Duwayne Brooks, friend of Stephen Lawrence: "Has police culture changed? No"

Twenty years on from the murder case that has become emblematic of police failure and racially-aggravated violence, Duwayne Brooks looks back.

There didn't seem to be anything unusual about the chilly April night to the two teenage black boys waiting for the bus. It was about 10.30, dance steps were being practised, home beckoned. One of the two walked a little further on the better to see any approaching bus. His friend called out to him asking if one could be seen. Perhaps the sound carried; from the other side of the road, a group of white youths approached, "What, what nigger?" one of them shouted. One of the boys, reflexes sharp, ran but the other found himself "literally engulfed" by the youths. He was stabbed twice. The gang swiftly melted away, the wounded teenager managed to run some 130 yards but soon fell and died. The whole incident must have taken no more than two minutes.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence some 20 years ago and his family's subsequent long fight for justice became one of those emblematic moments in British history, a point at which middle-class complacency about racist attacks and police corruption was shaken. The two decades between that April night and now have seen a failed private prosecution of the murderers, a ground-breaking public inquiry led by Lord Macpherson which controversially found that the Met Police was institutionally racist and at last, a year ago the successful prosecution of two of the group of white youths for murder.

"It was a partial victory," Duwayne Brooks, the friend who was with Stephen Lawrence that night tells me in measured tones. He can still remember Stephen, the boy who was into athletics, "we were always in competition", he says with a smile, his personality and attitude to life. And of course he can remember that April night. "That day is like a freeze frame in everybody's life."

He sensed danger from the white boys crossing the road, "It's that streetwise instinct," he explains. "A survival thing, something is going to kick off in a minute. Do I want to be here or do I want to run?"

The freeze-framed images of that night, the memory of the sense of danger from the approaching white youths in an area known to have problems with racism had the effect of stretching out an incident which took place in minutes into a period which seemed like hours.

"The worst thing was waiting for the ambulance, it seemed like we were waiting forever," Brooks recalls. He speaks coolly, with the voice of someone who has experienced much and reflected carefully upon it. Naturally inclined to the logical, the rational rather than the emotional, he found that the murder accentuated his mind's natural tendency to the precise and analytical.

In the years following Stephen Lawrence's murder, Brooks found himself repeatedly arrested, on one occasion even charged with attempted rape - the charge was thrown out by a judge before it reached a jury - and claimed he was being harassed by the Met.

Still, when we meet, Brooks is keen not to dwell on the past. "That was a period in history," he says. "It was my belief that the Met was out to get me, it might not have been the case but it was my interpretation."

Someone who has been witnessed and experienced all that Brooks has done would be forgiven for sinking into a life of cynicism but instead Brooks is carving out a career in politics. He's now a Liberal Democrat councillor and wants to stand for the Mayoralty of Lewisham next year. His number one priority: tackling gang culture. If he is elected mayor he wants to address gang members himself - "we know who they all are," he declares - and put before them a starkly simple choice either to get behind him and his plan for improving the borough and their lives through mentoring, or continue in crime and as he puts it "see the worst side of my authority".

From the vantage point of professional politics he says he feels Britain has changed since his friend Stephen Lawrence was murdered. "Different parts of the country have changed at different speeds. In London we've seen we are probably the most diverse city in Europe. It wasn't like that 20 years ago."

When it comes to the specific issue of how and to what extent policing has improved in the last 20 years, his thoughts are balanced, considered. He starts with the positive side of the balance sheet: "There are some parts which have improved significantly, community engagement, around the Independent Advisory Groups, family liaison officers, the way victims are looked after and treated, first aid, every officer has first aid training every year. That wasn't happening before."

Then he pauses to consider where policing still falls short: "If we put that to one side and look at police culture, the culture that's in the Met, has that changed, no. Is racism is still endemic in that culture, yes but that doesn't mean that every single officer in the police force is racist but racism is endemic in the culture."

He notes also that too many LGBT police officers still feel constrained to hide their sexuality from their colleagues. "Why in 2013 do officers from the LGBT community, if they are lesbian have to pretend they're going home to their boyfriends, or if they're gay have to pretend they're going home to their wives?" he asks rhetorically.

Just as concerning for Brooks is the matter of police corruption, a persistent thread which ran through the Lawrence murder police investigations. He emphasises that it wasn't Lawrence's murder which caused corruption in south-east London but rather that the murder occurred in a district with a pre-existing police corruption problem. He answers my question about whether he thinks police corruption is still a problem with an emphatic "of course," adding, "We've seen that with the News of the World stuff."

Then he turns to the practicalities: "But how do you weed officers out who've got everybody else by the balls? Is corruption endemic? We don't know. Do police officers go to court and lie on a daily basis. Yes. Is it being monitored? No. If it's not being monitored can we then tackle it? I don't know."

Brooks doesn't claim to know how to untangle the complexity of police corruption but he is clear that a key element must be external monitoring. Similarly, he points to the Macpherson Report and notes that while its recommendations are well known, there is no monitoring of their implementation, no Macpherson Working Group to assess progress in meeting the report's recommendations.

One of the last unfinished tasks he cites of the Stephen Lawrence investigation is an endearingly personal one. Brooks wants those who worked to bring his friend's killers to justice to be given recognition. In particular, he cites the senior investigating officer, Clive Driscoll, who he thinks should have received a commendation from the Met for his work. "This man has had to put up with me for the last few years berating him about the failure of the Met and he always promised me, 'I may not get all of them but I will get some of them', and he fulfilled his promise."

 

Duwayne Brooks in 2011, after giving evidence at the Stephen Lawrence trial. Photograph: Getty Images

Catherine Lafferty is a freelance journalist.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt