Haunted by murder of teen, Britain confronts its racism; Unpunished '93 death shakes nation's pillars


LONDON -- Neville Lawrence is surrounded by reminders of his son. The teen-ager's gaze stares from posters and photos. His name is uttered reverently in a new play. And his death nearly six years ago in a racially charged attack is poised to shake Britain to its foundations.

"I would have liked to have seen him alive and kicking now," Lawrence says softly. "I would have liked for him to be known for something else."

The memory of Stephen Lawrence haunts a father and a country. His murder serves as a symbol of Britain's often-overlooked racial divisions.

On the night of April 22, 1993, Lawrence, 18, was waiting with a friend at a bus stop in the working-class suburban London neighborhood of Eltham. He was attacked by a gang of white youths, beaten, kicked and stabbed twice, before racing about 100 yards and collapsing on the pavement. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Almost six years later, after an aborted public prosecution and an attempted private prosecution for murder mounted by the Lawrence family, the five prime suspects have never been convicted of the crime. Three were acquitted. They might never be jailed and are free, pending further action.

After London's Metropolitan Police force mishandled the case, the commissioner offered unprecedented and repeated public apologies to the Lawrence family.

That the investigation was flawed is widely accepted.

There is another suspicion: that police incompetence was compounded by racism.

A judicial inquiry into the Lawrence killing was launched last year and the panel is due to release its report later this month. London's venerable police force -- known as Scotland Yard -- could be labeled as "institutionally racist." The report will likely call for new ways to investigate racial crimes.

The country may also have to confront crime-fighting disparities revealed in a recent Home Office study of data in England and Wales. The report noted that "black people were, on average, five times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people." Blacks were also more likely to be arrested than white or ethnic groups. The report found that "police were less likely to identify suspects for homicides involving black victims than for white or those from other ethnic groups."

But it's the Lawrence killing that has focused the country's attention.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon says the Lawrence family's persistent and dignified pursuit of justice "has resonated right across the community and has touched people's souls and spirits and intellects in a way that no other case has done in recent years."

Just as the death of Princess Diana shook Britain's monarchy, many here say that the killing of Stephen Lawrence will transform other pillars of British society -- criminal justice and race relations.

In refusing to let their son's case fade away, Neville Lawrence and his wife, Doreen, forced Britain to examine itself and its racial attitudes. The country that once oversaw an empire is now dealing uncertainly with an empire of different races and nationalities on its shores.

Britain remains a predominantly white, Protestant country, with a 1991 census showing minorities totaled about 3 million, or 5.5 percent of Britain's then 54.8 million population. But ethnic minorities encompass 20 percent of Londoners.

Many of the nearly 750,000 blacks of Caribbean and African heritage have settled in London. A few can trace their roots to a storied voyage of postwar immigration aboard the S.S. Empire Windrush, which arrived in London in June 1948. On board were some 500 passengers from Jamaica, black men coming to the aid of their mother country. After World War II, Britain had a severe labor shortage, and opened its gates to residents from the Commonwealth.

Jamaican immigrants

Neville Lawrence, born in Jamaica, arrived in London in 1960. As an apprentice upholsterer, he figured he had solid job prospects. Instead, he encountered racial prejudice, failing to land a job in the trade, he says, because he was black. The same thing occurred after he served a three-year toolmaking apprenticeship. Eventually, he became a house painter and plasterer.

Doreen Lawrence, 46, also emigrated from Jamaica as a child. She worked at a bank, raised a family -- the Lawrences have another son and daughter -- and then went to college. She now works in a student-aid office.

"There was subtle racism in those days," says Neville Lawrence, a bearded 56-year-old. "You'd be called names in a joke-type way. We didn't know what they meant."

But nothing could prepare Neville Lawrence for the racism that would engulf his family.

In some ways, Britain, particularly London, is colorblind. Interracial dating and marriage are common, and many neighborhoods and schools are integrated. Racial tensions that led to rioting in the 1950s, and later, in 1981, have ebbed. Racist chants that used to ring through soccer stadiums have been silenced.

Although poverty and unemployment remain higher among ethnic groups than whites, a few black Britons have risen to powerful positions, such as Bill Morris, head of the nearly million-member Transport And General Workers Union, and businessman Carl Cushnie, reputedly Europe's wealthiest black. But there are few blacks in the police, the military, the courts, the legal profession, and Parliament.

"You see blacks on television, on the football [soccer] field and on Oxford Street selling you fashion," says Stuart Hall, a prominent sociologist and one of Britain's leading experts on race relations. "They're in rock magazines telling you about music. But they don't run football clubs. You only have a few in the government. And they're not in the boardrooms. There continues to be a glass ceiling."

