I have a white fiancee. My son drives a toy police car. But 20 years after my brother's murder, I still live in racism's shadow: Exclusive interview with Stephen Lawrence's brother Stuart
- Stuart Lawrence's complaint to the Metropolitan Police passed to IPCC
- Says he has been stopped by police 25 since he passed his driving test
- Decided to complain after latest incident saying that he 'wants answers'
- Scotland Yard said it would take 'strong action' against any racist officers
- Brother Stephen was murdered by a racist gang in Eltham 20 years ago
Brother: Stuart Lawrence, whose older brother Stephen was murdered by a racist gang in Eltham, South-East London 20 years ago
Climbing into his car one evening last November, teacher Stuart Lawrence was looking forward to spending an evening with his fiancee and their two-year-old son Theo after a long day’s work.
It should have been a short, uneventful drive home from the secondary school in South-East London where he has taught graphics for the past ten years. It is a journey he has made countless times before.
Who, indeed, would look twice at a smartly dressed, 35-year-old professional and family man, driving carefully in a taxed and fully-insured 2009 VW Scirocco with an empty baby seat strapped in the back?
So Stuart thought nothing of it when he saw a police car ahead, waiting to turn right at a junction. He casually glanced at the officer behind the wheel as he indicated and steered the VW left.
‘It was a passing glance. I looked at him, he looked at me. There was nothing aggressive about it,’ says Stuart.
‘It was only when I looked in my mirror and noticed they’d turned to follow me that I thought: “Great, I’m going to be stopped again.” ’
Stuart, the younger brother of Stephen Lawrence — who was murdered in a knife attack in Eltham, South-East London, 20 years ago by a racist white gang — has been stopped 25 times by police since he passed his driving test aged 17.
Not for any motoring offence, but simply, it would seem, because he is black. For in certain parts of London, a young black man still appears to equal ‘suspicious’ in the minds of some police officers, no matter how law-abiding he may be.
This is a very bitter pill for Stuart to swallow, given the violent circumstances of his brother’s murder, aged 18, and the ineptitude of the original investigation, which allowed five suspects to walk free. A judicial inquiry in 1999 accused the Metropolitan Police of being ‘institutionally racist’.
It was 18 years before two of the original five suspects, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were finally brought to justice following a cold case review that uncovered new forensic evidence, and the Daily Mail’s high-profile campaign, which branded Stephen’s killers ‘Murderers’ in that famous front page in February 1997. Dobson and Norris were jailed for life at the Old Bailey 12 months ago.
Angry: Stuart Lawrence, 35, says he has been stopped by police 25 times since he passed his driving test
Stuart has always shunned the media spotlight, but last November’s incident drove him to the conclusion that enough was enough.
‘I’m a hard-working, law-abiding taxpayer, but the chances of my being stopped by police are much higher than for my white friends,’ says Stuart, who has lodged a formal complaint against the police through his solicitor, Imran Khan.
‘I’m not saying the whole police force is this way inclined. There are some good people in the force who have done great things for my family. We’ve come some way since my brother was murdered, but there is still a long way to go. After all my family’s been through, has anything really changed?’
Complaint: Stuart's complaint about the Metropolitan Police has been passed to the IPCC
Stuart wants to protect his young family from the glare of publicity, which is why his fiancee — who is white — is not named or by his side today. There is also the potential risk of revenge attacks from racists.
‘Our flat has been security tagged by the police for my own personal safety [so if he phones police from his number his call will be specially flagged up].
'I don’t have the same extensive security my mum has, but I have some protection for myself and my family because of the risk of attack from people sympathetic towards [those who have been] jailed.
‘We’ve never had to use it, thank God.
‘And I’ve seen the toll [on my mum and dad] of constantly being in the spotlight,’ says Stuart, whose parents split up in the aftermath of Stephen’s murder.
Stuart’s experiences of the evening of November 16 are being investigated under the supervision of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. This week, Scotland Yard promised ‘strong action’ if any officers were found to have acted in a racist manner.
