sadiq Khan to back the use of “targeted” stop and search powers in London. Lawrence says the practice “has its place”, but it must be “intelligence-led”.

“I think senior officers probably get it, they understand that’s what they need to do. But I feel that officers on the beat, they have no relation to the community that they’re policing. They think because they’ve got the power they should be able to do what they like – no, you’re not,” she says.

“I just feel that those sorts of conversations and that sort of training does not happen in the way in which it should. That’s where we have the discourse between the young people and the police officers, because they think they can speak down to them, which the kids are not going to put up with. So, you have this confrontation all the time.

“The police need to understand that you need the community’s consent to police you. If they understood that and had a proper rapport with young people, I don’t think we’d have the problems that we do have with young people and the police.”

Lawrence points to a decline in local youth clubs and after-school activities for young people as one reason behind the rise in violence. “A black child is more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. What happens to them then? They’re out on the streets. So, the schools sort of don’t take their responsibilities seriously. Kids are kids and they will get themselves into all sorts of mischief. At the same time, you are an adult, you must be able to deal with that,” she says.

“They’re too young probably to work. Their parents are out at work all day because they have to. So, who looks after those kids? Who are there for them? What facilities are the government putting in place?”

She adds: “Society has a role, which seems to have just fallen down. You don’t have that anymore.”

As I listen to her speak, I can’t help but wonder whether Lawrence believes her grandchildren, whom she so dotingly speaks of, are growing up in a society that is less racist than at the time of Stephen’s murder.

“That’s really hard. I had a discussion with young people and more or less the same things that happened 25 years ago, they’re still feeling that. They’re still being stuck, they’re still being victimised by the police. There was one young man who was talking about from the age of 10, how many times he’s been stopped – at the age of 10,” she gasps, shaking her head.

“It makes me start thinking that my grandsons are not too far off the age of 10 and what are we going to do about that? How are we going to speak to them, as we used to speak to Stephen, about things that I read about?”

For two weeks after Stephen’s murder, no arrests were made, despite many tip-offs from local residents to police about potential suspects. Vital evidence was lost during this period. Five suspects eventually were arrested and two, Neil Acourt and Luke Knight, had charges against them dropped.

Sir William Macpherson’s report, which cited institutional racism at the Metropolitan police, outlined 70 recommendations with many aimed at improving forces’ attitudes to racism. Have relations between the black community and the police been repaired in the ensuing years? “I don’t think they’ve been repaired, no, no. If you listen to the young people, no it hasn’t,” says Lawrence.

In April 2005, Tony Blair’s government scrapped the ‘double jeopardy’ principle that prevented suspects from being tried twice for the same crime. After new evidence came to light, Gary Dobson and David Norris, two of the five original suspects, were found guilty of murdering Stephen Lawrence and sentenced to a minimum of 15 years and two months and 14 years and three months respectively in January 2012.

A subsequent 2014 review by the barrister Mark Ellison found that an undercover Metropolitan police officer worked within the “Lawrence family camp” while the Macpherson inquiry was underway. The Ellison review also found that there were reasonable grounds to believe that at least one detective on the original investigation team was corrupt.

In March 2015, a new public inquiry into undercover policing was launched. In October that same year, the National Crime Agency confirmed it was investigating alleged police corruption in the 1993 murder inquiry.

The probe into Stephen’s death is ongoing.

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To mark the 25th anniversary of Stephen’s murder, the BBC ran a three-part documentary, ‘The Murder that Changed a Nation’, in April. The series included contributions from leading police officers at the time, the prime minister, former home secretary Jack Straw (who launched the Macpherson inquiry), Paul Dacre (whose paper, the Daily Mail, famously pointed the finger at the five suspects), Lawrence and her ex-husband Neville.

“I watched when they were doing all the editing. I didn’t watch it when it came back on. I couldn’t watch it. I find it too upsetting, it’s my life and it’s something I couldn’t sit down and go through,” says Lawrence.

In one of the episodes, former detective Bill Mellish, who took over the investigation into Stephen’s murder in 1994, accused Lawrence of using a “gimmick” by never smiling. Lawrence, who remains a beacon of calm throughout our conversation, is riled.

“At the end of the day, what did I have to smile about when my son was murdered and you were being idiots and didn’t investigate because you’re in the pocket of some gangster? What did I have to smile about?” she asks.

“It was like that during the court case. One officer said that he wasn’t even offered a cup of tea when he came to my house. Get real.

“So, when you hear those little bit of things, you just think what are we supposed to be doing? Are we supposed to be having a party because my son has been murdered? ‘Come in and have a drink, let me share things with you’. It’s like we have no feelings.

“This is what’s happening around the Windrush now – we can do what we like and these people do not have a voice. Basically, that’s what they said to me because I decided I wasn’t going to sit back and have them dictate to me and tell me what I can do or what can happen to me and my family and that I shouldn’t complain.

“Why shouldn’t I speak out?”

And yet, despite everything, Lawrence is determined for her grandchildren not to grow up with a ‘them and us’ view of the world. It is this inclusive approach, she says, that so inspired her about Barack Obama, whose 2009 inauguration she attended in Washington DC. “What I liked about his campaign was he did not make it about colour, it was about people,” she says.

“I think that’s we all need to do, stop thinking about what colour or what religion we are because at the end of the day you’re there to support the whole country.”

Notwithstanding her resolve, it seems Lawrence has doubts about the UK’s capacity for change on race. Stephen was laid to rest in Jamaica, where his father now lives. She did not want him buried in Britain.

With the 25th anniversary behind her, and having secured an annual day of commemoration, Lawrence wants to move away from the public eye. The trust set up in Stephen’s name, her work at Liberty and her campaigning in parliament will be her focus going forward.

And there is plenty more to do. As the strength of her words on Windrush and the police begin to resonate, it seems clear Lawrence believes the Metropolitan police and its associated constructs are still, as Macpherson concluded 19 years ago, institutionally racist.

“I think there’s elements still there because they still don’t understand – they still don’t get it – that you cannot treat people like that,” she says.

“Underneath it all, we’re all just one. Barack Obama, he understood that he was a president of a country, the whole country, not just a small section. Between the government and society, this is what they need to think about.

“Our children are born and brought up here. So, we have the kids rebelling because they don’t feel they’re part of society. Where else are they going to go? This is their country. They may visit other countries, but they want to go home. This is their home.

“That is what the government and society needs to understand. They don’t have anywhere else to go.”