Ominously, the country has been troubled by the existence of small right-wing groups spreading hate against ethnic minorities. Recorded racial incidents in England and Wales have risen in recent years, with 13,880 reported in 1997-1998.

"As racism becomes more residual it becomes more organized," Hall says.

Racial attack

Nobody but the killers know for sure why Stephen Lawrence became the victim of a racial attack on a cold, wet night.

While waiting 15 minutes for a bus, he and his friend Duwayne Brooks became targets of a group of white teens, one of whom shouted a racial epithet. Brooks raced away and yelled for Lawrence to run. But Lawrence didn't and was caught from behind by the gang. After the attack, he ran and collapsed in the street, a site now marked with a memorial plaque.

What occurred over the following hours, days and years is the stuff of personal and national tragedy.

None of the police officers who arrived on the scene attempted to stop Lawrence's bleeding, even though it took an ambulance more than 20 minutes to respond. Brooks, who was distressed and shouting, said he was threatened with being handcuffed by the police.

Within hours, sources provided police with names of the teens who became the prime suspects. But the police waited two weeks to make arrests, a delay that may have enabled potentially incriminating evidence to be destroyed.

The Lawrences later said that they themselves initially felt like suspects instead of grieving parents of a murder victim. Neville Lawrence recalls that when they viewed Stephen's body at a mortuary, a policeman was prowling behind them.

Searching for justice

"We thought we would get some kind of justice," Lawrence says.

Instead, every move in the case led to a dead end. Charges against two of the suspects, Jamie Acourt and David Norris, were dropped for insufficient evidence at committal proceedings. During the 1996 private prosecution for murder, the other three suspects, Neil Acourt, Luke Knight and Gary Dobson, were acquitted at the direction of the judge who ruled that Brooks' identification evidence was confused.

But public outrage mounted. Television stations obtained a police surveillance tape made after the murder. It showed four of the suspects playing with knives and uttering racial epithets. However, the suspects did not implicate themselves in the slaying.

Controversy erupted in February 1997 after a jury in a medical inquest ruled that Lawrence was "unlawfully killed." The Daily Mail newspaper, a conservative tabloid, then took the extraordinary step of identifying the five suspects in the case under a headline: "Murderers." The headline was all the more stunning because Britain has stringent libel laws and strict codes for reporting trials.

"The Mail accuses these men of killing," the newspaper wrote. "If we are wrong, let them sue us."

Last year, an inquiry conducted by former English High Court Judge Sir William Macpherson met for 69 days of public hearings that produced more than 11,000 pages of transcript. The testimony was turned into a stirring drama, "The Color of Justice," which has left audiences breathless and angered in London. The production is due to be taped and shown on the British Broadcasting Corp.

"The case has simply hit a nerve that has been bubbling all along," says Richard Norton-Taylor, a journalist who edited the transcript for the production. "Here is a special family seeking justice."

The country is now girding for the release of the inquiry report.

Condon, the Oxford educated police commissioner, is eager to embrace reforms and boost minority participation in his forces, even though many have criticized his stewardship of Scotland Yard. He has set up a racial crimes task force and promoted black officers to senior ranks.

Condon recalls joining the force in 1967, the same year as London's first black police officer. Ethnic minorities now comprise 3.3 percent of the 26,500-strong force. Condon hopes the membership can one day reflect London's cultural diversity.

"I believe the enduring legacy to Stephen's memory would be some pretty profound reform, not just of policing but of the criminal justice system," Condon says. "The case has also stimulated a much wider debate in society about fairness and justice and equality issues. Although it has been a painful process for the police service, actually, I think it will be a cathartic process. And we're certainly up for the reform process."

Racism acknowledged

Although he opposes the phrase "institutional racism," Condon doesn't deny that racism exists in the ranks.

"There is racism in the police service," he says. "All institutions have racism. It is more than bad apples. It is a significant challenge. We have been trying for many years to deal with it. And we're looking for new ideas."

Condon says he remains determined to bring Stephen Lawrence's killers to justice.

"I have not given up and I have never given up on putting the racist thugs who committed this crime behind bars after due process and a trial," he says.

Neville Lawrence hasn't given up hope, either.

He carries a picture of the suspects as they fought their way through a crowd at the public inquiry.

"When I look at them, I feel sorry for them," he says. "They committed a grave crime. I don't think they realize what they have done."

And then, he reflects on a life cut short. Britain knows Stephen Lawrence as a symbol and a martyr. But Neville Lawrence recalls a son, student, artist, athlete and budding architect. By establishing a charity to help young blacks study architecture and associated arts, Neville Lawrence hopes his son's memory will endure.

"He was a private person like I am," Neville Lawrence says. "He did what was right. He was a human being who did not see people for their color."

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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