I had planned to make my first blog in 2012 about sentencing in riot cases (having spent the past four months – and counting – as senior researcher on the Guardian/LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ project). However, following yesterday’s momentous jury decision in the trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, the important subject of riot sentences will have to wait for another day.
The impact of the Lawrence case on this country is almost impossible to overstate. It has led to huge change in the legal system (abolition of double jeopardy, without which Dobson could not have stood trial this time); powerful anti-discrimination legislation (including the 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act, which places a positive duty on public bodies to eliminate inequality); changes to policing (with Cressida Dick, acting deputy commissioner at the Met, admitting it had had ‘more impact on policing than any other case’); even changes to our vocabulary (giving us the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe the systematic way that black people are discriminated against by organisations). It is hard to think of an area of life that this case has not touched.
But I don’t want to talk about any of that, here.
For me, the most incredible element of this case and the changes it has wrought is what it tells us about the power of a mother’s love. Not one of these reforms would have come about were it not for the awe-inspiring courage of Stephen’s mother, Doreen, driven by her determination to see justice for her boy. As Doreen says herself: ‘I’m just a regular mum that’s lost a son. From the word go, if the police had done their job and caught his killers, no one would have heard from me or known who I am.’
Speaking immediately after the verdict, Doreen talked about her enduring passion for her son and how he is in her thoughts every day. ‘How can I celebrate when my son lies buried; when I cannot see him, or speak to him.’ she said.
As the mother of two teen boys who are not that much younger than Stephen was when he was killed, I know a little about the ferocity of a mother’s love for her sons. I like to think that I would go through fire for them but have not (thankfully, so far) had that conviction put to the test. Doreen was tested in the most cruel way possible – and she has not been found wanting. She took that all-consuming love and what threatened to be overwhelming grief and channelled them into action. I only hope that, if the need arose, I would find just a fraction of the raw courage and indefatigability that she has sustained over nearly two decades.
This tiny woman (barely over five feet tall) is a giantess – an inspiration for mothers everywhere.
I have worked with Doreen for nearly 10 years as she is a judge for an awards ceremony that I organise, and she is one of the most modest and unassuming people you could ever meet. She is never comfortable in the limelight and is not a natural public speaker (when the original presenter pulled out of last year’s awards, she agreed to step into the breach so long as she didn’t have to make any kind of speech). She can be taciturn and is not one to emote on cue for the cameras. Yet where her murdered son is concerned, she is a tigress.
Her love for Stephen was so powerful that it changed the world – and she has done it all with grace and humility.
Doreen was awarded an OBE in 2003, which now seems scant recognition of what she has achieved and what she represents. I have no idea what the highest available honour in the land might be, but I do know that, nine exhausting years on from her previous award, if anyone deserves to receive it, Doreen does.