Paul Foot

‘A groundswell of anger and dismay’

(July 1998)

From Racism, incompetence, collusion or corruption?, Socialist Review, No.221, July 1998, pp.2-3.
Copyright © 1998 Socialist Review.
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Paul Foot writes about the Stephen Lawrence case

Everyone knows that the rich and powerful, through the newspapers and television channels they own and control, normally succeed in keeping their reins on public consciousness. The ‘stories’ that interest and excite people are, as a result, safely marooned in palaces or sports stadia. Every now and then, however, a story circulates which defies these rules, and which engages the public attention in spite of every effort from on high to suppress it. Such a story is the 1993 murder in Eltham, south east London, of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath.

Five months after the murder, one of Scotland Yard’s senior detectives, Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Osland, now a Tory councillor in Croydon, circulated a memorandum announcing that he was ‘losing patience’ with Neville and Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s parents, and suggesting that the police officers engaged in the murder inquiry should sue the couple for libel. The irony in the notion that police officers who had not brought Stephen’s murderers to justice should secure damages from his parents was plainly lost on Mr Osland. He felt he and his force had been entirely justified by a ‘review’ conducted by a senior detective in London, Detective Chief Superintendent Roderick John Barker. Mr Barker’s ‘review’ which flowed from a secret inquiry and was of course not published, had discovered that the police investigation following the Lawrence murder was almost entirely flawless.

This remained the official police view as the long saga of the hunt for Stephen’s murderers unfolded. Weeks after the murder, five men were arrested. Two were identified by a witness to the murder, Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brookes. But Duwayne’s evidence was tainted – by a police officer who was appointed to drive him home and whose account of the conversation he had with Duwayne (which Duwayne hotly contested) persuaded the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the charges.

Angry and disillusioned, the Lawrence family took out a private prosecution against three of the men. The prosecution failed – largely because of the ‘tainting’ of Duwayne Brookes’s evidence by his police escort. An inquest jury proclaimed unequivocally that Stephen had been murdered in an unprovoked racist attack. The Daily Mail (in a sudden fit of conscience brought on by the fact that Neville Lawrence had once painted the house of the Mail editor) named the five original suspects and denounced them as the murderers. In spite of all this, the position five years on is that the murderers of Stephen Lawrence are still at large.

The early and prolonged confidence of the Metropolitan Police in their handling of the case began to wilt with the publication last year of part of the report by Kent police into the Lawrence investigation. The report was highly critical of the Metropolitan Police in charge of the murder inquiry. It concentrated on their failure to respond to information which flowed in to them immediately after the murder. On the day after the murder, a reliable informant, known as James Grant (a pseudonym) gave the inquiry team the names of the five suspects, who, he disclosed, had been carrying out racist attacks systematically in the area, who carried knives and boasted about using them on black people they met in the street, and who were out on the rampage in the area of the murder on the night it happened. Other reliable information followed. Most extraordinary was a witness who said she had visited the suspects’ home on the day after the murder and had seen them washing clothes and wiping blood off a knife. The senior officers in charge of the inquiry, however, decided not to arrest the suspects. They adopted a policy of delay’ which in the view of the Kent police hopelessly hampered the investigation and made it much more difficult to procure vital evidence. Despite its critical tone, however, the Kent police report concluded only that the officers in charge of the Lawrence investigation had been either mistaken or incompetent. The report effectively acquitted the investigating police of racism or corruption.

The report was the nominal reason behind Jack Straw’s decision to set up a full public inquiry into the events before and after Stephen’s death. The nominal reason was bolstered by the continued campaign of Neville and Doreen Lawrence, who refused to be fobbed off or patronised. Their long battle had swung huge sections of the British public behind them. When the public inquiry into the events opened almost exactly five years after Stephen’s death, the large room at the Elephant and Castle designated for the public hearings was packed with supporters of the family. The enthusiasm for the campaign was not confined to south London or to black people. As sellers of Socialist Worker all over Britain were to discover, a groundswell of anger and dismay about the Lawrence case was building up all over the country, among people of all colours and of all and no political persuasions.

This groundswell grew and grew as the inquiry proceeded in its quaint and sedate way. It overflowed into the hearings themselves, not just in applause and tears for the Lawrences and for Duwayne Brookes but also in mocking laughter at the police.

Leaflets were issued from ‘the public gallery’ which consistently denounced the apparent reluctance of the police to disclose documents. This unexpected and entirely admirable expression of public outrage shifted the inquiry itself to such an extent that a grim story is beginning to emerge which is entirely different from anything originally contemplated.

The early intention of the inquiry, it seemed, had been to contain criticism of the police within the boundaries of the Kent report: to blame the investigating officers for incompetence and mistakes, but nothing more. In the early days, this damage limitation exercise was conducted uneasily but reasonably effectively. It changed only with the rising clamour outside and the determination of the Lawrences and Duwayne Brookes’s lawyer to get answers to the questions which Kent police had not even asked. Why had the suspects not been arrested immediately? Why had the information from the informers been allowed to fester for so long? Gradually, a name started to be floated in cross-examination: Norris. David Norris was one of the five suspects. His father was Clifford Norris, a well known gangland racketeer, and arms smuggler, who is now in prison. Clifford Norris, h emerged, had paid an important witness not to give evidence against his boy. Could Norris have in any way influenced the police to ‘go easy’ on the lad?

At first the lawyers for the police and the inquiry mocked any such suggestion and dismissed it. But then it emerged that Clifford Norris had been seen in pubs on several occasions with a flying squad officer called Coles. Customs officers had mounted a surveillance operation on Coles, and were surprised to see him handing over plastic bags to their suspect. They reported Coles to the police who investigated him and, remarkably, cleared him.

So what, was the initial reply? What had Coles to do with Stephen Lawrence? Quite a lot, it then emerged. First, the officer in charge of the murder investigation, DCS Iain Crampton, who took the decision not to arrest the five suspects, has worked with Coles at Bexleyheath police station. When Coles was in trouble for the Customs business over Norris, Crampton had written him a glowing reference. Secondly, Coles had been selected as an escort officer for the key witness, Duwayne Brookes, when the latter gave evidence in the private prosecution at the Old Bailey.

Such revelations hugely shifted the axis of the inquiry. Increasingly, the police seemed on the run. The cross-examination of former DCS Barker, whose report had given such comfort to the police in 1993, was so embarrassing that the inquiry chairman, Sir William Macpherson, denounced him as ‘not credible’ and his report as ‘indefensible’. The feeling of even the most servile journalist at the inquiry (and most of them are not servile at all) is that there is more, much more to come out yet; and whether it does or not depends at least to some extent on the persistence and growth of the justice for Stephen Lawrence campaign.

The inquiry continues. For the moment, however, the story of the campaign is powerful evidence against those who moan that the British people are ‘intrinsically racist’ or that it is ‘impossible to interest anyone in individual justice campaigns’. The campaign has carved the name of Stephen Lawrence deep into the consciousness of the working masses, the enormous majority of whom detest the racist gangs who pour blood onto the streets, and admire the strength and courage of those who campaign to put a stop to them once and for all.


Last updated on 27.11.2004