Doreen Lawrence: Quiet force for justice

She has become transformed into a steely, determined campaigner against a system she has come to mistrust deeply
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The Independent Online

It was on the 43rd day of the inquiry into the murder of her eldest son that Doreen Lawrence took the opportunity to make her feelings clear in the most public way possible, by taking the stand and asking: "Am I on trial or something here?" Mrs Lawrence was standing up for herself against insistent questioning by Jeremy Gompertz, QC, who was representing the Metropolitan Police. "From the time of my son's murder I have been treated not as a victim," she told the silk in June 1998. "For me to be questioned in this way - I do not appreciate it."

On one level, her words were an eloquent expression of her frustration at the failure of the British criminal justice system to convict those who had stabbed her son Stephen to death at a London bus stop more than five years earlier. On another, the suggestion she was "on trial" was an indication of how a reserved suburban mother had been dragged, in the most awful circumstances imaginable, into the spotlight, under which she would be judged as a parent, as a wife and even as a representative of her ethnicity.

Her visibility grew yet again this week as a BBC investigation, making allegations of the sort of police corruption that Mrs Lawrence has long suspected, prompted a fresh official inquiry into the murder, 13 long years on. Public recognition is something Doreen Lawrence never wished for. According to her recently published autobiography And Still I Rise, Mrs Lawrence was, on the eve of Stephen's murder in April 1993, contented with her lot. "Nothing much disturbed me or my confidence in my family's future," she wrote.

Though she has been obliged to become an activist, a fighter, she is naturally a woman of quiet disposition. This is in part a result of her upbringing. From the age of two she was cared for by her grandmother, after her mother - like many other Caribbean islanders of her age - left to start a new life in England. Doreen Lawrence grew up amid coconut palms and bush in the Jamaican village of Post Road, fetching water from the local pond. When her mother eventually sent for her, she was nine years old and there was a palpable distance in the mother-daughter relationship.

Doreen met her first boyfriend when she was 17, a 27-year-old builder named Neville Lawrence who became her husband. Their existence was one of conventional domesticity. "When we set up home together, he was always mending things around the house, shared all the chores and loved to help me with the cooking. At Christmas his speciality was roast duck and he would create a carnival atmosphere," she has recalled. "He worked long hours as a builder but adored spending time with the children, and was a strict but loving father to all three of them: Stephen, Stuart and little Georgina."

Prior to Stephen's birth in 1974, Doreen had worked as a clerk at the NatWest clearing house in the City of London. By the time he died, 19 years later, she was chasing an ambition to become a primary school teacher and was taking a degree in humanities. "You think you know your place in the world and that you're safe in your part of it, that nothing can harm you, except illness or old age," is how she has described her state of mind at this time.

The murder changed everything, of course. But not just because it was vicious, racist and unprovoked. Doreen Lawrence's encounters with officers of the Metropolitan Police and with officials from the Crown Prosecution Service, over a period of many years, transformed her from a quiet mother into a steely, determined campaigner against a system that she had grown to mistrust deeply.

There was Detective Constable Linda Holden, assigned to the case as a family liaison immediately after the killing, who told the Macpherson public inquiry in 1998 she wasn't convinced it was a racist attack. There was Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Ilsley who took from Mrs Lawrence a piece of paper with the names she had been given of the suspected murderers. Ilsley folded the piece of paper into a tiny square and then ignored her. "Of course he took no notice of me; no one was taking any notice of me, the quiet woman in the corner." Ilsley's attitude convinced Mrs Lawrence that she "could not rely on them" but she was "determined not to let up".

And there was John Carnt, a senior police officer who was assigned to help the family with a private prosecution, after the original case against five suspects collapsed. Carnt, who had given Doreen the impression that he was "on our side", then suggested to the Macpherson inquiry that the Lawrence family had undermined the police's work. He implied, she thought, that "the problem lay with us, the uppity black family, for hampering a brilliantly professional team".

Another senior officer, Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Osland, put similar sentiments into writing. In a letter to then Met Commissioner Paul Condon, Osland wrote: "Our patience is wearing thin - not only with the Lawrence family and their representatives but also with the self-appointed public and media commentators."

Those media commentators too got under Doreen Lawrence's skin, even when they were trying to be kind. "I had to get used to people always telling me how dignified I was, as though that was something unusual. There was an implication to my ears that other black people don't behave like this, but I know that they do."

