Interview: Baroness Doreen Lawrence on how her son’s legacy can give hope to young people.
On the evening of April 23rd 1993 Stephen Lawrence was attacked and murdered whilst waiting for a bus home. He was 18 years old.
Since the night they received the news that no parent should ever have to try and comprehend, Neville and Doreen Lawrence have fought to get the justice their son deserves.
The image of Stephen with smiling eyes, wearing a black and white striped top, the leaves of a plant next to net curtains in the background is the image news channels always put up. It’s the one that first let us put a face to a name.
Surrounding the glass encased schoolbooks and worn football boots, article after article cover the walls: from the night of the attack to the tireless campaigning by Dr Neville Lawrence and Baroness Doreen Lawrence to bring their son’s attackers to justice.
You’d be forgiven for thinking a woman who has faced the racist murder of a child, who has fought for the rights of black people discriminated against by the Metropolitan Police, and who has the title of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE, could be a little intimidating.
After all, a person of her life experience isn’t likely to suffer fools. Or journalists.
Doreen Lawrence steals a quick glance up at the wall and smiles to herself. It’s the easily recognisible smile of a proud Mum.
As I am about to find out whether this is the case, I look across the overtly orange room to see the woman herself approaching.
She is petite in stature, although I can tell from across the way that her presence is anything but. Wearing a black cardigan over a largely plain black dress, with dark brown hair that is short and neat, her eyes focus on accompanying university officials, drinking in the information they give her, giving each one of them her full attention.
As she comes towards me, she is graceful, calm and considered.
I introduce myself and she shakes my hand: formal yet polite. We sit down on the black leather settee, wedged between two large orange cushions, in the vibrant orange reception area of the very orange Stephen Lawrence Research Centre.
I wonder about the importance of the colour.
Mrs Lawrence nods and smiles. “Yes, it’s one of the colours that Stephen used to wear quite a lot,” she recalls. “He and his friend used to design t-shirts and orange is what I saw in those designs.”
She steals a quick glance up at the wall and smiles to herself. It’s the easily recogisible smile of a proud parent.
Doreeen Lawrence became Chancellor at the DMU in 2016. The morning before our interview she had given a talk to visiting secondary school children ahead of Stephen Lawrence Day on April 22, designated as an annual day of commemoration by then Prime Minister Theresa May.
“I’ve always thought we need to do something that looks to the future,” she says, eye contact re-engaged. “I want generations of young people to come (here) to learn about Stephen, but also the history of what happened in this country and where we have moved to.”
What happened led to a seismic change in the judicial system, brought about by two parents who refused to be dismissed by the authorities.
Where we have moved to is 800-years on in terms of the law.
In July 1997, more than 4 years after Stephen was attacked and still without any convictions, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw announced a judicial inquiry into both Stephen’s death and the investigation that followed.
When the Macpherson Report on The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was published in February 1999 it was a moment that changed history. The former High Court judge Sir William Macpherson of Cluny accused the Metropolitan Police of institutional racism and and included 70 recommendations in his report, largely aimed at stamping out racism within the police authority. That alone made a difference.
“We can talk more openly and challenge people around racism now,” Doreen Lawrence nods. “They couldn’t do that before.”
One particular aspect of the report helped bring Stephen’s killers to justice. It was recommended that the 800-year-old Double Jeopardy law, which previously meant a person couldn’t be re-tried for the same offence, be abolished.
It came about following new evidence in the case. Three years before the report was published The Lawrence’s’ private prosecution against Gary Dobson, Luke Knight and Neil Acourt had failed. (The three men, along with Jamie Acourt and David Norris had been arrested on suspicion of carrying out the attack in 1993.)
Prior to the Lawrences launching their own private prosecution, The Crown Prosecution Service had already dropped charges on two previous occasions due to a lack of evidence.
“It was such a sad time for me,” Doreen Lawrence explains. “And also, for the country, because I don’t think the country realised the depth of what was happening within the black community.”
The change in that double jeopardy law came into place in 2005. Seven years later, and with new evidence available, Gary Dobson and David Norris were re-tried for the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Both men were found guilty in January 2012 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“People can remember the dark days,” Mrs Lawrence tells me with a considered voice, “and as we move forward, remember the light of the legacy around Stephen’s death.”
She speaks with the assured wisdom of a stateswoman, in a tone that was the trademark of one of her heroes, Nelson Mandela.
Doreen and Neville Lawrence met the South African President weeks after Stephen’s death, telling him not enough was being done to bring about justice for their son.
Twenty seven years later and the Lawrences’ campaign for judicial and societal reform could well draw comparisons with Mr Mandela’s own.
Which begs the question: is Baroness Lawrence aware of the impact she has had on the country and society?
“I think how people see me, isn’t how I see myself,” she answers with a natural modesty, almost as if this is the first time the idea has been put to her. “I don’t think I set out to do any of this stuff; I was more forced into it because I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“I look at other people like Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou and all the stuff that they’ve done, and I see them as trailblazers. I don’t see myself as a trailblazer.”
I tell her I think other people probably do.
“Well…” She smiles. “No. Erm… yeah, okay. That’s gracious but… me, no. I’m just Doreen, I’ve got children and grandchildren. I go shopping just like everybody else. You know… yeah.”
This isn’t false modesty or media-trained reaction. I get the impression that Doreen Lawrence couldn’t, wouldn’t ever be anything other than genuine.
We’re both a little more relaxed on the big, orange cushions on the comfy leather sofa now.
Aside from being an amazing woman, how does it feel to be sitting here as a Mum and a Grandmum, with your son’s legacy all around?
“I’m very proud of my son and the fact his life has helped changed society and can help other young people decide where they want to be. I think Stephen’s life was very positive. He wanted to move, and he didn’t stand still.
That’s what I want to see happen with young people.”
And with that our official interview is over and she thanks me warmly. I ask for a photo.
“People keep asking me for photos today. I don’t understand,” she says with a look of genuine perplexity on her face, as she stands alongside me.
“I just want to blow it up and get it on one of these huge cushions for my house,” I tell her, for reasons I’m still unsure of as I write.
She stops and looks at me, an eyebrow raised. “Well that’s weird!”
I feel this may be one of the foolish moments she tends not to suffer.
Then, as she stares at me straight in the eye, a grin begins to appear on the face of Baroness Doreen Lawrence, social campaigner and university Chancellor, the woman who has held the government and police to account for nearly three decades, and continues to fight for justice in her son’s name.
Suddenly she bursts out laughing with the deepest, warmest, most infectious giggle you could ever wish to hear a from a Mum.
This was an interview I carried out for the BBC. More about my interviewing can be found here.