Doreen Lawrence: Fighting on, for the love of Stephen

The great campaigner is weary. It is 15 years this week since her son was stabbed to death, but recent attacks have brought back the anger and pain of those days. Still, she cannot give up...
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The Independent Online

The place where Stephen Lawrence bled to death is marked with a black granite plaque, laid into the pavement.

"This is the second," says his mother, Doreen. "The first was smashed with a hammer. People spit on this one, or stand and urinate onto it. Even now."

It is 15 years since Stephen was killed at a bus stop in Eltham, stabbed by a gang of young men who called him "nigger", then ran away. The anniversary falls on Tuesday, and Doreen Lawrence will go to the busy suburban road, where flowers in the neat front gardens belie what happened there, to stand a while and say a few prayers. But she will not stay long.

"I do not feel safe there," she says. "Somebody will shout abuse. They always do."

Stephen is far away, buried under the shade of coconut trees on a rural family plot in Jamaica. "I felt this country did not deserve to have his body," she says, although Stephen was born and raised in south London. "They took his life. They did not deserve to have him here."

She still feels the same now, after all this time – even while acknowledging that Britain is "a better place" than it was when he died. The police have tried to mend their ways after being found guilty of incompetence and "institutional racism" in the way they handled the case. The law has been changed so that if the new evidence recently provided by DNA tests proves sufficient to charge any of the five men who are widely believed to have killed him, they can be tried again. The public inquiry that came about because Doreen and her then husband Neville refused to shut up and go away did produce major changes in the criminal justice system and forced the Government to take racism seriously.

The death of Stephen Lawrence is often described as a watershed in race relations in this country. So isn't this better Britain, which she helped to make, more worthy of her son?

"Not really," she says quietly. "I am glad I made the decision to have him buried in Jamaica, alongside my grandmother." Why? "His grave would have been desecrated here. The plaque has been attacked so many times. Stephen would never have rested in peace here. They would never allow him to do that."

Does "they" mean racists in general, or the five men the Daily Mail named as Stephen's murderers the day after the inquest? It challenged them to sue, but they never have. Her answer is ambiguous. "It is said that only 1 per cent of people feel the same way as they [her son's attackers] do about race. Do they all live in south London then?"

Doreen Lawrence is dressed for battle, in the kind of black trouser suit that gets respect in court rooms and government offices. She has a gold brooch in the shape of bird with its neck craned, an African symbol that means you sometimes have to look back to go forwards. With her in an anonymous hotel near New Scotland Yard are two of the advisers that now populate her world. She is the paid director of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, set up to help disadvantaged young people become architects, as her son would have done if he had not been killed at the age of 18.

A memorial service will be held at St Martin in the Fields on Tuesday, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mrs Lawrence, 56, formerly the scourge of the Establishment, accepted an OBE and now sits on police boards offering advice. She can still rage in public – lately against the Conservative mayoral candidate, Boris Johnson, saying he would "destroy London's unity" – but there is less anger today.

The indefatigable campaigner seems deeply weary. Exhausted, even. She has always been quieter, smaller, less articulate and far more shy in person than people expect, and she hates being interviewed – this is the only one to mark the anniversary – but it is more than that. And the catalyst for this mood is what happened just after her trust opened the £10m Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford two months ago. The impressive modern building has computer suites, sound and video labs and other facilities to help support young students.

The trust has been giving bursaries for a while, and the first students to receive them have gone on to work as architects. "It was very emotional for me, watching them graduate," she says. "I sat there crying, thinking, 'That should have been Stephen.' I think about him all the time. Would he have had children by now? Would he be married?" But helping the students helps her. "They are like my children."

Just a week after the centre opened, the feature windows designed by the artist Chris Ofili were smashed in the night. "Those windows were tough," she says. "You could feel the hate that must have come out of those people, to break them like that." Her hard-won calm was also shattered. "It was like going back all those years. The attack is back on me, and on Stephen, again. I felt as if I had moved on, but then I realised I was fooling myself."

