inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. She found
her growing sense of personal outrage sat uneasily with
the sceptical distance she had to sustain over seven
months of dispassionate reporting for The Independent
The devil, as always, was in the detail. When I try to analyse the claustrophobic effect of watching 65 police officers testify at the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, it is not the evidence itself that comes to mind. It is the nuances of language, and the subtleties of demeanour,.
The first time I heard an officer use the word "coloured" - it was in reference to Duwayne Brooks, Stephen's friend - I pinched myself. Then five or six other officers blithely did the same. Asked about it, they appeared perplexed. They had spent years working in racially mixed areas such as Brixton, they said, and they had never previously heard any complaints about this term.
It was at such moments that the depth of the problem hit home to me.
It was clear that these uniformed agents of the law only ever interacted with black people as criminals. Their work placed them at the sharp edge of race relations, but their peers, their friends, were without exception white, and it had never occurred to them to find out what language was acceptable to the people who lived in the areas that they policed.
Watching the parade of officers through the witness box was not an uplifting experience. Almost to a man and a woman they were evasive, indifferent, lazy, complacent and defensive. They could not remember the events of five years before, they intoned, one after another. Asked by Michael Mansfield QC, counsel for Stephen's parents Neville and Doreen Lawrence, if, in retrospect, they would have done anything differently, they scratched their heads and said, well, no.
Some of them failed signally to rise to the seriousness of the occasion. Former Detective Constable Mick Tomlin, who is now living in retirement on the Costa del Sol, turned up wearing chinos, a sweatshirt and sandals, and was twice reprimanded for flippancy in the witness box by Sir William Macpherson, the inquiry's chairman.
In the meantime, the sorry saga of the failure to catch Stephen's killers was tumbling out in scandalous detail. Every time you thought the Metropolitan Police could not possibly dig themselves into a deeper hole, another officer picked up the spade.
Not content with bungling the murder investigation in spectacular fashion, they added insult to injury. I remember my disbelief on learning that Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Osland, who was in charge of policing in south-east London at the time, had advised fellow officers to sue the Lawrences for accusing them of racism. Osland, by the way, is the man who wrote a memorandum to Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, four months after Stephen's death, informing him that "our patience with the Lawrence family is wearing thin".
The cumulative effect on me of all this was a sense of outrage that sits uneasily with the sceptical distance that journalists endeavour to maintain from their subjects. This, though, was no ordinary story, and for those of us who sat through the 55 days of the first stage of the inquiry at the Elephant and Castle, in south London, last spring and summer, it was impossible not to get involved.
The inquiry was absorbing, exhausting, infuriating, distressing and all-consuming. It took on its own momentum and built its own small community, composed of the lawyers, journalists, inquiry team and staff and, above all, the Lawrences themselves. For despite the far-reaching issues that it raised about policing, race and society, this was an intensely personal inquiry about the death of a young black man, and the presence of his parents was a constant reminder of that.
The image of Stephen surrounded by his assailants is engraved on my memory. Yet every time I hear that account of how he was accosted, pushed to the ground, kicked and stabbed, it is like hearing it for the first time again in all its fresh horror. If the evidence was upsetting for people like me, we cannot begin to fathom its effect on the Lawrences. Mr Lawrence collapsed while the statement of Duwayne Brooks, who was with Stephen when he was attacked, was being read out. The proceedings were halted while Richard Stone, a general practitioner who was one of Sir William's advisers, ran out to help.
Courage seems too small a word to apply to this remarkable couple, Stephen's parents. They remained composed as the most staggering evidence emerged about the ineptitude and bigotry that prevented their son's murder being investigated properly. Mr Lawrence would sometimes get up and walk out of the room, a sign that things were getting on top of him. He came to talk to me once, during a break in the testimony of one officer who, on being asked if he socialised with colleagues after work, had replied haughtily, that no, he went home to his family. "He has got a family to go home to," said a furious Mr Lawrence. "Stephen will never be coming home."
Regulars at the inquiry also included members of the public, who turned up day after day, transfixed. There was David, a large, one-eyed black man, who implored us to remember that Mr Brooks, too, was a victim. There was Harry, with his briefcase, always scribbling furiously. There were members of the Lawrence family's campaign, people from assorted pressure groups and curious south Londoners with time on their hands. Occasionally, they would get together to write letters to Sir William from "the public gallery", asking him, for instance, to admit more evidence from lawyers for Mr Brooks.
Sir William himself maintained an inscrutable expression, although occasionally his shoulders would sag under the weight of what he was hearing. Now and again, he made his impatience plain. He interrupted Detective Chief Superintendent John Barker, who conducted a discredited internal review of the murder inquiry, to tell him that his evidence lacked credibility and his review was indefensible. The message was clear - "get out of my sight" - and Barker swiftly followed his advice. Earlier, on learning that officers who conducted house-to-house enquiries after the murder were ignorant of the fact that suspects had been identified in tips to police, Sir William told one of them, Sergeant Nigel Clement: "It strikes me that in that case your visit to the houses was totally useless."
It is difficult to remember the precise moment when it dawned on me that the inquiry had grown into something bigger than a scrutiny of the aftermath of one racist murder. Perhaps it coincided with a growing realisation that the hearings were becoming a magnet for other victims of racial injustice. Familiar faces were starting to appear in the public gallery; that of Frank Critchlow, for instance, the Notting Hill community worker who sued the police for assault, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution after he was arrested in a drugs raid, and Myrna Simpson, whose daughter, Joy Gardner, died of asphyxiation while she was being restrained by police officers during an immigration raid. Later, they were joined by Kwesi Menson, the brother of Michael Menson, the musician who died after being set on fire in north London, and Sukhdev Reel, mother of Ricky Reel, the Asian student found drowned in the river Thames.
It was when the inquiry team left London last autumn for a regional tour that it became plain that the Lawrence case had touched a raw nerve. As the team held public meetings in Manchester, Bradford, Bristol and Birmingham, members of ethnic minority communities in those cities queued up to tell anyone who would listen that the Lawrence family's experiences resonated with their own.
In each city, the team found a stark dichotomy between the fine-sounding policy initiatives undertaken by senior officers and the reality out on the streets, where the message had not got through to policemen on the beat. I spent two days in Bradford speaking to Asian youths in Manningham, a run-down inner-city area that periodically erupts in riots. They talked of officers shouting "Pakis" at them as they drove past in the street; of police waking them up three or four times a night in the small hours, on the pretext of checking that they were abiding by their curfews; of being taken in for questioning and given bacon sandwiches.
There are moments from the last 12 months that will for ever remain in my memory. Watching that infamous police surveillance video, all 90 minutes of it, in the company of a mainly black audience at the public inquiry, and feeling sick to my stomach. Seeing Neville Lawrence engage in a staring match with Theresa Norris, while her son, David, one of the five suspects, was giving evidence in the witness box. (Neville won.) Feeling the explosion of anger and frustration among the crowd outside the building as the five emerged after completing their evidence.
Three days ago, I sat down in a BBC studio and watched a lengthy, uncut interview with Elvin Odoru, who was Stephen Lawrence's best friend at the time he was murdered. To watch this intelligent, articulate, thoughtful young man talk about Stephen was deeply affecting, and it was a reminder that this case, whatever else has flowed from it, was about the death of an 18-year-old boy who had his whole life ahead of him.Reuse content