Stuart Lawrence: ‘I’ve tried to have hope in my heart since Stephen’s murder’ | Stephen Lawrence


There is a green jacket in the corner of Stuart Lawrence’s room that belonged to his murdered older brother Stephen. It’s from the iconic 90s hip-hop brand Cross Colours, behind the multicoloured shirts famously worn by Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Stuart holds it up to his webcam, so I can read it. The label says: “Post Hip Hop Nation, Academic Hard Wear.”

It was so like Stephen to have an item of clothing from the cult hip-hop label, he says. Stephen was his handsome, cool, older brother; the person Stuart looked up to, and occasionally resented for his easy charm. “The jacket was one of the pieces he was most proud of getting,” says Stuart. “He always had the coolest clothes, always had his finger on the pulse of what everyone was wearing.”

Stuart can still see Stephen shrugging on the jacket over his grey hoodie and heading out to a hip-hop night. The jacket is much like Stephen’s presence in his life: quietly, unobtrusively there in the corner of the room at every family gathering, every celebration, every milestone.

“It means more to me,” says Stuart, fingering the jacket, “than anything I personally own myself. It’s one of the things I’d definitely grab if the building was on fire.”

Waiting for justice: Stuart with Baroness Doreen Lawrence. Photograph: Victoria Jones/AFP/Getty Images

We’re speaking about the release of Silence is Not an Option, a self-help manual for young people based on Stuart’s insights from his 15-year career as a secondary school teacher, as well as his reflections on his brother’s life and death. “I could imagine what Stephen would be like now,” writes Stuart movingly in the book, “but that would be like jumping down a rabbit hole. Imagining would probably bring great sadness. Thinking about what he could have and would have been.”

Stephen was 18 when he was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack while waiting for a bus in Eltham, south London, in April 1993. His alleged attackers – Gary Dobson, Neil and Jamie Acourt, David Norris and Luke Knight – were a well-known local gang, and their names were given to the police within days. But the Metropolitan Police bungled the investigation. After campaigning by the Lawrence family the resulting Macpherson Inquiry concluded in 1999 that institutional racism contributed to the Met’s failure to bring them to justice. Finally, in 2012, Dobson and Norris were convicted of murder.

Silence is Not an Option is full of accessible, practical insights for young people. Stuart, who is now a motivational speaker and youth engagement specialist, counsels them to take constructive criticism, set goals, limit their screen time, think positively, and surround themselves with people from different walks of life. “It’s about trying to help kids,” he says. “If I can help them navigate this difficult world, and try not to listen too much to the noise outside, then they can really start from a good platform.”

Stuart is Zooming me from what looks to be his spare bedroom at home in Brixton, south London. “My son’s not well today,” he apologises, plugging in a ring light so I can see him better, “so I’m not in my usual room.” He is an engaging, voluble and often hilarious interviewee – and I am left wondering whether his wisecracking personality developed in part as a coping mechanism and a way to disarm people following Stephen’s murder. As we’re wrapping up, I tell him, slightly guiltily, that I didn’t expect to laugh so much given the serious subject matter. “I’m glad… I’ve always tried to be an optimist and to have as much hope as I can in my heart,” he responds.

He did not always feel this way. When writing the book, Stuart drew upon the experiences of the alienation, rage and estrangement he felt after Stephen’s murder. The day after Stephen died, Stuart, then 16, went to school. “I carried on,” he says, “and, on reflection now, I think to myself, was that the best thing to do? Should I have taken some more time?” But Stuart knew the rumour mill would be operating and he wanted to find out who might be responsible. And he was right: that afternoon, Stuart came home with some names and gave them to his parents, who gave them to a police liaison officer, who did nothing with them.

Just a few months after Stephen’s murder, Stuart insisted on taking his GCSEs – and flunked them. He was angry all the time, but he felt he had to suppress this anger, because newspapers were already running with the false narrative that Stephen was a gang member, and Stuart didn’t want to do anything to give these lies credence. “I had to keep the tiger tamed within,” he says.