The anger and hurt she thought she had learned to cope with returned in a fierce, raw form. "You get this feeling that there is something you need to feed inside your stomach," she says. "You feel as if you need to keep eating." Literally, as in food? "Yes. There is a deep gnawing in your stomach. You feel like you are hungry, but you know you are not. In the early days I used to keep eating. Now I realise it is nothing to do with food. It is to do with emotion."

The stress forced her to take a sabbatical from her job. "I have been working constantly for 15 years, doing things that benefit other people, never me. I find all the public stuff very stressful too – even sitting here with you – because the focus is on me."

You might think she would be used to it. Some people revere what she has achieved. "They often feel they have to touch me, my shoulder or something. To see if I am real, I suppose." But she says: "When I get home, I really am glad to close my door. It is like a sigh of relief. I can just be me".

Where does that need to present herself differently in public come from? "You don't want to let your ..." She struggles for the word, and when it comes it is a big one. "You don't want to let your race down." That is a lot of pressure to put yourself under. "I don't. People do it for me."

Doreen Lawrence was raised by her grandmother in a Jamaican village, until she came to Britain at the age of nine. Her first boyfriend, a builder called Neville, became her husband. He was 27 when they met, and she was 17. They had three children, Stephen being older than his brother Stuart and little sister Georgina.

"They were a friendly, relaxed, religious and law-abiding family who brought their children up with self-confidence and not to distinguish between black and white," said David Cruise, their vicar in Plumstead. Then came the murder, in April 1993. Six years later, around the time they were named Media Personalities of the Year, Doreen and Neville divorced.

"Separation was not an idea that was ever there before Stephen's death," she says. "People say it either brings you together or tears you apart. That is what it did. When Stephen died it was not just him, it was my marriage as well."

Neville now lives in Jamaica. He'll come for the service but not make a speech, because "the pain would be too horrendous".

Their surviving son, Stuart, 31, is a graphic design teacher in south London; their daughter Georgina, 25, has just finished a fashion degree and has a four-year-old daughter.

Doreen is preparing to live alone for the first time, but insists she will be too busy to be lonely. "I am out every evening and go to the gym or aqua aerobics at weekends." There is no other man on the scene then? "No," she says, smiling a little for the first time, as if it would be nice. She lives with the same stress inside that recently killed her friend Gloria Taylor, mother of the murdered Damilola.

"If I could get my son back I would give up everything I have now, just to be what I was before: a quiet person, getting on with life. I would never strike up a conversation with anyone on the street now." Why? "It is the fear. Any one of the people around me could be related to the boys who killed my son."

She did meet the mother of one of them while shopping.

"I was in Marks & Spencer in Bromley. Georgina had wandered off. I just came face to face with the mother of David Norris." What did she do? "I just stood there staring at her. I wanted to shout, 'This is the mother of one of the boys who murdered my son.' But I knew if I started shouting, Georgina would come to my side. I needed to protect her. Nobody knew what my children looked like. I did not want Georgina's face to be one they would recognise. I stood there, rigid to the spot."

Mrs Norris also froze. "Eventually someone came and she moved on. Nothing was said. I wanted to let people know, so much. Over the years, they have been able to hide. They can walk around, with anonymity. I did not have that privilege."

Could she not have stopped campaigning, and dropped out of view? Neville has. "I could have," she says, visibly relieved that our time is nearly up, "but I thought, 'Do I just sit back and let these people get away with murdering my son?' I could not. Stephen did not have a voice any more. I have had to be his voice."


22 April 1993 Stephen Lawrence is stabbed to death at a bus stop in Eltham, south London.

April 1994 Police prosecutions having failed, his parents Doreen and Neville launch a private case against five men they believe to be the killers. The judge aborts the trial.

February 1997 The inquest jury finds it an "unlawful killing". The 'Daily Mail' names the five as murderers, challenging them to sue. They never do.

February 1999 The Macpherson report into the case finds the police guilty of mistakes and "institutional racism". Changes in policing, law and government policy on race follow.

November 2007 Police say new low-copy DNA tests on fibres may allow them to link some of the five men to the crime scene. Further news is awaited.