Baroness Lawrence: "We have to keep fighting for our place in society and we shouldn’t have to"
It is almost 30 years since Baroness Lawrence’s son Stephen was murdered in a racially-motivated attack. She speaks to Noa Hoffman about the Metropolitan Police, the importance of education in promoting anti-racism and her hopes for the future
If Stephen Lawrence was alive today, he would probably be a qualified architect. Remembered by his family for his positivity and selflessness, had he lived he would be a middle-aged man of 47, perhaps a husband and father, going about life as we all do, day by day, through the good and the bad.
Stephen’s mother, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, would probably not be on Zoom for an interview with The House magazine. Or, if she were, the subject would hopefully be brighter.
It has been 29 years since Stephen’s life was taken in a racially motivated attack, as the 18-year-old was waiting for a bus in Eltham, south east London. The murder, and botched Metropolitan Police investigation that followed, thrust into view the grim reality of anti-Black racism in Britain.
The campaign that followed, spearheaded by his mother, led to changes in the law and the landmark 1999 Macpherson inquiry. That probe concluded that the Met was institutionally racist.
Since Stephen’s death, efforts have been made by politicians and campaigners, including Lawrence, to rid institutions of racism impinging on the lives and livelihoods of Britain’s Black community. But in 2022, the road to justice remains long.
Few understand its nature and extent as well as Lawrence. Awarded a life peerage in 2013, the baroness, who sits on the Labour benches in the Lords, has spent decades campaigning for Britain to become an inclusive country, with a reformed police force that serves to protect all its citizens equally.
She is yet to see that vision realised. “There’s not much change happening,” Lawrence says. “The [police] seem to be taking one step forward and two steps backwards. They’re not moving as fast as we in the community would expect them to.”
Earlier this year, an east London school apologised when it emerged a Black pupil, known as Child Q, had been strip-searched after being falsely accused of possessing cannabis. The 15-year-old girl was examined by police without an adult present or parental consent, and while on her period. A report by the Independent Child Safeguarding Commissioner into the 2020 incident found racism to be a “likely factor” behind the search, which left Child Q traumatised and needing therapy.
The case, which Lawrence describes as “very, very disturbing”, caused an uproar. “We continue to hear about how much the police have changed and what they’re doing,” she says. “It’s taking you back years, that disrespect to a person of colour. The racism has not gone away.”
Lawrence believes the force still does not afford the Black community the respect it deserves. A lot of this, she says, is because the institution has not accepted the extent of the racism in its ranks.
A 2020 poll found that less than 50 per cent of the Black community thought the force did a good job. The same survey, conducted by the Met, also found only 55 per cent of Black Londoners believed the force treated everyone fairly. Comparatively, more than 70 per cent of the white public said the police were fair, while more 50 per cent thought they did a good job.
“Until they start accepting there’s something ingrained within the force and its sectors, until they can deal with that, I don’t see how they’re going to move forward,” Lawrence says.
Though the baroness has limited faith sufficient change in policing is imminent, her hope for the future has been aided by the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of the African American security guard George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota in 2020 – and the global outrage that followed.
“The difference I noticed at that time was it wasn’t just people from the Black community protesting,” she says. “People from all races were shouting out about how Black lives matter.”
Lawrence believes momentum for societal change and improved approaches to active anti-racism has not spilled over from street demonstrations into government, however.
“We have to keep fighting for our place in society and we shouldn’t have to,” she says.
The baroness has no faith in Home Secretary Priti Patel to inspire change. She points to Patel’s support for former Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick as an example of failing to take the concerns of the Black community seriously. Dick resigned from her post in February following a string of scandals, several of which involved elements of racism at the hands of Met Police officers.
In response to police failings, both recent and historic, some campaigners have called for the public to “defund” or “abolish” the police.
Lawrence disagrees with the concept, which she describes as “not very practical”, pointing out that communities need the force for protection.
“It’s about how we re-educate the police to understand that they need the community’s consent to police them,” she says.
What, then, can bring about such radical change in the police, as well as British society at large?
The key, Lawrence suggests, lies in education; more specifically “decolonising” school curriculums. In her view, too many people still believe Black British history begins with the arrival of HMT Windrush in 1948, and pupils are growing up unaware of the wide-ranging contributions Black people have made to this country for centuries.
“Teacher training colleges need to be able to equip teachers to feel confident that it doesn’t matter what mix their class is, they are teaching the right history,” she says. “In England that’s not happening.”
The Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation, which the baroness founded in memory of her son, focuses much of its work on education. The charity is currently looking into how apprenticeships can support young people into flourishing careers.
To aid its work, Lawrence wants to see more parliamentarians raise awareness about Stephen Lawrence Day, which takes place on 22 April.
“Leading up to Stephen Lawrence Day, it would be good to see parliamentarians talking about it, and what they can contribute in order to help support the foundation,” she says.
Lawrence is not devoid of hope that one day Britain can become a place where every child is viewed as equal, in the eyes of politicians, the public, the police and law.
Reaching that end-goal, she stresses, is taking too long, and too many people are suffering along the way.
Tragically, Stephen is not alive today. But with the right openness and willing, with the right education, resources and governance, future generations need not live through the horrors experienced by Lawrence and her son. Her work will then be done.
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