As a result he decided that he’d allow himself to be angry twice a year. “So if I lost my temper in January it was, like, well that’s you: now you’ve got the rest of the year to try and manage that.” He would fantasise about taking revenge on his brother’s murderers. “But what’s that going to do? Lead to shame on my mum and dad, and the police coming down on me. That’s not going to end well.”

Stephen’s murder marked the end of what had been a happy childhood – the brothers were close and shared a bedroom, his parents, Neville and Doreen, were strict but loving and, although, looking back, he “had the middle child syndrome going on”, he says he was happy to be the one overlooked. “I wasn’t as cute as Georgina [his younger sister], or as good and clever as Stephen.” And even at school, where he was one of only two Black children in his class, he says he never experienced racism or felt like the odd one out.

Stuart and Doreen Lawrence meeting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the two women shaking hands
Royal assent: meeting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

After Stephen’s murder, all that changed overnight. The Lawrence house filled up with relatives and well-wishers who stayed for months. “I’d leave the house during the day and there’d be my aunt, uncle, my mum and dad, and I’d come home in the evening and there would be another 20 people,” he says. “It just wasn’t something I was used to because we never had lots of people around our house.” In the end, he moved in with his youth club leader for a year, to get some space and focus on finishing his education and getting into university.

Controlling his emotions during this time was in itself a form of violence. The Lawrence family had to accept not only that Stephen was dead, but that his killers were free. This cauterised their ability to grieve, because all they could focus on was securing justice.

“We should have had time to be able to come to grips with it,” says Stuart, “but we were just in fight mode all the time.” The failure of the Lawrence family’s private prosecution of Stephen’s alleged killers in 1996 was a nadir. “That’s when they gave up hope,” says Stuart of his parents.

The famous picture of Stephen Lawrence in a blue and white striped top with a plant behind him
Brotherly love: the now famous picture of Stephen. Photograph: courtesy Baroness Doreen Lawrence

It took Stuart a little longer. Nearly every year, new information came out about Stephen’s murder. Having his hopes raised, only for them to be repeatedly crushed, was unbearable. “After 2001,” he says, “I came to a point in my life where I was, like, it’s never going to happen. We’re never going to have a positive outcome to this. So there’s no worth in me having any hope. I put it to bed then.”

He decided to try to move on, and have as normal and happy a life as possible. But he looks like his brother – they have the same eyes, the same bone structure – and his surname carried with it a portentous weight. “I’ve become more comfortable in it,” he says of the legacy of being Stephen’s brother. “It was something I ran away from quite a lot in my younger years, because I suppose there’s an identity thing where you want to be known for yourself and what you can bring to the table.”

As a result, he wouldn’t mention Stephen in conversation and instead would wait for people to work it out. When he met his wife, Angie, at university in Northampton in 1999, he told her to buy a newspaper: “I just couldn’t find the words to tell her,” Stuart explains.

In 2011, they had their son, Theo. It was the same year the CPS began its trial of Dobson and Norris for Stephen’s murder. Becoming a father made Stuart confront what his parents had endured all those years previously. “Just looking at Theo for the first time made me realise, clear as day, the pain and anguish of having this little person and them getting ripped away.”

He took nine months off work and attended the trial at the Old Bailey every day. He thought he knew the case inside out, but was stunned by the new evidence he was hearing. “It was difficult because it was like someone had hit the reset button,” he says, “and I was back to 1993.”

Theo is now 11. “I know in time you will grow into a great and wonderful man and your light will shine bright forever, as you remind me so much of Stephen,” writes Stuart in Silence is Not An Option. Does he worry about Theo walking the streets of London as a young Black male? Young Black men living in London are 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than the rest of the public, while Black Londoners are three times more likely to be murdered than other ethnic groups. “I try not to scaremonger him too much about stuff,” says Stuart, “because what happened to Stephen was totally random.” Yet Theo has seen Stuart pulled over by the police. Stuart recalls him asking: “Why was that man so angry? Why did he talk to you like that?”

