The Stephen Lawrence verdict: A measure of justice – at long last

Tuesday was a day of mixed emotions. Relief at the news that two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers had finally been found guilty. But any satisfaction at the verdict is muted by how long it has taken to get here. I was 18 when Gary Dobson and David Norris were part of the gang that killed Stephen. It took another 18 years, and then a little bit more, for these two vile individuals to be taken off the streets.

It’s not just their dignity which impresses, but the sheer hard work and determination that Doreen and Neville Lawrence put in over the years to overcome a lack of interest from an insular, complacent – if not outright corrupt – police force. Along the way, they forced the government and public services to examine their own attitudes. None of this can ever bring their son back, and there is a long way to go, but we live in a better country for their efforts.

For a generation of south-east Londoners – those of us who are now in our mid- to late-thirties, the case has cast a long, long shadow. Stephen was in the year below me in our shared sixth form. Our paths only crossed briefly, although a number of my friends knew him. I never heard a bad word of him. A few of them are planning to meet up on Wednesday and have a quiet drink in his memory, taking a break from the careers and families that Stephen never lived long enough to enjoy for himself.

But events in Eltham and elsewhere of the early 1990s certainly shaped my view of the world, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Stephen Lawrence was not the only victim of a racist murder. Rolan Adams, 15, was killed in Thamesmead in February 1991. Back in Eltham, 15-year-old Asian schoolboy Rohit Duggal was murdered the following year only a few hundred yards from where Stephen would die. The Macpherson report would later record evidence that Rohit Duggal’s killer was one of the same gang responsible for Stephen’s death.

Lurking in the background of all this was the presence of the British National Party. Its “bookshop” (in reality, its headquarters) was a couple of miles away in Upper Wickham Lane, Welling, and it was actively recruiting in Thamesmead and the outer suburbs. In October 1993, oafish policing ensured a demonstration against the “bookshop” would end in disarray and violence. After Bexley Council took action through its planning department, the BNP slunk off a couple of years later.

Nearly two decades later, how much has changed? It’s worth remembering that it was the community in Eltham who gave up the names of Dobson and Norris in the first place. It was the local Metropolitan Police who decided that the death of a black man wasn’t worth investigating properly, not the people of Eltham.

Yet SE9 remains a soft target for those who seek to stir and divide people. The cameo role played by racist outsiders in the aftermath of the riots was a reminder of that. A couple of months ago, a friend told me the scenes of white men attacking a bus containing black men had convinced her she wouldn’t be sending her children to school out that way.

Even a more “respectable” politician sought to play on the area’s reputation. Failed Conservative parliamentary candidate David Gold – who on Tuesday described Eltham as “a good community, overshadowed by events of 18 years ago” – tried to whip things up himself during the 2010 election.

David Gold's website, grabbed 10/5/2010

But it would be unfair to single out Eltham – a suburb with a royal heritage, once home to Frankie Howerd, Bob Hope and Herbert Morrison. If you look within the narrow borders of the London Borough of Greenwich, it certainly sticks out – mostly ungentrified, predominantly white, full of semis rather than terraces or flats.

Eltham’s bad reputation merely reflects a wider issue in the outer suburbs, to which it really belongs rather than the inner London borough which it forms part of. In fact, the problem has probably moved further out over time. Three years ago, a Bexley Council by-election in Welling saw the BNP come within eight votes of victory. Remember the Boris Johnson event in Bexleyheath last year, when a former member started trying to whip up false rumours about a stabbing? Could they get away with that kind of thing in Eltham now? After the trauma of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, I’m not so sure.

Until politicians and others – both nationally and locally – stop whipping up tensions, suburbs like Eltham will never totally escape the spectre of racism.

It’s not the only place in London with a high street that’s seen better days, and has kids hanging around McDonald’s day and night because there’s nothing else to do. But if ever somewhere needed a bit of local pride – that doesn’t involve standing outside the Rising Sun with pints in hand waiting to fend off imaginary rioters – then here’s a candidate. Who’ll step forward and champion Eltham?

There remain at least three killers who have – so far – evaded justice. With Tuesday’s verdict, at least the area can begin to go some way towards healing a scar that’s been raw for nearly two decades. Neville and Doreen Lawrence lost more than we could ever imagine that night. We owe them a lot for their tenacity and determination, which has helped changed our society.

I can’t help thinking, though, that this won’t be over until the others are also behind bars. We’ve come a long way, but there’s some distance to go yet. In too many ways.