Some sections of the media were actually more helpful to those suspected of killing Stephen, she believed. In 1999 the reluctant celebrities Doreen and Neville Lawrence were given a somewhat incongruous award as the Commission for Racial Equality's Media Personalities of the Year and took the chance to criticise journalist Martin Bashir, who had conducted television interviews with the suspects. "I will never forgive those people for giving them a platform or the person who interviewed them," Doreen said at the ceremony.

Aspersions were also cast on the Lawrences by those closer to home. Duwayne Brooks, who had been with Stephen when he was killed but who never met the approval of his friend's parents, wrote a book, Steve and Me. In it he suggested that Stephen was not the perfectly behaved, budding architect that some had portrayed but was more a regular London teenager. He also alleged that Stephen's parents were disciplinarians who locked their children out at night if they failed to meet a curfew, influencing the route that he took home on the night of his death.

Doreen Lawrence instructed solicitors, claiming that the book suggested she was "partly responsible for Stephen's death" because of her "rigid and uncompromising attitude". Her relationship with Brooks, who was deeply traumatised by the murder and by being deemed an "unreliable witness" prior to the collapse of the original prosecution, has become a long-running feud. When Doreen published her own book last month, she chose to criticise Brooks's mother, Shirleen Bailey, saying she "did not make a good impression on me" and claiming she had said she was "glad it wasn't her son" that had died. After the book was published, Mrs Bailey said: "How could I say such a thing? I was with my cousin and we were both crying. I said 'I don't know what I would have done if it was Duwayne,' not I was glad it was Stephen and not Duwayne. Perhaps through her pain that's what she thought I said."

Perhaps inevitably, the pain at losing Stephen and the despair at the police blundering that followed placed an intolerable strain on the Lawrences' marriage. In spite of Doreen's attempts to bring the remaining members of her family ever tighter together, Neville became increasingly withdrawn and distant. In 1997, when her husband was seeking some space in Jamaica (where he has since returned to live), Doreen emerged as the leading figure in the family campaign for justice. In 1999, the year they were named Media Personalities of the Year, Neville and Doreen Lawrence divorced.

Since the split Neville Lawrence has sought to make sense of Stephen's murder through his Christian faith. He made regular visits in his spare time to Brixton prison in south London, talking to and helping convicted killers. Then in 2003 he spoke out to say that he forgave the thugs that had killed his son.

Doreen, who was stared at continually by mothers of the suspects during the Macpherson inquiry, was not about to do the same, as she told the Daily Mail, which has become an unlikely champion of their cause. "Had [the suspects] or their mothers shown any ounce of sympathy towards us, or indicated that it was something they didn't mean to happen, it might be different."

Doreen has remained close to her legal team, notably solicitor Imran Khan, who has represented the family throughout their fight for justice. Khan is a tireless anti-racist campaigner and Mrs Lawrence has become a prominent activist in the field.

Given Macpherson's recommendations for a complete overhaul of the way racial crimes are investigated, Doreen Lawrence, who was appointed an OBE in 2002, could have been excused for trying to claim some positive consequences from the death of Stephen. But she has been let down so many times she will not be fobbed off with promises.

New Labour, which called in Macpherson, has since incurred her wrath for playing politics with race. She has criticised Home Secretaries David Blunkett and Charles Clarke for allowing reforms to slip down the agenda. And who can say that her concerns are unfounded? When A-level student Anthony Walker was murdered in a racist attack in Liverpool last year, Doreen Lawrence was asked to visit the scene and say some words. "How many young people have to die before society sees and make changes?" she said. For Doreen Lawrence the long fight for justice goes on.

A Life in Brief

BORN Born in Jamaica in 1952; came to England in 1962

FAMILY Met Neville Lawrence, who came to England in 1960 from Jamaica, in south London in 1970; married in 1972, divorced in 1999. Three children: Stephen, Stuart and Georgina.

EDUCATION Secondary school, followed after marriage and children by an access course and a BA Hons Humanities; has been awarded honorary degrees by the University of East Anglia, Bradford University and Staffordshire University.

CAREER Bank clerk for NatWest Clearing, financial adviser at Greenwich University; head of trust activities at the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, speaker on racial justice.

SHE SAYS "The one miracle that could yet happen would be for one of those five boys to confess. That would require a radical change of heart, a real awakening of conscience."

THEY SAY "She has transmuted her anger and pain into a powerful force for good." - Ian Blair, Metropolitan Police Commissioner