I was a serving officer with the Metropolitan police in 1993 when I heard of Stephen Lawrence’s brutal murder at the hands of a gang of racist thugs. The Lord Chief Justice recently and accurately described the killing as a ‘murder which scarred the conscience of the nation’.
When I heard of the teenager’s death on a street in Eltham, South-East London, my thoughts turned to those young people who lost their lives in the Deptford fire, 12 years earlier.
On the night of the 18th January 1981 a joint party had been held to celebrate the birthdays of Yvonne Ruddick and Angela Jackson at a house in New Cross Road. The party was noisy and the police had been called to ask for the noise to be turned down. Sometime during that night a fire broke out and 13 young black teenagers died in the house. A fourteenth, Anthony Berbeck, died some years later having never recovered from the horror of losing two of his friends.
Shock, confusion, rumour and misinformation were rife, sparking a resentment of authority by the black community. A resentment that with each mishandling of racist or potentially racist attacks has never gone away and which the police to this day don’t seem to be able to get to grips with. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, and set against a backdrop of an active National Front movement in the area, the fire was reckoned to have started deliberately by a petrol bomb thrown at the house.
An eyewitness had reported seeing a white male outside the building, and a car driving away forcing another to swerve. The petrol bomb theory gave way to detectives focusing their attention on a supposed fight between two partygoers. They took statements to that effect which were later retracted at the inquest. The witnesses said they had made them ‘under pressure’, leading to accusations of a cover-up, and the setting up of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee.
It can’t have helped that the inquiry was led by Graham Stockwell who, as an Inspector, had written down the confessions of three men convicted of murdering Maxwell Confait, those confessions later ruled to be false.
By the time I came to patrol the area, the tension was palpable. The community felt that not only the police, but the white community, the media, and the Government were against them. There was a suspicion the fire had been started by white racists and nobody cared.
For me, the sight of the burned out house was deeply shocking. Not as shocking however as a headline in The Sun following a peaceful demonstration on March 2nd which read Day the Blacks ran Riot in London. Not surprising really then that the rioting by disaffected young black people in Brixton, Stoke Newington and other parts of the country took place.
Hopefully it’s unthinkable that a similar headline should ever be printed. Hopefully too, the mistakes made by police investigating the death of Stephen Lawrence, whether caused by racism, corruption, or sheer indifference will never be repeated. Sadly, the police are still not getting to grips with the way they treat and inform witnesses and victims of crime involving those who may have good reason based on history to distrust the police. You only have to look at the circumstances surrounding the Mark Duggan case to know that’s true. Let’s hope they don’t rest upon their laurels for too long following their success in finally bringing about some resolution for the Lawrence family.