The Lawrence Report: Memorial is defaced by white paint

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The Independent Online
IN TRUTH it was probably less than a cup full of white household emulsion that had been thrown on to the south London pavement. Its significance, however, was much greater.

That someone should chose to deface the pavement memorial to Stephen Lawrence within hours of the publication of the public inquiry report was sickening enough. What made it worse was that no one was really that surprised.

Racism quite literally hit the streets of Eltham once again sometime between 6.20pm on Wednesday and 8.58am yesterday when a man flagged down a police officer on routine patrol.

The inscription - which includes the words "In memory of Stephen Lawrence... may he rest in peace" - was illegible through the spattered paint.

Within moments a major police operation was underway. An area of pavement along Well Hall Road was sealed off. Forensic experts were taking samples of the paint and more than 20 officers were involved in house-to-house inquiries.

It was an incredible response to a crime that will be catalogued as criminal damage and for which the perpetrator, should he or she ever be caught, will face no more than three months in jail.

But of course, this was not just any attack of random vandalism on just any memorial. Rather, within hours, it was clear the police realised that they had to make a very public demonstration that crimes with racist motivation are taken seriously. "No, normally there would probably not be this many officers involved to investigate something like this," admitted a police spokeswoman. Pushed further she replied that normally such incidents would have been attended by just one officer.

Cynics were having a field day. Was this merely a knee-jerk response to the criticisms of the police contained within Sir William Macpherson of Cluny's report? Or was it because the police realised they had even failed to protect the memorial marking the spot where Stephen died in 1993?

This was after all, the third time the plaque had been vandalised. The last offender, Stuart Hollingdale, from Penge, was jailed for three months last March after he was caught on a specially installed CCTV camera attacking the marble plaque with a hammer.

Had the most recent offender been caught on film? "The camera was left there for three months," explained Det Chief Superintendent Mike Parkes of the Racial and Violent Crime Task Force, who arrived at the scene. "After that a decision was taken to take this camera out and deploy it elsewhere. What has been left is a complete dummy. It was placed here to try and prevent this sort of thing happening again."

The minutes passed and the officers continued their inquiries, failing to spot that the bus stop a few hundred yards away where Stephen had been stabbed, had also been attacked with paint. When informed of this two officers ran to seal it off with police tape.

The empty dog food tin which had contained the white paint thrown on the memorial was still at the scene.

More police arrived, amongst them Assistant Commissioner Denis O'Connor third in command of the Met. He refused to answer questions. "He has just come to pay his respects," said a spokeswoman.

By this stage the rumour was that the Home Secretary Jack Straw and Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville, were to visit the scene. Shortly after 4pm they arrived together. Mr Straw stuck a finger in the still wet paint.

Mr and Mrs Law-rence looked on. Both looked exhausted and appalled.

Mr Straw said he was disgusted the attack should happen on any day but particularly on this day. "It's proof of the fact that we have to drive out racism from the minds of people in this country," he said. "You must never despair and one of the wonderful things about the Lawrence family is that they have never despaired. You have to make some good come from evil."

As evening fell officers continued their inquiries in the streets close to the memorial, including the road just a few hundred yards away where some of the five Lawrence murder suspects were sitting together.

Their message was clear: "We might not have caught the killers, but there's no way we're not gonna catch whoever threw the paint."

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