  1. Thank you for your very thoughtful piece on the the verdict yesterday. The importance of the Jury weighing up the evidence came to the right decision and should be congratulated. We can all remember the dark days following the death of Stephen. We must continue to be vigilant not turning our backs on the issues of racism on and off the football pitch. Eltham is a different place now and is significantly more diverse. This should not imply that we ave issues to confront but ultimately it is the decent majority that will prevail,here in Eltham and across the country

  2. Eltham is mostly terraces imho…. certainly around the park, otherwise excellent as always.

  3. I remember the day Stephen Lawrence was killed, and the aftermath, the vandalising of the memorial plaque, and the way some residents thought it was a big fuss about nothing. Did you see the news last night with the interviews with 2 young white men near the bus stop, as they were being interviewed people called out racist comments from cars driving past. Weren’t the BNP in Eltham in the early 90s before moving to Welling? Of course 99.9% of the people in Eltham aren’t racist and maybe its the same everywhere, but it’ll take generations before the wider public stop automatically equating Eltham with racism.

  4. I don’t think there’s ever been any credible evidence of police corruption here. Even Macpherson, who generally bent over backwards to criticise the police, concluded that “no collusion or corruption is proved to have infected the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. It would be wrong and unfair to conclude otherwise”. I don’t believe that anything has emerged since to change this.

    Eltham’s so called “bad reputation” is mainly the work of lazy reporting by those zone 1 & 2 based media types whom this blog frequently criticises in other contexts.

    On a happier note I thought that Clive Efford struck exactly the right note yesterday both on BBC local news and talking to the News Shopper.

    Even though I live in SE12 I’m proud to say that I come from Eltham. It’s also good that decent councillors from across the political spectrum choose to live here such as Spencer Drury, John Fahy & Nigel Fletcher.

  5. What about Norris’s father, he had ‘meetings’ with a police officer Sgt Coles in the Tigers Head in Chislehurst.
    Coles was allowed to retire and keep his pension in I think 2000 after being-off sick for a couple of years. Coles and Norris were watched by Revenue & Customs, they exchanged packages and Coles used a calculator.
    Macpherson commented that it was a pity Coles wasn’t investigated and perhaps prosecuted, and a pity he remained serving in the area, indeed he was one of the officers tasked with looking after Duwayne Brooks. As usual there are more questions than answers.

  6. I am so happy to read your sane posting…l too have mixed feelings. I was in Eltham that night, at the bus stop opposite the stop where the murder took place. The buses were late. A little later and I’d have been there and often wondered how I’d have coped. I’m a natural coward. Would I have helped? Hmm, theoretical, but forced me to think of the extent my commitment to anti-racism. Its so hard to imagine a culture that allowed these murderers to exist. The culture that allowed that ridiculous BNP ‘bookshop’ (in Wickham Lane, was it?), the culture that was almost schizophrenic – I can remember people in pubs talking racist venom and when challenged about the blacks they were at school with, saying that, yeah, well, they were different – the same people that supported young white women in their choice of lover until they carried black babies –
    I have left the region. Actually Ive left the country. Where is the culture to defend? Where is the music, where the painting, the writing, the stuff that makes culture palpable? Perhaps its still around and I dont of it.

  7. Thanks, all, for your comments.

    The BNP bookshop was at 150-something Upper Wickham Lane. (It’s now an ordinary domestic home.) I remember the address, because whenever a Britannia Music Club flyer fell out of the NME, I’d fill it in on their behalf, entering the names of their leaders, so they got three free reggae CDs.

  8. I live on Eltham High Street, and, as much as it saddens me, the area is fundamentally, absolutely racist at its core. This viewpoint understandably upsets locals, who will always insist that outsiders or “troublemakers” are responsible for such behaviour.

    I find racism abhorrent, but I witness it to varying degrees all the time in Eltham. Whether it’s the bus driver failing to hear the bell when a non-white person rings it, to statements such as “there were too many blacks for my liking in that carriage,” overhead when alighting at Eltham Station last week, I can think of dozens of examples, some brazen, some more insidious.

    I will readily agree that most people in Eltham are polite, right-minded, decent people, but there’s a sizeable, worrying minority of Neanderthals that stubbornly refuse to change their mindset.

  9. I moved to SE London in August 1993, and as a result of hearing about Stephen and Rohit participated in the anti-BNP march that year as an idealistic 16 year old. Being knocked over by the police after being “kettled”, as I believe they call it now, and then seeing the police hit out at random people (including a woman with a child) as the march proceeded afterwards changed the way I see things. Probably forever. Being told by my black friends about the harrassment they routinely faced by the police really shocked me, as I’d grown up believing my Mum when she said that racism was a bad thing and decent people didn’t care about skin colour. I stopped seeing the Police as decent people. As the years went by I continued to be astounded by the casual racism that came out of the mouths of people I knew, and how readily they repeated bullshit about Stephen – “he was stabbed with his own knife”, that sort of thing. I suspect that the source of these rumours would have been the murdering shitbags themselves. Over the years that racism has been replaced with a weird kind of English nationalism that frankly terrifies me.