Over the years, Stuart has been stopped for a number of reasons — from checking if he was wearing a seatbelt to fitting the description of a wanted man.
In 2009, he was left badly shaken when two plain-clothes officers followed him home in an unmarked car. He complained to the Met, demanding an apology which he says was not forthcoming.
He claimed a female officer was aggressive and shouted ‘Why didn’t you stop?’, when he pulled up. Stuart explained he thought he was being followed by strangers because, he claims, they didn’t flash their lights or sound their siren.
Apart from this incident, however, Stuart has responded largely without complaint — but found the most recent incident so upsetting he couldn’t let it pass.
‘I’d just parked outside my flat when two uniformed officers pulled up at quite a speed. The driver jumped out and I asked: “What have you stopped for?” He replied: “I’m naturally suspicious.” So I asked: “Naturally suspicious of what?” ’ says Stuart.
‘I said: “I had my lights on, I was wearing my seatbelt, I wasn’t driving fast, so I don’t understand what you were suspicious about?” He replied “I’m just naturally suspicious” in a slightly sarcastic way.’
Memories: Stuart said he often thinks of Stephen, but says for the sake of his own sanity he likes to remember fleeting, happy memories of their childhood
Their tone seemingly changed, however, once Stuart’s details were checked and it dawned on one of the officers who they were dealing with.
‘He jumped out of the car and said: “It’s ok, it’s ok now,” and I said: “Oh, so it’s ok now? You’ve checked the car details and realised who I am and it’s ok.”
‘I found it disgusting. I asked the officers for their badge numbers and names and they jumped in the car and drove off. I decided to complain because I want answers,’ says Stuart.
‘Whenever I’ve been stopped, I have politely complied because the police have always given me a reason. But the last time really upset me because, as far as I could see, there was no reason for stopping me other than this officer’s “suspicion”. That’s wrong.’
Stuart sadly accepts his complaint is likely to be taken more seriously because of who he is. Stephen’s murder and the charge of institutional racism has long been a source of embarrassment to the Met.
‘Part of me feels as if it will be treated differently because I am Stephen’s brother, and part of me feels it shouldn’t be,’ says Stuart.
‘I’m a public servant, too, and no matter how angry or frustrated I might feel, I know I have to treat people with respect. Why should it be different for anyone else?
‘A couple of weeks after I was stopped, my fiancee was also stopped by police for accidentally driving without her lights on. Her experience was completely different. Officers were polite and helpful towards her.’
Stuart is a quietly spoken, thoughtful man who feels no bitterness towards the police — although some might argue he has every reason to.
He was 16 when his brother Stephen was swallowed up by a white gang in Well Hall Road, Eltham, as he waited for a bus and was knifed to death.
Initially, officers spent more time investigating Stephen’s background than following up suspects — despite being given their names by locals — during which time vital forensic evidence may have been lost.
Stuart has since had contact with police officers of integrity and recently called on their services when he found himself the victim of identity fraud, so he refuses to let the alleged actions of a few affect his perceptions of the majority.
Indeed, just before Christmas, Stuart and his fiancee were happy to buy Theo a toy police helmet to wear as he drives around on a plastic police car with a siren.
‘If Theo wants to be a policeman when he grows up, I’d have no problem with that,’ says Stuart. ‘I just want him to be happy. But I think the police really need to look at how they communicate with different communities to avoid the next generation of young people growing up with a “them and us” attitude.’
Family: Murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence's mother Doreen Lawrence OBE (left) and her son Stuart (right) pictured at a memorial held in his honour in April last year
Stuart tells me he and his younger sister Georgina enjoyed a largely ‘normal’ life thanks to his parents, who shielded them from the glare of publicity.
‘Before Stephen was murdered, I wasn’t even aware of racism. I went to a largely white school and my best friend, who lived next door, was white,’ says Stuart, who grew up in Plumstead.
‘One of my friends lived in Well Hall Road, where my brother died, and I used to catch the bus and visit him, so I often think it easily could have been me instead of Stephen.
