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Story Publication logo March 15, 2013

The Lawrence Family Puts London Police on Trial for Racism


High profile cases often sweat under the media's spotlight. In London, the 15-year focus on Lawrence...


Stuart Lawrence claims that the only reason he can find for police stopping him 25 times is the color of his skin.

Younger brother of murder victim Stephen Lawrence, Stuart filed a formal complaint against the Met – London's Metropolitan Police Service – on Jan. 11, 2013, declaring he has been the subject of racist policing practices.

"I'm a hard-working, law-abiding taxpayer, but the chances of my being stopped by police are much higher than for my white friends," Stuart told The Daily Mail.

Between 1999 and 2011, the Met were accused of racist acts in 120 instances. Complaints included physical abuse of black suspects and incarcerated individuals, as well as racist language. In March 2012 during the London riots, a 21-year-old black man recorded former Met Constable Alex MacFarlane saying, "The problem with you is you will always be a nigger."

Of the 120 claims filed, MacFarlane was the only officer dismissed from his role due to racist behavior. Six officers were forced to resign from their positions and 21 were issued a sanction, typically a monetary fine.

"I'm not saying the whole police force is this way inclined," Lawrence told The Daily Mail. "There are some good people in the force who have done great things for my family. We've come some way since my brother was murdered, but there is still a long way to go. After all my family's been through, has anything really changed?"

The Macpherson Inquiry

Strong evidence of racist behavior is what led Doreen and Neville Lawrence, parents of the murdered black teen, to demand the launch of the Macpherson Inquiry.

The purpose of the inquiry, named for Sir William Macpherson who presided over the proceedings, was to challenge police action – or inaction – during the Lawrence investigation. The two-year inquiry resulted in more than 10,000 pages of court transcripts, evidence and under-oath testimonials from members of the Metropolitan Police, the Lawrence family, and the suspected killers: Gary Dobson, David Norris, Luke Knight, and brothers Jamie and Neil Acourt.

One of the inquiry's findings was that members of the Met had engaged in personal relationships with well-known professional gangster Clifford Norris, father of suspect David. This relationship suggested some level of corruption while the police were investigating David Norris's involvement in the attack.

Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University London, columnist for The Guardian and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, sat in on the inquiry and drew his own conclusions on the significance of its findings. Cathcart dedicated two years to uncovering the details of the Lawrence case and wrote the Orwell Prize-winning book, "The Case of Stephen Lawrence."

"Actions were not taken because people didn't care, because this was another black kid," Cathcart said in a recent interview.

"No effort whatsoever was made to establish whether these boys had racist backgrounds," he continued. "So as I always say, it's like you're investigating the death of a woman and you don't ask the husband whether he was beating his wife – you don't ask the neighbors if there was any hostility in the household."

"Steve and Me"

Duwayne Brooks, Stephen's friend, witnessed the murder.

"They turned him over," Brooks recounted in his memoir "Steve and Me."

"And when they turned him over he was completely soaked. His blood had saturated his clothing completely. It was like he put his clothes on and jumped in a swimming pool full of blood."

Brooks watched on April 22, 1993 as the group of five white youths stabbed, punched and kicked his friend to death while waiting for a bus in Eltham, London.

"They [the police] asked questions like, 'Are you sure Stephen and you weren't in a gang? Are you sure you didn't provoke the attack? Why were you in Eltham anyway?'" wrote Brooks.

The Macpherson Inquiry also exposed flaws in police questioning and interaction with witnesses, victims and suspects. Although Brooks was the main witness at the scene, the Met seemed to treat him as a suspect rather than as an aid to the investigation and, over time, their reports reflected a lack of trust in Brooks's credibility.

"The Duwayne story is a complex one in that it informs the whole picture of police misconduct," said Cathcart. "There's a very good study carried out by his counselor of the ways in which police documents refer to Duwayne over the years – how the characterization of Duwayne evolved.

"So in fact," Cathcart continued, "on the night [of the murder], he's treated with some respect and listened to and there is little in the documentation that the police think he poses a problem in any way.

"But as the days and nights pass, there is a tendency to apply to Duwayne a lot of the stereotype words used about young black people. So the implications became 'he's out of control, he's unpredictable, potentially violent, unstable,' all of that sort of language evolved."

The inquiry yielded 70 formal recommendations, which the Met was instructed to incorporate into its protocols and procedures. Notable recommendations included: applying a new definition of a "racist incident," which comprises any act perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person; adjusting the demographic composition of police forces to reflect the cultural and ethnic demographics of the communities it serves; enforcing disciplinary action for all "racist words or acts" committed by officers, potential consequence being dismissal from the police force; and implementing formal, independent investigations of all serious complaints filed against police.