The week we speak, news breaks of the strip-search of a menstruating Black teenage girl in a Hackney school. Police were called in after staff thought they smelled cannabis on the girl, known only as Child Q. Stuart is horrified. “It makes me feel ashamed of having been a school teacher,” he says, before adding: “Can you imagine how many more cases we’ve got to hear about before we get to the bottom of all this racist treatment of schoolchildren? Because the process takes so long.”

Stuart Lawrence in his local park.
‘Some institutions have taken things on and tried to make changes, but others have just placed their heads in the sand’: Stuart Lawrence in his local park. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The Lawrence family is still awaiting the publication of an Independent Office for Police Conduct report into whether corruption was a factor in the mishandling of the original investigation into Stephen’s murder. “It’s been eight years now,” says Stuart. “And we’re only starting to hear things now because this set of IOPC people are a little better than the ones we had before.”

Despite everything that has happened, he doesn’t blame all police officers. “I try not to bash them too much. They’re not all the same,” he says. In November 2021, Stuart called the police after his house was burgled. “I’m not from that world where I can call up the underground and say, ‘I’ve been robbed, put the feelers out,’” he jokes. When officers came around, they noticed a picture of Stephen on the wall. “I saw one of them clock it,” he chuckles. “I do feel I was treated a little differently after that.”

Stuart has witnessed his parents’ fight for justice and how their campaign changed policing and attitudes around institutional racism in the UK. His mother, Doreen, is now a Labour peer with a brief around inequality and racial justice. “The number of times that I’m with my mum and people see her and go, ‘Oh my God,’” he smiles. The Lawrence family are arguably the most high-profile racial justice campaigners in the UK today and Stuart feels conflicted about the current state of affairs when it comes to equality. “There’s some institutions that have taken things on and tried to make changes,” he says. “But other institutions have placed their heads in the sand, and said, ‘It’s not us.’” He is scathing about the much-criticised 2021 Tony Sewell report, which was widely perceived to downplay the reality of institutional racism in British life.

“[Sewell] came out and said: ‘There’s no problems, we’re fine, give yourself a pat on the back.’ That’s frustrating for me, when we’re not recognising and acknowledging the pain and anguish of people, and there’s a few people out there who believe if we don’t talk about it or complain about it too much, it’s all going to go away. I just feel like it’s Band-Aid time. Pull off the Band-Aid, look at the wound. It’s going to hurt for a while, it’s going to be uncomfortable, we can move on from it. But we’re going to need some brave people in powerful positions to make some choices that are going to upset a minority of people for the majority of people to succeed and move on.” Stuart has not ruled out running for parliament one day. “Sometimes you have to throw yourself into the mix,” he says coyly.

What becomes evident from speaking with him is how a person becomes flattened in death – almost a caricature. So, to the general public, Stephen will forever be recognisable only from the photo distributed by police after his death. In it, he stands in front of a pot plant, a half-smile flickering around his eyes, fist balled into the solidarity fist. Like so much of Stephen’s identity, the photo was weaponised against him, used as evidence that he was a gang member, rather than a hip-hop-loving teenager paying homage to one of his favourite artists, the politically conscious rappers Public Enemy.

Stuart remembers the moment the photo was taken. The family had been on a day out, and Doreen was finishing off the camera roll before taking it in for processing. She made the children line up against the wall, for photos. Stuart stood beside his big brother, whom he idolised and looked up to, and saw him do the power sign, and so he copied him, of course. “I didn’t really understand the poignancy and imagery and meaning behind it,” Stuart sighs. He understands it now.

Silence is Not an Option: You Can Impact the World for Change by Stuart Lawrence is published by Scholastic at £14.99. Buy a copy for £13.04 from guardianbookshop.com