Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The murder of Stephen Lawrence

When I worked on the newsdesk at The Independent I dealt with dozens of reports every day. It's difficult to pick out individual stories, nearly twenty years later. The murder of Stephen Lawrence is an exception.

I was working an afternoon shift, and the environment correspondent, Nick Schoon came up to talk to me. 'I've got a story for you,' he said, 'and it's a bit unusual. It's a crime story.' The story he outlined was terribly sad. A teenager, stabbed to death on a London street. Racist motivation suspected. It was the kind of story that I'd have thought of as suitable for a local rather than a national paper. It wasn't even that uncommon -  as Nick's report stated, this was the second racist murder in the area in a matter of weeks.

Nick was offering the story because Stephen's father Neville Lawrence had worked for him as a  plasterer and had rung him the night of Stephen's death, in tears, asking him to write about his son's murder. His death did not make the front page of any national paper, and  many did not run it at all. I asked Nick to write 400 words which I placed on page 4. This was his report.  I didn't expect to hear much about it again, perhaps a news-in-brief paragraph saying that someone had been charged and later convicted.  (Nick's memories of his report are here)

Well, I was wrong, and so was almost everyone else. The killing of Stephen Lawrence was described today by a senior police officer as 'one of the most significant cases of its time.'  Two of Stephen's killers were finally convicted today -  an extraordinary 18 years after his death. The Metropolitan Police's original  investigation into his death was appallingly incompetent. Neville and Doreen Lawrence never ceased in their battle for justice for their son, backed by another paper, the Daily Mail, whose editor, Paul Dacre had also, I believe, employed Stephen's father. Their efforts eventually led to a public inquiry which revealed the Met's institutionalised racism -  a racism that reached beyond the police and into wider society. The case changed the UK in many ways -  summarised here - but I believe that not enough has changed.

In his recent book, Out of the Ashes, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, recalls telling the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown about mothers from his constituency, feeling helpless to stop their sons getting caught up in the violence. "What are we doing for these women?" he asked the Prime Minister.
"Tax credits," replied Brown.
Things haven't changed.  In the aftermath of this summer's riots (riots which overwhelmingly targetted property, not people), the current Prime Minister David Cameron pledged £1.25 million to fight gangs in London. As Lammy pointed out, that sum wouldn't buy a house in many London neighbourhoods.
The trial which has just ended was also notable for exposing the trauma of young people who witness murder. Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks was quizzed about differences in his account in court and his original statement s to police. Mr Brooks -  now a councillor -  giving evidence just after the death of his father, explained that he had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after Stephen's murder.  From the BBC's court report:
Mr Brooks' original eyewitness statement was read back to him, and he was asked: "Did that actually happen?"
He replied: "I made a statement some months after when I began to remember other parts of the incident which for some reason I couldn't remember because it was too distressing, it was too scary to remember and it was very upsetting."
Stephen Lawrence and his family got some justice today, but the slaughter of young men on the streets of London goes on, and the vast majority are black. Of course, not all are killed in racist attacks, but  -  as Stephen's mother pointed out this afternoon -  some are. Others are victims of gang and random violence.

Stephen's family have set up a charity in his name which works for criminal and social justice: '
fostering positive community relationships, and enabling people to realise their potential.  Through creative methods the Trust addresses the causes of urban decay; youth disaffection and educational underachievement and supports young people by developing pathways into aspirational and sustainable employment.

I do believe that if white, middle-class teenagers were being killed on our streets at the same rate as poorer black children are, far more would be done about it. Supporting the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is one place to start.


  1. Very touching and so important, Keren. Shaming to think of how much injustice we turn a blind eye to. Thanks for sharing details about the charity, too.

  2. I have a friend who's a PC in East London, and he had to leave dinner the other evening to attend a knife murder of a black teenager in Beckton. Gang-related, it barely made the local Newham paper and wasn't even covered by the Standard.

    I agree with so much of what you say, but I also think that NOT bending over backwards to make excuses (as many apologists and social workers do) for murderous behaviour solely because the perpetrators are poor or black or in a teenage gang might be a positive signal that society won't tolerate it.

