Doreen Lawrence tries to drive wherever she can. If she walks down the street, everyone wants to talk to her, everybody stares. “They have to touch me to see if I’m real,” she says. They mostly want to say positive things, and she deals with it much better than she once did, “but at the same time I have that fear that you don’t know when somebody’s walking up to you”.
The fear is entirely understandable. It is 19 years since Stephen Lawrence, her 18-year-old son, was stabbed to death on the street in southeast London. It is only 11 months since two of his killers were finally convicted: sentenced after almost two decades that also saw multiple police investigations, an inquest, a public inquiry, two trials and the transformation of race relations in Britain. Through it all, Doreen Lawrence kept on pushing for justice. A small, determined figure dressed in black, she seems vaguely familiar in person. Then you realise that her eyes are just like her son’s: the photograph imprinted on the national psyche come to life.
When the verdict of murder came through in January, Lawrence initially couldn’t bring herself to believe it. “It was just something I never expected to hear at all.” Then she didn’t know how to react: “There’s all that emotion inside of you and … you’re in such a public space, so you don’t know what to do.” A couple of weeks later, she found she couldn’t sit properly or walk without terrible pain. The doctors thought it was osteoporosis but it turned out to be all the stress emerging physically.
This autumn, she went to Jamaica – where she was born – and the place where Stephen is buried. It was the first time she had been there on his birthday. “This year was a special year … to be there, probably talking nonsense to him but using the opportunity of just spending some time sitting at his grave. It’s hard that he’s not buried here [in London], but I’ve never regretted that. I think had he been buried here they would have found out where his grave is and they would have … ” Her voice trails off. Stephen’s memorial plaque has been regularly defaced in racist attacks.
Such moments – just a mother alone, grieving for her son – are scarce. “At first, everybody wanted to own him. Everybody felt that he belonged to them and it was difficult for me … to accept,” she says. But since those early days, a generation of British children has grown up learning his name. “I look on the positive side,” she says. “Young kids who weren’t even born when Stephen died, his name is something that they’re writing about, they’re doing their GCSEs about.”
Nowadays, Doreen Lawrence also belongs to the nation. An OBE, she has advised the Home Office, sits on the board of Liberty and, this October, received a 2012 Women of the Year award. In the summer, clad in a white suit, she carried the Olympic flag into the London stadium, leading in luminaries such as UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and Daniel Barenboim. “Over the years, even if there’s been a lot of positive things, I can’t get that excitement. Stephen’s death seems to have squashed everything,” she says. “But when I stood there with everybody getting ready to walk out, I just thought, ‘My God, this is a really big thing.’” The cheer that came up when they entered was unbelievable. “It was just an amazing, amazing time for this country. If you could bottle that … ”
Lawrence’s national reputation stems from the exhausting, tenacious, limitless determination that she displayed in her fight to convict her son’s killers. It’s a case that never seems to end. Even now, with two men behind bars, the three other gang members originally arrested are still at large. “It just seems as if there’s no point in this case when you can actually say, ‘OK, that bit’s been done and dusted and I’m free to move on,’” she says. This summer, Theresa May ordered an independent review into allegations of police corruption. Lawrence hopes that it might open the door to further investigations.
The issues around race and policing persist as well. The charge of “institutional racism” levelled at the force by the Macpherson inquiry in 1999 changed many things. Veteran officers have thanked Doreen for making their work a better place and she believes that Stephen’s death has permanently altered how crimes are investigated. But just a couple of Saturdays ago, her son Stuart rang her up to say that he had been stopped by the police again and couldn’t take it any more. “There’s no rhyme or reason why he’s stopped other than that he’s black, but they would never admit it,” she says. “I just feel that if your life is not marred by anything that you’ve done wrong and this continues to happen to you, then it makes you so angry that eventually you will do something because you’re so frustrated.”
Sometimes she wishes that this frustration would prompt more action. The parents of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed earlier this year, visited her recently and she talks about the effect that Barack Obama had when he spoke out about their son: “During Stephen’s time, I never had that.” She also wishes that both the black community and the whole country had been more active in protesting about Stephen’s killing. “In America, when something happens … everybody’s out there because they realise that something is really, really wrong,” she says. “I’ve had loads of cards and letters of support … but I wish they had stood up so you can see that we as a black community are valued in the same way as everybody else.”
Her own persistence was partly rooted in a desire to uncover what really happened. As a small child, she learnt that if you lie about things, you get found out. “I’ve got this thing about truth. I’ve always been truthful and I think I do feel aggrieved when I think somebody’s wronged me,” she says. She drummed the importance of telling the truth into her own children; it was when she started to see lies in Stephen’s case that her anger really grew.
Today, Lawrence tries to pass these lessons to her three grandchildren, on whom she dotes. Her eight-year-old granddaughter “doesn’t really know the details about how [Stephen] died, but she knows that he’s no longer here”. When they’re out together, she’s always surprised that so many people come up to her grandmother. “I want her to be comfortable in who she is as a young black woman growing up,” Lawrence says. “And I want her to be able to understand that there’s good and bad in the world, [and] you can’t always judge everybody because one person’s done something bad.”
Lawrence seems confused by how she herself is judged. “There’s that bit of you that you need to keep for yourself,” she explains. “People seem to think that I’ve done this fantastic thing and how wonderful I am and how brave I am. If only they knew that it’s not as easy as people think, that life has been difficult,” she adds quietly. “You have this façade and people see you, but they don’t know what goes on behind your eyes … I’ve lost him but [it’s also] my life I’ve lost. And it’s difficult to get that back.” Although she fought for justice alongside Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, their marriage fell apart after their son’s death.
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of that day in April. The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which, among other things, gives bursaries to those who want to study architecture (as Stephen did), has concerts, lectures and dinners planned. The trust struggles financially and Lawrence is preoccupied with fundraising and commemorating the anniversary. “Apart from planning events, you can’t plan how you’re going to feel,” she says. “I think I just take things as they happen.”
And as the years pile up, who are we to say what makes one day more difficult than another? Towards the end of the interview, Lawrence talks about her recent 60th birthday party, held at a hotel with her family and friends. It was an amazing evening – “the food, the atmosphere … Everybody came, everybody had a really, really good time.” She pauses. “I was smiling and everything but I was just thinking, there’s still something missing and you just can’t get past that.”
Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine
Women of 2012