    I think SE London still has racism issues – a couple of years ago a friend of mine told me her aunt, who had previously lived in Sidcup, moved to Belfast and found it “nicer and less racist”…

  10. Regarding T’s comments, I don’t doubt that he witnesses these things but is Eltham especially racist? According to this article
    “there were 94 reported racist incidents – ranging from verbal abuse to violence – across the borough of Greenwich between May and the end of December; 11 of them were in the SE9 post code”
    So by my reckoning, that’s about 11% of racist incidents in the Borough of Greenwich taking place in Eltham, yet the population of SE9 is at about 25% of the Borough. The article says 78,000 people live in Eltham (which I think is over a third of the borough) though I am not sure if that includes parts of SE12 and SE18. Eltham can be a rough place but so can places like Woolwich and Welling and of course in the early 90’s with a gang like the one led by the Acourt brothers Eltham had a justifiably poor reputation. But even then it is important to remember that there was no “wall of silence” about the gang. The police were tipped off dozens of times about them but they failed to bring them to justice.

    I have played football on Saturdays for the last 10 years all over south east London and despite witnessing several rows and even fights between opposing players, I have yet to hear any racist abuse. I wonder if this would have been the case in the 80’s or 90’s. Certainly, growing up in Hampshire (with hardly any black people at all living there) I heard more casual racist talk than I do now. Yes, there are racists here but there are also lots of anti-racists. As long as we keep up the good fight then as as John Fahy wrote “the decent majority will prevail,here in Eltham and across the country”.

  11. Yeah, I saw that stat – borough-wide statistics are usually the shelter for those who don’t know what they’re talking about.

    The SE9 postcode has about 40,000 people in it (not counting the bits of New Eltham and Mottingham which lie in Bromley, Lewisham or Bexley boroughs). Off the top of my head, that’s about 18% of Greenwich borough’s population. So yes, that stat doesn’t prove anything.

    The Guardian also did a dismal report on Eltham. As I mentioned above, there’s still a residual problem, but it’s shared over a wider area and pointing at an area and shouting “RACISTS!” doesn’t help. Might still post on it if I get time (which I haven’t had much of this week).

  12. It is exactly right that the community gave them up and the police didn’t think the death of a black man worth investigating. They let him bleed to death on the pavement in the shadow of that cross immediately over the road. No-one checked his wounds. Remember also that the Met paid out 100,000 pounds to Duwayne. Read his book before anyone starts banging on about how the police have redeemed themselves. Check Youtube to see disgraced Asst. Commissioner John Yates assure us that Detective John Davison was not feeding Clifford Norris information. This has not and never has been about Eltham. It has always been about the Met.

  13. I’d like to comment on the MET and what I think indicated it’s attitude towards this murder, many years after the dreadful event.

    I was working with a woman in SE London who was married to a policeman, a newly recruited policeman who was stationed at Welling a few years ago. A discussion had arisen about the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and this woman came out with her own justification for his murder: her husband, the police officer had told her about the alleged character of Stephen, which was of course utter rubbish and I found it deeply offensive. I will never forget her saying ‘he was no angel’, drugs were mentioned etc, as if it made the murder acceptable. I had already lost considerable faith in the MET at that time, these comments made me lose what little I had left. I think her husbands comments said a lot about some sections of the MET at that time, and still probably do now. He’ll no doubt still be based somewhere in SE London. Lets hope he’s lost the ignorance and attitude by now. But somehow I doubt it.

    I hesitated writing this for fear of upsetting those that read it, but I happened to see the same reference to the rumours/accusations in an article in The Guardian. It struck a chord when I read it and I can’t help now but think the source of those horrid rumours and misinformation, about an innocent boy murdered, came straight from the MET. Wouldn’t you? I don’t believe anything the Police say now, I haven’t for a long time, despite my grandfather having been in the force and being bought up to respect them.

    I’m am very pleased that the Lawrences got the justice they so rightly deserved, lets hope they get even more in the future.

  14. Supermac and West of London – you’ve both hit nails squarely on the head here. Thank you both for adding your views.

    Supermac – I don’t know if you had the dubious pleasure of seeing ex-Met high-up and now Lib Dem mayoral candidate Brian Paddick on TV over the past few days. I saw him on Sky News brush off any talk of corruption, and more or less insisting that all is fine with the Met now. Which we all know, especially from events in the phone hacking inquiry, is cobblers. It was awful stuff.

