In the first of our series of interviews with the newsmakers of the past 12 months, the mother of Stephen Lawrence talks about the day she got justice for her son, and her fears that race issues are being ignored by the government
Doreen Lawrence has a cold and is decidedly not herself, but says her day at the Stephen Lawrence centre must go as scheduled. There are meetings with staff and this is a Christmas party on the upper floor. Ever the stoic; determined not to be deflected. By these traits we know her.
This has been a year of years for the mother of the teenager whose brutal death exposed the fissures that scarred British society. First, at the beginning of 2012, there was the event she had fought so many years to achieve: the conviction of two of the gang who attacked and murdered her son, Stephen, in Eltham, south London, in 1993.
Then, in the summer, as Britain saw what it could be, so brightly illustrated by the 2012 Olympics, she triumphed again. When the Olympic flag was unveiled to billions around the world, Lawrence was a flag bearer. Her name was the first to be called; Muhammad Ali and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, followed.
“I got very emotional,” she says. “I thought ‘this is a very important thing, this is the most important flag of the whole games and I am the one who is leading out’. To hear the crowd scream was very emotional. My son and daughter were in the audience so I was thinking about them. But Stephen is always in my thoughts.”
If there was widespread approval for the decision of Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry to put Doreen Lawrence centre -stage in east London it was because she exemplified the phenomenon whereby one person’s struggle throws up deeper truths about a time and a community. Without her family’s doggedness there would have been no viable police investigation, no spotlight on the iniquities of the police and criminal justice system, no Macpherson inquiry, no Race Relations Amendment Act, no focus on institutional racism.
But until the convictions in January of David Norris and Gary Dobson, she had achieved those wider aims without securing the particular goal of justice for her son. She sat through the prosecution, feeling that this might be the last chance.
“I wanted to be there to see their faces because they thought they had got away with it. There were certain things I didn’t want to see. We all had the jury’s file but certain things we didn’t have – pictures of Stephen with his wounds, not something I would want to see.
At times the defence would rile her. “They were trying to make out that we are on some kind of vendetta concerning these individuals and they are so innocent. That used to annoy me.”
She would glance at the killers. “I could see that Norris still had the same blasé way as before. He came in as Jack the Lad. His demeanour hadn’t changed from the first time I saw him. Dobson was a bit different. I think he understood the seriousness of it. Every day he came in he was trying not to look around. He didn’t want to have eye contact with anybody, whereas Norris didn’t seem to mind.
“I think I was trying to see remorse, but there was nothing to say they are sorry. Sometimes when you are young you do things and have some regrets later. But they didn’t show any regrets at all.”
Two life sentences, but when the gang struck there were others and the judge told police to redouble their efforts to catch the remaining people.
Lawrence is sceptical. “Within politics and within the police there is a feeling that we have done enough and we don’t have to do any more so they don’t want to pursue it. They think ‘we have given you two, what more do you want? You should be satisfied’ – not understanding that they would not have had to do any of this if they had done the job properly in the first place.
“I wouldn’t be here having to keep justifying why I think they should continue the investigation into Stephen’s murder. I think we need to make sure all of Stephen’s killers are behind bars.”
And what of the police officers who failed the family in the hours, days and months after the killing? Mark Ellison QC is reviewing the debacle again amid yet more claims that the inquiry was stymied by corruption.
Lawrence says: “I think the police are not interested to do anything because it shows them up for their incompetence and the fact they are corrupt. You only have to look at the news and the phone hacking. If they could bury all that they definitely would have done because that is what they have done for years.”
The year ends with Lawrence at a crossroads, for she has ever been the reluctant campaigner. Quietly spoken, a little shy, she never wanted the public eye and struggles with it still. Every public appearance is a necessity: every speech a bit of an ordeal.
“I would love to get back to where I could just walk out and not be recognised. There is an expectation of me constantly. The quiet life I had before is what I want again. But I know that is never going to happen. So I have to make the best of what I have now.”
That means at least another year in the spotlight, for 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of Stephen’s death. On Wednesday a programme of events will be unveiled at a launch at the Speaker’s House at the Commons. Next year’s schedule will embrace a church service and a lecture by Daniel Libeskind, architect of Ground Zero in New York. His involvement reflects Stephen’s ambition to be an architect. All roads start with Stephen, branching out to routes elsewhere.