In his book, Brooks describes the hardships he has faced as a black man living in London.

"There were so many times I had been harassed by police officers on the streets since Steve's death," wrote Brooks. "Don't get me wrong – we used to get stopped and searched plenty when he was alive – but I'd lost count of the number of times it had happened in recent years."

He continues, "One of the reasons for the increase was the fact that I was driving my own car and, as records show, the police are very keen on stopping young black men impudent enough to drive, or even own, a car."

Racist Mindset

Lawrence's murder was quickly declared a "racist murder" after witnesses reported hearing a racial slur shouted by one of the white assailants. After an investigation into the area's gang activity, multiple tips surfaced, all leading the Met to five white boys known for their hatred of minority races and for their love of carrying knives.

In a 1996 trial, Dobson, Knight, and Neil Acourt were acquitted of the murder while charges brought against Norris and Jamie Acourt were dropped before prosecution on the basis of insufficient evidence.

But years later, police surveillance footage recorded from Dobson's London flat in 1994 proved valuable to the Lawrence family's fight for justice. In the footage, the five boys were pictured stabbing walls and pretending to stab one another with large knives similar to the type used to kill Stephen.

"What sealed the deal for the jury's ruling [in convicting Dobson after a second trial in 2011] was 'bad character' because of racist remarks made during recordings," said David Turner, Dobson's lead solicitor. "But on the majority of recordings, he [Dobson] wasn't present."

Turner went on to defend his client's character, stating, "I don't think Dobson is racist or ever was racist."

But a racist mindset in the Eltham of the 1990s would not have been out of the ordinary.

"It is a striking fact, and you can't escape it, that at the time of the Macpherson Inquiry, the stops and searches of young blacks in proportion to young white people was, say, four to one, and it is, most certainly, considerably higher now," said Cathcart.

"However," he continued, "I remain of the view that the Lawrence case has changed Britain in a variety of ways. In 1993, there had never been a case where a black family had fought all the way and been vindicated. So it was simple for the authorities and for the public to say, 'Oh well, this is another bunch of whining black people. These things never go anywhere, they're just whingeing [complaining].'

"The Lawrence case changed that. From then on it was, 'Look, there was a black family who saw there was injustice in the police, institutional racism; they saw complete failure of the police to act in the case where they should have been acting with the utmost vigor, competently, and sensibly.' And they were able, over the course of the inquiry, to demonstrate a race connection to this failure. And they certainly did; I was there, and it was palpable."

The inquiry opened new doors for minorities seeking justice in London.

"You have that element of proving something that had never been proven before to a panel," said Cathcart. "But it's more than that because, over the course of the inquiry, for the first time, the British public saw a grieving black family as a grieving family. A family that had suffered an injustice. And saw through the color of their skin, one might say. They identified with Doreen and Neville [Stephen's mother and father] and they could see the injustice that had happened to them."

"He Saw People as People"

Doreen Lawrence, Stephen's mother, has become a face for social justice in London. The press followed her journey closely as she continually challenged police breach of protocol, all while mourning the loss of her son.

At the inquiry, a public apology was presented to the Lawrence family on behalf of Commissioner Sir Paul Condon, the head of the Met until Jan. 1, 2000.

Since the inquiry, members of the London community have taken steps to ensure fair policing that excludes racial bias, as well as aid minority youth in their social and career development. One positive gleam that surfaced amidst the tragedy of Lawrence's death is the creation of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (SLCT). The SLCT is a non-profit organization run by the Lawrence family and others with the mission of "providing opportunity and access to disadvantaged young people, fostering positive community relationships, and enabling people to realise their potential."

In Oct. 2012, Doreen Lawrence received the "Pride of Britain" lifetime achievement award for her social justice work with the SLCT Centre.

"I would like Stephen to be remembered as a young man who had a future," Doreen told reporters. "He was well loved, and had he been given the chance to survive, maybe he would have been the one to bridge the gap between black and white because he didn't distinguish between black or white. He saw people as people."

But Stuart Lawrence says that reform of racist policing is not yet complete.

"I would like to know when things are going to change," Stuart told The Daily Mail. "When is there going to be a society where you are not pulled over because you are a black guy or a black person driving a particular car. The decision to stop someone in their car should be based on a sound reason, rather than the color of your skin."


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