In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder conviction in December, 18 years after the black youth was killed by racist hooligans in London, our associate editor Clayton Goodwin, shares his family’s harrowing first-hand experience of racism, which nearly took his own mixed-race son’s life just a few minutes from the place where Stephen Lawrence met his brutal death.
Saturday 13 October 1991 was my birthday. My mixed-race son was then 19 years old. He was at college and lived away from home but had returned to help me celebrate. During the evening he went out for a while to see a former school friend and on his way back with his then girlfriend, who was white, ran into a group of over 20 youths at a crossroads less than 10 minutes’ walk from the place where Stephen Lawrence was murdered 16 months later.
The hooligans gave him a severe beating – fortunately they had no knives with them. Bloodied, his eye damaged, glasses broken, and his clothes torn, he broke free and ran down a side-street. Too late, he found it was a cul-de-sac.
A sympathetic householder let him into his house and barred the door to his assailants. The man arranged for a cab to call at the back of his house and take my son and his girlfriend home.
We called the police. When they arrived, the older of the two policemen behaved in an arrogant and racist manner, doing the talking while his junior colleague kept an embarrassed silence. He tried initially to pin the blame for the fracas on our son, who, in any case, is of short and slight stature, and then excused the assailants for mistaking him for being a “Paki” – as if that did excuse their behaviour! – when he could see that the young man had got his brown complexion from the ethnicity of his black and white parents standing before him.
Becoming more voluble, the policeman pointed to the number on his shoulder and dared me to report him to the press.
The officer refused to take down notes – saying that no white person would come forward to testify on behalf of a mixed-race victim of racist aggression (even though, as he spoke, we were receiving phone-calls from witnesses trying to do just that; they had looked out of the window on hearing the noise).
He refused to look in to the case, declining to visit the scene of the crime, or to radio for his colleagues to do so, as he said that the perpetrators would be long gone, so there would be no physical evidence, and the owner of the chip-shop would not be able to remember the assailants from among his many customers of an evening. (No evidence? The following afternoon our son’s friends found pieces of his torn waistcoat exactly where he said the incident had happened.)
The younger officer found his voice with the eminently sensible suggestion that we should get our son to hospital as quickly as possible. We had to cut short the interview with the police to take our son for treatment.
It was not the last that we heard from the local police station. A few days later, a policeman in plain clothes called on us. He told us his name and rank, explained that he was some sort of liaison officer, and asked us to call him by his forename as that “was more friendly and he and his colleagues wanted to be considered as friends of the whole community”.
“Geoff” – let us call him that – played down the attitude of his earlier colleague by saying that he had been really sympathetic and had submitted a proper report on returning to the station. Where was it? – he couldn’t say. As public relations exercises go, it was sickening.
The attack had a profound psychological effect on our son. Even though the incident was 20 years ago, he has been reluctant to return to the area, preferring the anonymity of the inner city, and when he has done so he has come by train or cab, not trusting the buses or walking on the street.
We had been lucky – these assailants did not carry knives – as we realised on reading of the fatal attack on Stephen Lawrence in the same vicinity just a few months later.
I reported the matter to the inspector at the local police station. The UK Gleaner newspaper offered to give the incident front-page coverage, and a speech-writer for Paddy Ashdown, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, offered to get him to include a reference in a speech.
However my son begged me to drop the matter because the local newspaper could not guarantee that his address could not be kept out of the story. As the only non-white boy on our street, he feared the assailants would come and finish off the job.
We did so reluctantly – though I suspect that the real reason was my son’ lack of confidence in the police following through (or worse). Doubtless he was right, though; events have shown how the police and the neighbourhood were riddled with racists and under gangland influence.
Nevertheless, after Stephen Lawrence’s murder so close to the scene, I have been convinced that my son’s assailants contained at least some of the people who killed this young man.
Also the inspector to whom I reported the incident afterwards has since left the police force of his own will and stood as a candidate of the extreme right British National Party (BNP) at the most recent general election. I do not say that he allowed his views to affect his (lack of) action, but it shows how prevalent racist thought was in the police at the time.