    West of London – I remember those rumours. I remember nights out in the mid-90s with people trying to tell me “the truth” about Stephen. Those falsehoods are still doing the rounds in suburban folklore today, sadly.

  15. Supermac

    It’s easy to make nasty insinuations from behind a pseudonym. The police didn’t “let” Stephen Lawrence bleed to death in the way you imply. Macpherson says (Para 10.25):

    “Misapprehension as to the nature of the injury is a feature of the evidence of all those who were present. This does not mean that nothing should have been done to try and trace the bleeding. But we believe that PC Bethel’s reaction was understandable. Again, as with PC Geddis, the root of the trouble appears to us to have been lack of training rather than any casual apprioach to what she saw”

    And Yates of the Yard seems to have been largely exonerated.

  16. I wish people would also realise that the poor boy died because of the ineptitude of emegency ambulance staff who conveniently forgot to check between his arms and the side ride next to his upper chest around his armpit area (forget whether it was the right side or the left). Everybody needs a scapegoat and the Met have and will always be a very convenient target. It is but a given fact of life that not everyone is a saint but it is comical to see the amount of people here who are harried and angry about any notions or comments made towards labelling Eltham as racist but have no qualms whatsoever to tar a whole group as racist, vile and thuggish, ie. the police. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we all stopped being prejudiced. Awful thought. I know!

    It is always a minority in any group which is crass, uncouth, essentially moronically evil that reflects badly on the rest. However, it is essentially even more moronic when people decide to feed fodder to utter spineless, baseless verbatim and tar a whole blooming group with disgusting negative, polemic stereotypes which ultimately do sod all to provide a loving, caring, lawful and just society.

  17. Sam, you seem to want to shut the discussion down in terms of others discussing the failings of the MET in regards to this case and blame ambulance staff. In addition, I do not read that ALL the comments here say ALL MET officers are responsible for ALL the failings. However the institution is not what it was, and hasn’t been for a very long time. Objectiveness and openness is needed if the MET is to address it’s failings and resolve them.

    I’ve had too many experiences with the MET, not as a criminal, but as a victim and as a citizen who takes responsibility in the community and calls in when seeing crime. I can’t believe I just called up on ‘bad days’: I reported rifles being used on a public footpath, I was called 1 hour later and asked if I had mistaken them for ‘fishing rods’, reported bibi guns being used in street, being aimed at passers by on the day of the royal wedding, this resulted in a 6 hour response time, I was indecently assaulted on my way home from work, the offender was caught 2 weeks later when he tried to do the same again, but as he was married with children the officer thought it wrong of me to want to push for charges. So a dose of sexism in there for good measure too. Another time I saw two large gangs charging at each other up and down a residential street with weapons for around 30 mins. After three 999 calls nobody turned up. And to finish, the countless times that I and my neighbours called the Police and they ALWAYS went to the wrong address making them look like the keystone cops.This is just a selection, I could go on and on.

    But I have digressed from the Lawrence case: my experiences are minor and insignificant compared to that case, but I do think that they indicate a whole host of failings from top to bottom within the MET that influence outcomes of crime. Many officers (not all) in my opinion take their eyes off the ball too often, have a lack of attention to detail, don’t seem to take things seriously, have extremely low morale, which they do not hide. This results in some of them not feeling dedicated to their work and on top of all that they appear to apply their own prejudices when carrying out their roles. Let me just highlight not ALL but SOME, maybe many,who knows? Clearly the MET do not want to discuss this and at every opportunity try to shut down any focus on alleged or known failings and corruption. It’s called harm minimisation.

    The only problem is that the harm has already happened.

  18. Now that convictions have occured the streets of England will now return to peace and tranquility and black teenagers won’t stab each other because they live in a different postcode and we all be able to stroll through the Lettsom Estate wiithout bother. As for oafish policing back in 1993 why did the peaceful demonstrators smash up a church opposite the BNP bookshop?. Get your facts correct, I lived in balliol road at the time and the violence came from scum equal to the scum who have been recently sentenced. Lets not kid ourselves, hearts need to be changed in order for hatred to be eradicated.

  19. Looks like my half-full glass is a bit emptier as at the weekend I also heard a disgraceful comment about Stephen being no angel etc.
    As for the police, I don’t have sufficient knowledge to comment really. However, I do remember police statements in 1993 about a “wall of silence” from the community. Then a few years later we find out that the police had been tipped off several times, and that a suspect/s was seen taking away a large bin liner and that he wasn’t intercepted.

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