Haunted by murder of teen, Britain confronts its racism

Unpunished '93 death shakes nation's pillars

February 09, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Neville Lawrence is surrounded by reminders of his son. The teen-ager's gaze stares from posters and photos. His name is uttered reverently in a new play. And his death nearly six years ago in a racially charged attack is poised to shake Britain to its foundations.

"I would have liked to have seen him alive and kicking now," Lawrence says softly. "I would have liked for him to be known for something else."

The memory of Stephen Lawrence haunts a father and a country. His murder serves as a symbol of Britain's often-overlooked racial divisions.

On the night of April 22, 1993, Lawrence, 18, was waiting with a friend at a bus stop in the working-class suburban London neighborhood of Eltham. He was attacked by a gang of white youths, beaten, kicked and stabbed twice, before racing about 100 yards and collapsing on the pavement. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Almost six years later, after an aborted public prosecution and an attempted private prosecution for murder mounted by the Lawrence family, the five prime suspects have never been convicted of the crime. Three were acquitted. They might never be jailed and are free, pending further action.

After London's Metropolitan Police force mishandled the case, the commissioner offered unprecedented and repeated public apologies to the Lawrence family.

That the investigation was flawed is widely accepted.

There is another suspicion: that police incompetence was compounded by racism.

A judicial inquiry into the Lawrence killing was launched last year and the panel is due to release its report later this month. London's venerable police force -- known as Scotland Yard -- could be labeled as "institutionally racist." The report will likely call for new ways to investigate racial crimes.

The country may also have to confront crime-fighting disparities revealed in a recent Home Office study of data in England and Wales. The report noted that "black people were, on average, five times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people." Blacks were also more likely to be arrested than white or ethnic groups. The report found that "police were less likely to identify suspects for homicides involving black victims than for white or those from other ethnic groups."

But it's the Lawrence killing that has focused the country's attention.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon says the Lawrence family's persistent and dignified pursuit of justice "has resonated right across the community and has touched people's souls and spirits and intellects in a way that no other case has done in recent years."

Just as the death of Princess Diana shook Britain's monarchy, many here say that the killing of Stephen Lawrence will transform other pillars of British society -- criminal justice and race relations.

In refusing to let their son's case fade away, Neville Lawrence and his wife, Doreen, forced Britain to examine itself and its racial attitudes. The country that once oversaw an empire is now dealing uncertainly with an empire of different races and nationalities on its shores.

Britain remains a predominantly white, Protestant country, with a 1991 census showing minorities totaled about 3 million, or 5.5 percent of Britain's then 54.8 million population. But ethnic minorities encompass 20 percent of Londoners.

Many of the nearly 750,000 blacks of Caribbean and African heritage have settled in London. A few can trace their roots to a storied voyage of postwar immigration aboard the S.S. Empire Windrush, which arrived in London in June 1948. On board were some 500 passengers from Jamaica, black men coming to the aid of their mother country. After World War II, Britain had a severe labor shortage, and opened its gates to residents from the Commonwealth.

Jamaican immigrants

Neville Lawrence, born in Jamaica, arrived in London in 1960. As an apprentice upholsterer, he figured he had solid job prospects. Instead, he encountered racial prejudice, failing to land a job in the trade, he says, because he was black. The same thing occurred after he served a three-year toolmaking apprenticeship. Eventually, he became a house painter and plasterer.

Doreen Lawrence, 46, also emigrated from Jamaica as a child. She worked at a bank, raised a family -- the Lawrences have another son and daughter -- and then went to college. She now works in a student-aid office.

"There was subtle racism in those days," says Neville Lawrence, a bearded 56-year-old. "You'd be called names in a joke-type way. We didn't know what they meant."

But nothing could prepare Neville Lawrence for the racism that would engulf his family.

In some ways, Britain, particularly London, is colorblind. Interracial dating and marriage are common, and many neighborhoods and schools are integrated. Racial tensions that led to rioting in the 1950s, and later, in 1981, have ebbed. Racist chants that used to ring through soccer stadiums have been silenced.

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