I have never met Doreen or Neville Lawrence but I know that their description of the unsympathetic attitude of the police in the wake of their son’s murder in Eltham, southeast London, in April 1993 is essentially true. It is not only their own obvious sincerity which tells me so. There had been a number of assaults on young men, fortunately not all of them fatal, and the death of at least two victims, Rolan Adams and Rohit Dougal.
The violence which was a feature of this part of London, where run-down urban housing estates met the more affluent suburbs, was not initially essentially racial.
Gangs protecting “their patch” were only too eager to inflict harm on any outsider, or an insider who had not shown them the “respect” to which they considered themselves to be entitled, and many of the early victims were white.
Very soon, however, that animosity had concentrated against those whose “outside-ness” was proclaimed most overtly by the colour of their skin. It did not help that the racially motivated BNP had moved their headquarters into the area.
My wife and I lived in the adjoining London borough, where, in spite of the undercurrent of tension, residents considered that if they did not trouble trouble, then trouble would not trouble them.
Consequently we had no qualms until the 1991 incident in which our son became a victim of the brutal assault described earlier. Yes, Doreen and Neville have been telling the truth.
Towards the end of the decade, I stood in the overflow room at the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre to hear the evidence given to the Macpherson Inquiry into the original Metropolitan Police Investigation into the killing of Stephen Lawrence – from which Sir William Macpherson concluded that the police were “institutionally racist”.
And I watched the smirking youths named as the suspected assailants as they swaggered arrogantly from the inquiry, confident that, as the trial against them had been aborted, they could not be prosecuted. They were wrong – a change in the law made a new trial possible.
In the closing weeks of 2011, the story was told again. The court, and through the media the public, heard of the unprovoked attack on Stephen Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks by a racially-oriented gang (which may have been larger in number than was appreciated initially), and the whole litany of police bungling, inefficiency and perceived malpractice.
Greater emphasis than hitherto was given to the possible influence on the police and on prospective witnesses exercised by the gangster father of one of the defendants.
The trials of the Lawrence family – in both senses of the word – and of Brooks were laid open to the world. The gradual change in perception towards race issues in Britain was described in court. From being alone, and ill-served by the forces which should have sustained them, Doreen and Neville won the sympathy of the nation.
The bringing home to the suspects that they are not invulnerable to justice – as two of them, Gary Dobson and David Norris, found when they were sentenced to imprisonment for the crime (and surely the prosecution of the other gang-members must follow) – is not the least satisfactory aspect of the judgment.
The outcome has been a triumph for the determination of the Lawrence family in the face of what must have seemed insurmountable odds, and a vindication of their method of pursuing justice through the legal procedure, however disheartening it must have been at times, rather than through political protests and street action.
The community, too, has belatedly found its conscience. The Metropolitan Police of today should be commended for starting to “put its house in order”, as much as their predecessors of two decades ago should be condemned for their …whatever you wish to call it.
With a new sense of direction, they have pursued doggedly where previously they had evaded “dodgedly”. Several years ago the local electorate, too, voted in a council which was no longer prepared to have the headquarters of the BNP on its doorstep.
So is everything in the southeast London neighbourhood now peaceful and charming? I wish that it were so. The extant presence of the extremist English Defence League and press reports connecting people linked to the suspects in the Lawrence “case” to the assertive attitude of the residents of Eltham
to “protect” themselves against the alleged threat of (black) rioters in last summer’s disturbances – a threat which did not materialise – give cause for concern.
When I learned that a prominent BNP candidate at the 2010 general election was the now former police inspector I had encountered, I was taken aback.
I have met him in the course of my work as a journalist and found him to be personally courteous and considerate. There was nothing to indicate that he held his present views at that time, or, if he did, that it influenced his judgment.
Nevertheless, it shows how this obnoxious ideology can pervade even the bastions of law and order and provide a context – an “institution”? – in which decisions on justice are taken.
Has the experience of the Lawrence family proved anything? At one level it has not – racist attitudes persist and there will still be senseless, racist violence and even murders. Yet never again will that violence be considered as “acceptable” and policemen will not be able to ignore with impunity the testimony of witnesses or to play, apparently, “fast and loose” with the evidence.
And even if the old attitudes and practices should resume their former menace, there will always be the example of Doreen Lawrence to prove that it not only should – but can – be overcome.