The Colour of Justice: Looking back on the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Monday 22 April marks 20 years since Stephen Lawrence’s murder. The black teenager was stabbed to death in a racist attack, by a gang of white youths. In the same way that the death of Margaret Thatcher prompted a national reflection on the legacy of the civil turmoil of the 1980s, so the twentieth anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence is as an opportunity to take stock of how far the UK has come in combating racism.

The Macpherson Inquiry – the public examination of the failures of the original Metropolitan Police investigation – is seen as a watershed moment for race relations in Britain. It unearthed shocking evidence of policing failures, and its report concluded that the Metropolitan Police was riven by “pernicious and institutionalised racism”.

The Colour of Justice Richard Norton-Taylor is an investigative journalist who has worked at the Guardian since 1975, and was awarded the Freedom of Information Campaign Award for Journalism in 1986. In his pioneering ‘tribunal play’ The Colour of Justice, he dramatised the findings of the Macpherson Inquiry, using only the verbatim testimony transcribed in the hearings.

What follows is an extract from The Colour of Justice, first performed in 1999 at London’s Tricycle Theatre. It subsequently played at The National Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Victoria Palace, and West Yorkshire Playhouse, as well as being and broadcast on BBC television. The playscript published by Oberon Books serves as an invaluable resource to anyone wishing to digest the evidence for themselves. All royalties are donated to the Stephen Lawrence Trust.

[From the evidence of John Davidson, former detective sergeant:]

Davidson: A boy was murdered, a young lad was murdered by four or five other young lads outside a bus stop; what would strike me about that, sir?

Michael Mansfield QC, counsel for the Lawrence family: I just wondered if it occurred to you that it was a race attack? Davidson: I do not think in my own mind this was a racist attack. I believe this was thugs attacking anyone, as they had done on previous occasions with other white lads.

Mansfield: During the Dobson interview you made it clear that you personally did not think this was a race attack, did you not?

Davidson: By that time I didn’t, no sir.

Mansfield: That is you view today, is it not?

Davidson: It is sir.

Mansfield: Do you know the Association of Chief Police Officers’ definition of a racial incident?

Davidson: No sir.

Mansfield: Has anyone ever told you what it is?

Davidson: I would imagine, from my memory and my experience in a job, a racial incident is one which is caused by or through racism. It can be anything from a shout, to an out-and-out racist attack, but because these lads had attacked whites before, I believed they were thugs. They were described as Krays. They were thugs who were out to kill, not particularly a black person, but anybody, and I believe that to this day that that was thugs – not racism, just pure bloody-minded thuggery.

Mansfield: I do not want to debate with you about the nature of racism, but do you recognise that thugs who may kill white people for a variety of reasons, but who kill blacks because they are blacks are committing a racial crime?

Davidson: Yes, sir, I recognise that if they were killed because they were black, that is racist.

Mansfield: That is exactly what this case was about but you refused to recognise it, did you not?

Davidson: I still refuse to recognise it, sir. I am very surprised that anybody knows it is about that because it has never been cleared up anyway, sir.

[From the evidence of William Ilsley, former detective chief superintendent:]

Mansfield: You had a wonderful opportunity to get David Norris off the streets, did you not, in this case?

Ilsley: Yes.

Mansfield: We go to the 6th of May, a final decision about an arrest. Was it being done in a rush for a particular reason, Mr Ilsley?

Ilsley: Not as far as I know sir, no.

Mansfield: I would like you to think carefully. The 6th was a particularly important day, was it not?

Ilsley: The Nelson Mandela…

Mansfield: That is right. It had a massive effect – your words – on the publicity in relation to this case?

Ilsley: It did sir, yes.

Mansfield: It was not a good effect from your point of view, was it?

Ilsley: You are probably right, sir, yes. We had not arrested anyone, that’s right.

Mansfield: It is not good news to have perhaps one of the world’s foremost statesmen in London and picking up the fact that a squad under your command has not managed to pick somebody up. That is not good news from a public relations point of view, is it?

Ilsley: I can see what you’re saying, sir, yes.

Mansfield: In relation to race. In this case, if anybody in your squad were to say that it wasn’t racially motivated, that would beggar belief, would it not?

Ilsley: As far as I was concerned it was a racially motivated crime and it was obvious from day one. As far as other people are concerned, they have go to answer for themselves.

Mansfield: There was a great attempt by Davidson and others in this inquiry to try and make a distinction between a racist murder and racially motivated murders and so on, do you follow?

Ilsley: I do ,sir.

Mansfield: Do you find that reprehensible?

Ilsley: I find it incredible, yes.

[From the evidence of Ian Johnston, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police]

Edmund Lawson QC, counsel to the inquiry: You know it has long been suggested by the Lawrence family and by others that the investigation was tainted by racism? What, if any, views do you have on that?

Johnston: It is my firm view that is not the case.

Lawson: Then one turns to the aspect of corruption. Corruption may take many forms. It may not necessarily just be the obvious form of money changing hands but collusion in a wider sense, namely, there is an understanding occurring between organised crime and some people who investigate organised crime.You appreciate the risk?

Johnston: There are subtleties around corruption as there are around racism.

Stephen Kamlish, counsel for the Lawrence family: Mr Johnston, I am going to ask questions on the issue of race. You are aware of a recent Met report which shows that black people were four times more likely to be stopped and searched in a street than white people?

Johnston: If we look at the people who are likely to be  out on the streets, youngsters who are truanting and excluded from schools, who are over-represented in the statistics, it is young black children. If you look at who else is out on the streets, it is the unemployed. If you look at the differential rates of unemployment, black people, for a range of reasons, some of which are understandable, some of which are abhorrent, are unemployed. If you look at police where police do their stop and search, it is in high crime areas. High crime areas tend to be areas of social deprivation. Who lives in areas of social deprivation? For a range of reasons, coloured people.

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