The racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath changed Britain. A campaign led by his parents forced the state to hold an inquiry into Stephen’s death and the police investigation into it. Thousands of people supported that campaign.
Anger over the case forced the inquiry, headed by judge Sir William Macpherson, to rule that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist. The landmark ruling sent shockwaves through the establishment.
Stephen was murdered in Eltham, south east London, on 22 April 1993. He was waiting for a bus. A group ran towards him shouting, “What, what, nigger,” and Stephen was stabbed twice in the chest.
The murder was one in a long line of brutal racist attacks in the area. All exposed police racism and failures to protect black and Asian people.
South east London was a notorious breeding ground for racists and fascists in 1993. The Nazi British National Party had its headquarters in Welling.
In July 1992 Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths near to where Stephen was murdered. Cops said it was “motiveless”.
Nazis turned up to gloat at Rohit’s memorial service.
The year before that Rolan Adams was stabbed in the throat in Thamesmead. His killers shouted, “Get the niggers.” Cops said the killing was about “petty crime”.
The spate of racist attacks, and police indifference to them, lay behind the anger that erupted at Stephen Lawrence’s death.
Witnesses identified the five who murdered him as David Norris, Gary Dobson, Luke Knight, Neil Acourt and Jamie Acourt. The killers ran down a road leading to the Brooke estate, where the Acourt brothers lived.
Police officers who arrived on the scene did not administer first aid to Stephen. “They just stood there while my son bled to death,” said his mother Doreen.
Cops did not go door to door gathering statements, or search the Brooke estate.
Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks was nearby when the attack took place. He was a victim and a key witness. Yet the senior cop on the scene ignored him.
A red Astra car full of laughing white youths drove past the scene. It turned around and drove back. No cops stopped it. Inside were people who were eventually convicted of attacking Rolan Adams.
Mainstream accounts of the police investigation describe it as “flawed” or “incompetent”. In reality cops deliberately obstructed justice because of their racism and the corrupt links some of them had with organised crime.
Cops failed or refused to follow up leads. Macpherson described intelligence gathering as “sporadic and delayed”. Instead officers targeted Stephen’s family and friends (see box).
David Norris, one of Stephen’s convicted killers, is the son of Clifford Norris. Clifford Norris was a drug smuggler with links to corrupt cops. He bribed and intimidated witnesses.
Despite this, people handed cops the same names on 26 different occasions within 48 hours of the killing. Cops claimed they had been met with a “wall of silence”.
Police observed the Acourts throwing away bin liners after the killing that could have contained clothing. No action was taken.
I worked for Greenwich council, close to where Stephen Lawrence was killed. I’d been involved in strikes for over a year over the poll tax . We built up a network that played a role in undermining the fascists. We went to colleges, schools and workplaces to talk about the threat of the far right.
Gary Dobson initially said he did not know David Norris.
He was subsequently photographed entering Norris’s house. Cops failed to use this evidence when questioning Dobson.
The Acourt brothers were known knife users who were rumoured to hide knives under the floorboards of their house. Police refused to search there.
One of the cops assigned to “protect” Duwayne Brooks during the 1996 trial, detective sergeant Dave Coles, was connected to Clifford Norris. So was the lead officer on the investigation.
Coles was forced to resign, then rehired thanks in part to his old boss Ian Crampton vouching for him. Crampton was the senior cop in charge of the Lawrence case for the first four days.
Even Macpherson commented during the inquiry that he found it difficult to believe a police force could be so incompetent without being corrupt.
That’s because they were.
For millions of people the case lifted the lid on police racism—and the secret workings of the state.
The Tory government of John Major had no interest in investigating the police.
And despite the damning outcome of the Macpherson inquiry, the Labour government’s response was to back the cops.
Labour home secretary Jack Straw spoke to the Police Federation conference in 1998. “Be under no doubt, you and your members should continue to exercise your rights,” he told them.
“You have our backing.”
Left to its own devices, the Macpherson inquiry would have been a whitewash. An initial internal police inquiry into the investigation of Stephen’s murder—the Barker Review—had already found it had “progressed satisfactorily”.
At the time of Stephen Lawrence’s killing, people were beginning to think, “Enough is enough”. The Daily Mail maintains that its front page was decisive. But when the campaign started it was sending journalists to try and undermine it. What kept the campaign going was its base and trade union support. That came from activists going to union branches, getting motions passed, doing petitions. That kind of activity put the issue on the agenda for national unions.
A subsequent investigation by Kent police “found no evidence” of racist conduct by any officer involved.
But campaigners forced the British state onto the back foot. People queued up across Britain to sign petitions demanding justice.
Trade unionists took motions of support for the campaign to their union branches. Neville Lawrence spoke at the 1993 TUC conference. The TUC then helped to fund the family’s campaign.
A critical point came when recently-released Nelson Mandela came on a state visit to Britain.
He compared Stephen’s murder to the murder of blacks by whites in apartheid South Africa.
Trust in the police dropped from 74 percent to 58 percent between 1989 and 1999.
The Macpherson inquiry went on the road to major cities to hear about people’s experiences. The police were savaged. Protests were held in some towns. In others senior cops admitted their forces were institutionally racist.
Cops targeted the Lawrence family and Duwayne Brooks to try and discredit them—and spied on the Lawrences while they fought for justice.
An officer from the Special Demonstration Squad, HN81—known to activists as David Hagan—was deployed into the “Lawrence camp”. The current inquiry into spy cops had until recently refused to reveal Hagan’s name. His real name is disgracefully still secret and should be revealed.
In 2013 former undercover officer Peter Francis admitted he was ordered in 1993 to discredit the Lawrence family.
In 2016 it was announced that two cops connected to the spying operation would face no further action.
When Duwayne identified some of Stephen’s killers, a cop alleged Duwayne had said he was coached to identify them. Duwayne denied this.
Cops harassed him for years after the murder. His car was broken into. His address was made public. He was stopped countless times by cops, particularly in the years after the Macpherson inquiry, at which he gave damning evidence.
Eventually Duwayne sued the Met and received £100,000 in compensation.
Class struggle toppled apartheid