Forty-five minutes into the evidence of the first witness, Jamie Acourt, 30 members of the Nation of Islam stormed into the room, wearing the distinctive uniform of dark suits and sunglasses. As they shouted protests about the limited number of seats for the public, scuffles broke out with police and a sergeant was punched in the chin. One of the men lunged unsuccessfully at Mr Acourt as police hustled him from the witness box and out of the chamber.
Earlier, as Mr Acourt, 22, was denying that he had ever been a racist or carried knives, police fired a CS gas canister at a group of Nation of Islam members who they said had assaulted a chief inspector after breaking through a security cordon. The activists said police provoked the confrontation outside Hannibal House, the government office block in Elephant and Castle, south London, where the hearings are being held.
These extraordinary events were matched by the quieter drama of the appearance of three of the youths who are suspected of stabbing Stephen Lawrence to death in an unprovoked and racist attack five years ago. The black teenager's parents, Neville and Doreen, sat only yards away as Mr Acourt, followed by his brother Neil, 22, and David Norris, 21, gave evidence.
It was the first time that any of the five, who are chief suspects in the murder, had been forced to answer questions in public, and their contributions were less than illuminating. Jamie Acourt, truculent, gave short, clipped answers. Neil Acourt, cocky and combative, threw questions back at the lawyers. David Norris, the most subdued of the three, denied nearly everything put to him.
With questions about their guilt or innocence already ruled out, most of the interrogations revolved around the contents of a videotape shot by a police surveillance camera planted in the flat of another suspect, Gary Dobson, 22. The tape showed the youths brandishing knives, stabbing them into furniture and mouthing violent racist abuse.
There were gasps of outrage in the packed public gallery when Neil Acourt told Edmund Lawson, QC, counsel for the inquiry, that he carried knives for self-defence, particularly "in areas where there are more black people than white".
Mr Acourt complained that he had been "persecuted" over Stephen's murder, adding: "My life has been under threat. People have been saying all sorts of things about me. I have received dozens of threatening calls."
Asked about a passage in the video where he said he believed that "every nigger should be chopped up and they should be left with nothing but fucking stumps", Mr Acourt attributed his remark to "stupidity and ignorance". He said: "If anyone had been going through what I had been going through ... I was angry." His references to "carving people up" were "just a joke", he said.
All of the five youths have at various times in the past been charged with killing Stephen. Neil Acourt, Mr Dobson and Mr Knight were formally cleared by a jury in 1996 after key identification evidence was ruled inadmissible. The case against the other two was dropped at committal stage.
Mr Norris, whose mother, Theresa, sat watching him give evidence, was also asked what lay behind his foul-mouthed racist remarks on the video. "I was very angry at what's been happening to me over the past five years," he said. Mr Lawson rejoined: "Stephen Lawrence was murdered. What do you think of that?" "Appalling," replied Norris, as the Lawrences gazed across the room at him.
Michael Mansfield, QC, counsel for the family, asked Neil Acourt about his contact with David Norris's father, Clifford, a professional criminal who has been alleged to have had corrupt links with detectives on the Lawrence murder squad. Mr Acourt, who admitted visiting him twice in prison, where he is serving eight years for drugs and firearms offences, said it was "nonsense" to suggest that Clifford had influenced the case.
From the moment that they strode into Hannibal House yesterday morning, to cries of "racist scum" from the crowds outside, the five showed little but contempt for the public inquiry. Sir William Macpherson, chairman of the tribunal, interrupted Jamie Acourt's evidence to remind him that he could be prosecuted for perjury if he lied in the witness box. As the group of youths left the building at the end of the day, they spat at the chanting anti-racist demonstrators.
The disruption in the morning was sparked by the fact that the 150 seats in the public gallery were hugely oversubscribed. Clashes between police and the Nation of Islam erupted as frustration mounted among the hundreds of spectators who failed to get inside.
Inside the chamber, it fell to a composed Mrs Lawrence to appeal for calm. Grabbing a microphone from the desk of one of the lawyers, she told angry members of the public: "The whole idea of having these boys here is to ask them questions about what went on the night of my son's death."
Neville then repeated the plea. "We have waited five years for this day," he said. "I am not going to let anybody spoil it. I don't want anyone coming with their own agendas ... remember what our feelings are, not yours."