Postcard from London

By John Martin

When he served as Bishop of Stepney, the Rt. Rev. John Sentamu and his wife, Margaret, occupied a former vicarage in Bow, East London, where the back fence stood diagonal to our front door. He was an exceptional bishop with boundless energy. Few were surprised when he progressed from his time in Stepney to a brief stint as Bishop of Birmingham and then became Archbishop of York.

The Sentamus were incredibly generous with their hospitality. His New Day roasts were legendary. My wife, Deirdre, and I enjoyed them several times. They shared their home with countless waifs and strays. A stream of Ugandans found the way to their door. But their hospitality didn’t end there.

Several times we met a tall, dignified, and reserved man originally from Jamaica whom the Sentamus had taken in after his marriage ended. Neville Lawrence, a plasterer by trade who had come to the United Kingdom in search of a better life, had lost so much. He may well have lived out his life in suburban obscurity, but this changed on the evening of April 22, 1993, when his 18-year-old son, Stephen, was attacked and stabbed to death by a gang of youths at a bus stop not far from the family home in Eltham in southeast London.

Despite being sent a postcard with the alleged attackers’ names on it, the police were incredibly slow to act. They eventually claimed they had insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution, and in the years that followed it seemed the police were more intent on harassing the Lawrence family than bringing Stephen’s killers to justice.

The Lawrence family unsuccessfully brought a private prosecution and tenaciously sustained a campaign for justice for Stephen, even enlisting the support of President Nelson Mandela. In 1997 the Police Complaints Authority began to investigate the case. Bishop Sentamu, formerly a High Court judge in Uganda, assisted the Lawrence family in hearings chaired by Sir William MacPherson. Two years later the MacPherson Report dramatically charged that the Metropolitan Police authority, which handled the case, was “institutionally racist.”

A further outcome was agreement by Parliament to set aside the ancient tradition prohibiting double jeopardy. Two men who subsequently stood trial were found guilty and jailed, but the Lawrences believe they were not the only guilty parties. It is alleged that during the MacPherson hearings the Sentamus were subject to surveillance from a nearby building site and their home was broken into.

A few weeks ago the police announced they had exhausted all lines of enquiry into the Lawrence case. But as the 25th anniversary of Stephen’s death approaches, a BBC documentary to be screened on three consecutive nights (Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation) may unearth new leads. BBC says the documentary represents the fullest coverage yet of the case. A further result could be charges against senior police officers involved in the botched investigation.

Doreen Lawrence, now 65, was elevated to the House of Lords in 2013 on the strength of her campaign to find justice for her murdered son. In 2016 she became chancellor of De Montfort University in Leicester. It is interesting to compare the attitudes of the estranged husband and wife, who reportedly never speak to each other of their tragedy. Has she come to terms with Stephen’s death? “I haven’t.” she told reporters. “I don’t think I have come through the other end. All I want is to get justice for Stephen.” In her view, forgiveness cannot be offered without confession of wrongdoing.

Neville Lawrence 78, who was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Portsmouth for his campaigning, has announced he has forgiven the gang, despite the absence of any confession. He has returned to Jamaica and now lives there. He said his decision to forgive was the hardest he would ever make. He continues to feel the pain: “The only time my life sentence will be finished is when I’m in the ground.” But he had drawn strength from his Christian faith and plans to spend the anniversary of his son’s death in church.

The Lawrence case may have uncovered institutional racism among the police at the time of the Lawrence murder, and this is acknowledged. This by no means signals a turning point in the matter of knife crime in London. Since the start of 2018 there have been 60 deaths through stabbings, a statistic that puts London ahead of New York.

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