‘But I don’t want to have a jaded look on life or walk round with a chip on my shoulder,’ says Stuart, who still avoids driving anywhere near Eltham and the place where his brother bled to death.
Remembered: A police CCTV surveillance van at the site of the Stephen Lawrence memorial stone in Eltham, south-east London
‘If I felt all people were racist or against me, I wouldn’t be able to lead my life. I try to accept people for who they are, unless they have done or said something to make me think otherwise.
‘But I’m acutely aware that racism exists. If I go out wearing a baseball cap, I know I’ll be followed by security guards at certain shopping centres, or more likely to be stopped by some police officers when I’m driving.’
Stuart often thinks of Stephen, but says for the sake of his own sanity he likes to remember fleeting, happy memories of their childhood. ‘It was very hard for me when Stephen died.
He was a fun-loving guy. We shared a room and I looked up to him. He was the studious one, while I was a bit of a tearaway,’ says Stuart, who was almost expelled from school aged 12 for messing around in class and being ‘a bit of a tyrant’.
‘Overnight I went from being the middle child to the eldest. I didn’t fall apart because of my mum and dad, who insisted on university and a career.
‘It would have been wrong, and my brother would have been really upset with me, if I had thrown my life away. I would have been doing my brother and my family a disservice by not fulfilling the potential that I have. Not too much self-pity is the answer.
‘There are times when I get upset, but I have to keep on knowing I have a purpose. I want my parents to be proud of me, like any child does, and to think all the hard graft they put in was worth it.’
The trial of Norris and Dobson a year ago was particularly hard for Stuart, who says: ‘I was pushed right back down to when I was 16 and reliving every single day right up to the present.’
To mark the 20th anniversary in April of Stephen’s death, however, the family — through the charitable trust they set up in his name — are hoping to stage a concert, with big headline names, because they want to celebrate Stephen’s life.
And this August Stuart will marry his fiancee, an NHS nutritionist, whom he met aged 21 when he was studying at Northampton University. So determined was Stuart to lead a ‘normal’ life, that he didn’t even tell her who he was when they met.
‘I don’t see the need to introduce myself by saying: “Hello, I’m Stuart Lawrence, Stephen Lawrence’s brother.” That’s not who I am. That is not only who I am,’ he says.
Tireless: The boys' mother Doreen Lawrence who has long campaigned to rid the police of racism
‘I think she found out [who I was] through reading something in a newspaper. I was in the background of a shot and someone in her family saw it. After that, I told her everything that had happened. She really empathised.
‘I’ve had times when things have got on top of me. For a number of years, it felt as if no one was really listening to us. It felt like lip service a lot of the time.’
The couple have wanted to marry for a long time, but have put off their wedding on several occasions — not least because of the traumatic trial of Norris and Dobson that Stuart had to endure. Indeed, the family’s quest for justice is not over.
‘Before the convictions, I didn’t ever think that two people would be convicted of my brother’s murder,’ says Stuart.
‘I never thought that would happen, but I still feel there are unanswered questions.
‘My fiancee understands and can see my frustration about certain situations. She also thinks that it’s ridiculous the number of times I have been stopped.
‘After what happened to Stephen, I do get nervous about going out, which is why that incident of being followed by the police bothered me. You think: “Why are you following me?” Now, I do follow certain procedures.
‘I have tried to chill out and relax about it, but if I go to a restaurant I can’t sit with my back to the door — I have to see who is coming in and out. I’m very careful about who’s driving behind me. It makes you more aware.’
For now, though, he and his fiancee are trying to focus on their wedding. ‘If Stephen were alive, he would have been my best man. At the moment there are a couple of candidates — friends from way back when,’ he says.
‘It’s been a hard choice because part of me feels perhaps I shouldn’t have a best man because the person I wish to have isn’t there, but I try not to think of the what ifs, because I will only upset myself deeply.
‘So why tempt myself with thoughts and feelings that are never going to happen? As much as I want or wish it to happen, for Stephen to still be here and for us to be a normal family again, it’s never going to.’
Donations to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust should be sent to the trust at 39 Brookmill Road, Deptford, London SE8 4HU.