The centre is the hub, providing training for young people, job advice, mentoring. Soon there will be facilities to teach them broadcasting and film skills. Many have already benefited from the architectural bursaries.
“We have well over 100 [architecture] students we have supported,” Lawrence says. “Two have gone to set up their own business. Each time they come, to see their faces and hear what they are doing is very uplifting. The first time I saw students graduate I got emotional because I would think ‘that could have been Stephen’ and here am I watching some other people going to get their awards. At the same time it is positive. Even though Stephen had such a tragic death what has come out of it is a lot more than I ever thought we could do.”
She’s keen on the professions. An expanding area is work with the legal firm Freshfields.
But the work is hard and becoming more so. More young people – the Stephens, as they call them – need a hand up in austerity Britain. At the same time the resources available are shrinking. Her name provides a measure of traction, but as governments change and priorities shift it becomes more difficult to influence those who make policy.
“I have only recently had a bit more communication with the Home Office. But when the new policing minister came in, I think it was Nick Herbert, I wrote to him suggesting we could have a meeting to see what we have been doing over the years and to see how we could work together. He never replied to any of my letters; not once. Jack Straw’s office wrote to him as well. Various people tried to make a connection and he never responded, and that just shows to me that as far as they are concerned, if we have made any inroads, it wasn’t important to them.” (Herbert stood down earlier this year.)
More recently Lawrence and Richard Stone, an adviser to Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry, lent their names to a letter sent to David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and other party leaders highlighting Theresa May’s apparent plan to water down the monitoring of the impact of government policy on equalities – a ruse to cut red tape.
“I don’t think the government has race on the agenda whatsoever,” says Lawrence, suddenly steely. “It is because of how racism and inequality happens that Stephen was murdered. Do we want to go back to that? To 1993 and before? Look at what has been happening in football recently.”
People enthuse about diversity, she says. The Olympics showed that. “Why water that down? Why allow institutions to water that down? You don’t want to devalue people. If the equalities bill is not done properly it will devalue people and devalue the work I have done for the last 20 years. It is very serious.
“I think about what it was like before the inquiry, what we were going through, what people on the street were going through – the inequality, within institutions and within their work. If we don’t make a stand we will go back to those days and I don’t think we should.”
But the letter may not have the desired effect. A month after it was sent there have been no replies.
“I would have thought they would have got something back because of the seriousness of it,” she says. “Maybe they think if they don’t say anything people will forget. If you look at the Macpherson recommendations, how many recommendations have been implemented? And of those that have, they have wiped them away already. There is no interest in the Macpherson inquiry.”
She clearly will not let it rest. But there must come a time when self protection kicks in. That horrific night has consumed and defined her life. What of her future? She was 60 in October and dotes on three grandchildren.
What of Stephen’s siblings? For 20 years she has tried to shield them. And what of the men who robbed her of a normal family life, a son, and probably her marriage to Neville, who now lives in Jamaica? Isn’t she resentful?
“I try not to think about that negative side because if you do you fall into a trap and depression sets in. I don’t think about them unless I have to and don’t talk about them unless I have to. My focus since Stephen’s death has been on my other children; trying to give them the best life I can and making sure they didn’t become part of the media circus. So they could walk around and no one would say ‘that is Stephen’s sister and brother’.” Stewart, now a teacher, will speak publicly about his brother.
Her daughter, Georgina, prefers the background. “She had so many men in her life – her father and her two brothers – and all of sudden that was taken away from her. They are trying to make lives for themselves but every now and then stuff around Stephen’s does come up. Georgina will go out with me, and if I say this is my daughter she tends to shy away from that. She doesn’t want you to know she is Stephen’s sister.”
And yet they shared so much this year; the relief from the convictions, the joy of the Olympics and the memories of Stephen as son and brother rather than as cause célèbre.
“Stephen could be an extrovert, but at the same time he would do things no one knew he was doing,” she says. “I found out after his death a lot of things he had done.” A teacher told how he had acted as informal mentor to younger pupils. The local chemist described how Stephen would stop by for a chat on his way home from school. “When you listen to other people you realise Stephen was someone who cared about others but he never bragged.”
The teenager risks deification, since his life and death has meant much to others. But the truth is the opposite, and therein lies his potency. The outrage was that he was any decent teenager trying to make his way in the world. “He wasn’t perfect,” his mother says. “When I go to schools, I say to young people, ‘Stephen was never perfect, don’t think he had this perfect life’. He was just like anybody else.”