Doreen Lawrence: “Black lives are still seen as cheap”
Twenty years since the landmark Macpherson report into the handling of her son’s death, Doreen Lawrence believes not much has changed in the police's approach to the black community. She talks to Gary Connor.
“Just let me finish this email,” shouts Baroness Doreen Lawrence, as I enter her Westminster office. She’s overwhelmed at the moment with preparations for the first Stephen Lawrence Day, to be held on 22 April. The annual commemoration was announced by Theresa May at a service to mark the 25th anniversary since Stephen’s murder. She enthusiastically tells me about the resources being created for schools and the positive feedback received so far. “It’s a lot of hard work, much more than I thought,” she admits.
Another significant anniversary has also been on Lawrence’s mind. On 24 February 1999, the Macpherson Report into the handling of the Stephen Lawrence case was published. It labelled the Metropolitan Police ‘institutionally racist’ and made 70 recommendations aimed at improving police attitudes to racism. Three of those concerned the recruitment and retention of minority ethnic police staff.
A few weeks short of twenty years since the landmark report emerged, Baroness Lawrence is determined to keep the pressure on ministers and find out if progress has been made. “The feedback I’ve been getting is that not much has changed,” she reluctantly concedes.
Home Office figures suggest there are some positives. Between 2007 and 2018, the number of BAME police officers in England and Wales increased from 3.9% to 6.6%. However, only 1.2% officers identify as black.
Prior to our meeting, Lawrence gave evidence to the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which is also re-examining the Macpherson report. Waiting outside, she got chatting to a police officer from Leicester who’d admitted they hadn’t seen a cultural shift within their own force. “It’s not just London, it’s across the country, and I’m not sure what it is we need to do to improve it. The police themselves need to start coming up with ideas about how to make sure that they reflect the communities they’re policing,” she says.
Lawrence is at her most passionate when talking about the number of young black boys being killed on the streets. She’s recently criticised the government’s new approach to tackling knife crime. Why has the issue been so easy to ignore, I ask her.
“Come on. It’s a black kid. Nobody cares. Black lives are cheap,” she replies. “You know, who cares about one more black person?”
She continues: “If this was a group of white kids that were being killed on a daily basis up and down the country, the home secretary would want to do something about it. The parents would – everybody be up in arms. Society will not sit back and allow these to carry on. And this has been going on since 1999. Twenty years on, so many kids, and even so the numbers are increasing. And what are they doing? It’s only now you begin to hear they’re looking to try to address this, but that could have been done a long time ago and nip it in the bud.”
It’s a shocking thing to hear said out loud. She tells me that’s the view that many people in the black community have. “This is what’s happening to our kids. It’s like ethnic cleansing, right?”
The lack of black officers, Lawrence suggests, has led to an absence of trust in the police. She concedes that some things may have improved “a little bit”, but tells me of a “difficult” incident with a neighbour. “I just thought, well where do I go with this? Who do I tell? Am I going to ring the local police because of some of the stuff that she’s doing?
“I shouldn’t feel like that. I should automatically feel in my community that I could go to the police straight away and they’d be there to help me. But I start questioning myself.”
Nobody talks about the recommendations made in the Macpherson report any more, Lawrence argues, because it was “so long ago” and once the inquiry was held and its report was published, the establishment “ticks the box and moves on”. She’s tried and failed to find out how many of its recommendations have been implemented.
“Things need to follow up. We talked about doing the Stephen Lawrence Day. We can’t just say there you are, that’s it. After a while it would just fall off,” she says.
“Unless you’re visibly trying to make sure that those things stay on the agenda at all times, then people are just going to forget about it. Which is what they’ve done.”