  3. Yes, I completely agree - which I hope I reflect in my books. That's why I like the dual approach of the Lawrence family - fight for justice however long it takes, and also address social inequality.

  4. Hi Keren - I just want to say that I agree with you - 'I do believe that if white, middle-class teenagers were being killed on our streets at the same rate as poorer black children are, far more would be done about it' I work in the Bronx, NY and two young people who are part of this community were shot dead in the last few months. When I Googled this to see the news stories, NOTHING came up. I can only imagine that if a white kid in Manhattan wa shot dead it would lead every news report across the country.

  5. Hi karen. When comparing the cases of stephan lawrence and ben kinsella as a "chap on a london omnibus" the reactions and differences in the outcomes are startling. It would appear that if a suspect is black and the victim white the expressed abhorrence, the quickness with which justice is meted out and the recognition of the effects of knife crime on the victim's close and extended family are swift and forthcoming. Even public recognition seems disproportionate. Brooke kinsella awarded an mbe. Maureen lawrence despite actions it is claimed have instigated a sea change in britain's ethnic relations and policing has never been recognised at this level of british society. I wonder why? Would anybody like to hazard a guess? Maybe you could use use your contacts at the independent to start a campaign to have maureen lawrence awarded an honour. What do ya think?

  6. I just checked, and actually both the Lawrences were awarded the OBE in 2002, but I would think that more honours would be entirely well deserved.

  7. His murder was not necessarily racially motivated. Putting aside the media spin, the well-worn scenes from the Footscray Road tape and the fact that the MacPherson Inquiry focused on racism in the police, there is a dearth of evidence that the attack was racially motivated.

    Three people, or three people who have been traced and offered statements anyway, witnessed the murder. Only one of them claims to have heard the words, "What, what, nigger?" said, this person of course being Duwayne Brooks. Royston Westbrook, who gave evidence at the trial, was standing within earshot of the gang who killed SL, and he very publicly (on Twitter if anyone wishes to verify this) criticised Duwayne Brooks for his testimony.

    Westbrook said that Brooks lied about the word nigger being used and that he lied when he said he was chased with an iron bar. Strangely, Brooks didn't remember being chased with an iron bar until September 1993 (the murder happened in April 1993). Brooks stated that one of the youths chased him with an iron bar and then turned around, before striking Stephen Lawrence as he lay on the ground. Moreover, the pathologist determined that SL sustained no injuries consistent with blunt force trauma from an iron bar. Brooks' unreliability does not stop there. He identified four distinctly different people as "the stabber".

    So, this witness is the only one whose testimony could be used to attribute a racist motive to the murder. And the 1996 trial collapsed, quite rightly, because of how appalling Brooks' evidence was. People are always unwilling to think outside the box, and seem quite happy with the idea that the five suspects "Definitely done it", they point to the racist diatribes captured on the hidden camera planted at Dobson's flat.

    However, putting Brooks' evidence where it belongs would require the situation to be looked at again. No reliable witness saw the gang out and about in the area that evening, nothing to discredit their alibis has been turned up, and they were undoubtedly unpopular people on their estate. Whether or not they had stabbed people before the murder of SL is by the by, they certainly had a reputation for carrying knives and this made them distinctly unpopular; how deserved that reputation was is immaterial.

    If you take the racist motive away the "case" against those five falls apart. The press, and worse than that the legal system, have used a series of poorly scrutinised assumptions to harass and convict those two men.

    There are other explanations for his murder, mistaken identity, a grudge of some sort etc And let's not forget that even if the murder WAS motivated purely by racial hate it was not necessarily the five suspects who did it. Members of a gang called the Nazi Turn Out were seen, and admitted to the police, driving in a car shortly after the murder; they were cheering and laughing as they went past the scene. Two members of this gang were convicted of involvement in the murder of a Black boy named Rolan Adams 2 years before SL was killed. Were they responsible for SL's murder? I don't know, but in my opinion their presence, their history and their violent record are enough to pose reasonable doubt about the guilt of the five suspects.

    In short, if you wanted to, fairly, select a poster boy for the victims of racist murder you would select someone who was not killed under such strange circumstances. Of course, one must never let the truth get in the way of a good story.......