NEVILLE LAWRENCE: Father of knife victim tells how his England was shattered by police investigation
Published: 8 March, 2012
by TOM FOOT
Neville Lawrence remembers looking out of his train window at the grid-lines of chimneys billowing smoke across the skyline as his train pulled into Waterloo.
It was his first snapshot of life in England and a sight that filled the 18-year-old upholsterer with optimism.
With so many “factories”, a job would not be hard to come by.
“I did not realise at that time those buildings were, in fact, houses and this was a place you needed coal to keep warm,” he says.
First impressions have been so important in the Lawrence story.
Take the police officers investigating his son’s murder, for example, who walked in the opposite direction after Stephen’s friend Duwayne told them which way the killers had fled.
A list of names given to police by the family being tossed away into the bin.
Mr Lawrence recalls how one officer implied his son was a cat burglar.
He had his own impressions of England when he arrived from Jamaica in 1960 after a childhood immersed in colonial propaganda of stately homes and “everyone playing croquet on the lawn”.
“Because I used to watch all those black and white films about Soho murders,” he says, “I thought the Metropolitan Police force was one of the greatest organisations in the world. I was expecting that type of investigation.”
The failures in Stephen’s case and the campaign that brought about changes in race relations are well documented.
But Mr Lawrence says the Met had yet to learn its lessons, and drew parallels between complaints from the family of Mark Duggan, who was shot dead by police last August, which sparked widespread riots, and his own experience in 1993.
“You would think, after 19 years, people would have learned some kind of lessons and dealt with the parents in the right and proper way,” he says. “That’s one of the main reasons why all that trouble started to kick off, because of the way they treated the family.
“They are still failing. In the very beginning, in our case it wasn’t the police who told us, it was a neighbour. We rang the police to find out, and they said, ‘no we do not know’. If we followed what they said we wouldn’t have gone out that night, it was intuition that we did.
“When we went to the spot, when we looked down the road, he [Stephen] was already there on the pavement. There was an officer outside sitting in a car, so they must have known. For them not to tell us was unbelievable.”
Speaking last Wednesday at an event in Camden Town Hall, organised by the Holborn and St Pancras Labour Party, Mr Lawrence recalled how a blood vessel burst in his nose the first time he heard what had happened to his son.
Stephen’s body was taken to Jamaica, he says, after the family were told he could be exhumed without their consent. “We thought, eventually, if they wanted to dig Stephen up, they wouldn’t be able to.”
After encountering prejudice at work, he took on many “menial tasks” including redecorating the home of Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail.
Mr Lawrence dug out his number and rang him up after the Mail printed a photo of him with Nelson Mandela in the middle of a page “full of photos of violence”.
Dacre apologised and the paper stayed with the Lawrence family “all the way”.
Speaking of the Mail’s famous “MURDERERS!” headline, printed over pictures of the named five suspects, Mr Lawrence says: “I remember Paul told me he couldn’t sleep he was so frightened they were in fact going to sue him.”
Looking back, Mr Lawrence says he believes the uproar over his son’s death had brought “a lot of changes that have been brilliant”. But he says any black man or woman wanting to join the Met today still would “have to know what they were letting themselves in for”.
He adds: “In the early days, if someone said you were racially abused they would be asked ‘what racism are you talking about?’. That has changed. Society has changed. Did my son have to die before? It is a pity there has to be a disaster before.”
Nineteen years of campaigning have taken their toll on the Lawrence family. Doreen and Neville divorced in 1999 and Mr Lawrence, who has moved back to Jamaica, says he rarely sees his grandchildren.
On the sentences handed down to Gary Dobson and David Norris at the Old Bailey in January this year, he says: “I sat in court for seven weeks. I don’t know how I could continue to function if they had got off.”
He says he hopes one of them will crack in prison and reveal where the murder weapon is.
Only then, with new DNA evidence from the knife, can his campaign be complete.
“We got some kind of justice – it was not a complete justice,” says Mr Lawrence. “I’m not going to stop. It’s going to be a continuous thing.”