One day in June 1998 I sat in a cafe in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre in south east London during a break in the Macpherson inquiry.
The inquiry, into the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, was being held in an office block above the centre.
Sitting opposite me was a grieving father, a black man from south east London, whose son was killed by a racist gang a few years earlier.
He talked to me about the institutionalised racism of the Metropolitan Police, which had failed to catch his teenage son’s killers.
He said police refused to believe his son’s murderers had a racial motive. He said they had methodically tried to discredit the principal witness—another young black man. In his view the force was beyond reform.
The father named the British National Party (BNP) headquarters in Welling as the principal source of the murderous racist poison that seeped into nearby housing estates.
Weighed down by years of campaigning, he was bitter and angry that no police officer involved had been disciplined. “Seven years after my son’s murder—there has been no suspensions, no one has had to resign, most of the perpetrators are still at large and unpunished”.
I could have been talking to Neville Lawrence, but I wasn’t. I was talking to Richard Adams, whose son Rolan Adams was murdered by a racist gang in Thamesmead in 1991.
I began to fully appreciate how perilous it was to be young and black in south east London at that time when I discovered that Stephen Lawrence knew Rolan Adams.
Doreen Lawrence in her testimony to the Macpherson inquiry recounted how, “By 1993 there had been three murders in our area.
I was aware of the Rolan Adams one because Stephen knew Rolan and that was a big thing for him.
“They were having a march or something and he wanted to be there. I was very worried for him because Thamesmead is an area you always hear about racism connected to it, it is always happening down there.
“I remember saying to him ‘I don’t want you to go’...He had a strong conviction where that was concerned because it was his friend and he told me ‘no’ and in fact he actually went”.
The racists were also connected and it should have been easy for police to track them down. Gangs of racist youths plagued the area—including “the Krays”, as the knife-wielding Acourt brothers liked to be known.
Neil Acourt had close connections with a well-known BNP activist in the area, while his brother Jamie was rumoured to carry a gun.
These gangs, connected with or inspired by the BNP, were hunting down black and Asian boys. And every time they got away with it they got more violent and convinced they were “untouchable”.
Which they were.
Richard described to me the fear that rippled through the local community in the early 1990s every time another young black man was knifed or murdered.
First Rolan Adams in February 1991, murdered by a gang, one of whom shouted “You’re in a Ku Klux Klan area” before stabbing him in the throat. Police treated it as a “territorial dispute” between gangs.
Then Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a gang outside an Eltham kebab shop in July 1992. His murderer called Rohit a “paki”—yet the police denied racism had played any part. One of his killers was known to knock around with the Acourts.
And then Stephen Lawrence.
After we spoke Richard Adams and I went back to the public gallery of the inquiry. Day after day we had heard police officers deny they had failed the Lawrences.
They defended their role in the failed murder investigation and denied that Stephen’s killers were racially motivated.
Lawyers representing the police aggressively cross-examined Doreen, Neville and their solicitor Imran Khan.
It seemed they wanted to convince the inquiry team that the Lawrences and their supporters were somehow to blame for the botched investigation.
We witnessed the head of the Metropolitan Police, Paul Condon, assert that racism and corruption had played no part in the Lawrence debacle.
He complained that his officers got a hard time on the witness stand and refused point-blank to utter the words “institutional racism”. “That term could cause more harm than good,” he pleaded.
“The state is on trial, the state is on trial,” shouted a man at one of the many public meetings that took place during the Macpherson inquiry.
And that is what it felt like. So the New Labour government intervened to limit the damage.
Condon’s appearance was so disastrous that it seemed he would resign. Home secretary Jack Straw, panicked at the sight of the Metropolitan Police force unravelling, stepped in to shield Condon from further flak.
Politicians, fearing the radicalising public response, applied huge pressure to stop a national demonstration in support of the Lawrences and against the police.
Yet the scandal unleashed militant campaigns against racist murders and police racism around Britain. There was no doubt that the inquiry would identify the Metropolitan Police as institutionally racist. The Met wasn’t happy.
When the five suspects were dragged before the inquiry, police made sure they left out of the front of the building through an angry crowd. Officers hung back just enough to allow people to get within striking distance of the men. Their strutting stance dissolved into panic.
The only officer who got support from the public gallery was Bill Mellish, who had been asked to reinvestigate the Lawrence murder.
He said he sensed the violent drug baron Clifford Norris, father of suspect David Norris, had exerted a corrupting influence on the investigation and intimidated witnesses. Mellish decided to “take him out of the picture”.
Clifford Norris had evaded arrest for importing drugs since 1988 but was known to be talking to his son following Stephen’s murder. Yet there had been no move to track him down. Mellish had the bright idea of following David Norris’s mother.
She led the police straight to Clifford and he was arrested. Simple! At last a police officer had done something right! Cheers, heavily laced with irony, went up from the public gallery.
The Lawrence team, particularly Michael Mansfield, were the only people who sought to fully explain why the police investigation into Stephen’s murder had gone so wrong.
If police racism was staring you in the face, it was police corruption that cast a long shadow over the Macpherson inquiry.
How else to account for the two-week delay in the arrests? What prompted David Norris and some other suspects to secretly meet Clifford Norris the day before police finally arrested them? Why did David Norris disappear on the morning of his arrest? Was he tipped off?
Why was Gary Dobson at such great pains to deny he even knew David Norris? Why had the officers questioning Dobson not been shown a surveillance photo showing Dobson and David Norris together?
Why did Clifford Norris suggest that he could “take care of the police”? How did the suspects find out, within hours, that the flat where they met and acted out fantasies of chopping up black people was being bugged by police?
Officer “XX” was known to have had suspicious meetings with Clifford Norris. How did he end up guarding Duwayne Brooks during the 1995 failed private prosecution launched by the Lawrence family?
As Brooks told me at the time, “I was shocked when I found out I had been guarded by “XX”. It was a devastating blow. I was in a hotel where I didn’t want to be—in Bayswater.
“The windows had bars on them, if anything happened I wouldn’t be able to get out. No one would have helped me. Then I find out on that night what officer was guarding me”. These “coincidences” have yet to be explained.
When the Macpherson inquiry delivered its damning verdict in February 1999 media and politicians turned it into a “watershed” moment. And of course it was. But not in the way they characterised it.
For some people it may have been the time when “white Britain” began to understand what it meant to be black and British at the end of the 20th century.
But I believe that most people drew much more wide-ranging lessons. That it was right to be anti-racist. That police routinely abused their power and were racist and corrupt. That an inhumane sickness afflicted the state. And that something fundamental had to change.
All this was made possible by the amazing fighting spirit of Doreen and Neville Lawrence and those close to them.
Wide layers of anti-racist organisations, individuals and forces such as the trade union movement supported them from the outset, way before the Daily Mail came on the scene.
New Labour tried to shunt that mood into a bureaucratic siding. It later dropped a commitment to many of Macpherson’s recommendations.
In June 1998 Richard Adams told me that he had grown up in Brixton. He said, “I know exactly how the police are. It’s not new. If you are a teenager around urban areas like Brixton, you should think yourself lucky if you don’t get a criminal conviction or end up in prison”.
If I talked to Richard Adams today would he read what he said 13 years ago and tell me “well, that’s all history now, isn’t it”?