Comment: Duwayne Brooks and the London riot story that never got written

Some stories write themselves. Some never get written, though they’re better by far. There’s something irreducible about them, too many loose ends. They don’t have neat beginnings and endings. They don’t fit our (journalists’, readers’) idea of the arc. Sometimes they’re just collected impressions.

This one’s like that, and I’m setting it down here simply because I think someone should write the story that never got written. Maybe it isn’t a story after all, but a diary of sorts. You tell me.

It starts (though I didn’t know it at the time) nearly 20 years ago. As a newly arrived, young, white Londoner, I followed the Stephen Lawrence case through the 1990s, then the 2000s, if not avidly then certainly with an odd mixture of horror, casual compulsion, mounting disbelief at the catalogue of establishment errors or worse, and something… what was that other thing? I guess it was a bit like shame, only less easily pinned down. It was a vague, nagging, sticky discomfort that came and went. Something I didn’t like feeling, but knew it wasn’t to be shied away from. It was an itching unease about what might, for others, lurk beneath the surface of a society that I, white, lower-middle-class and male, may not always have liked, but had always, personally at least, experienced as fair and neutral in its justice.

I knew names, places, details from the news. I remember Martin Bashir’s documentary on the Dobson-Norris gang as a consensus TV moment: the one we all knew we’d all watched, whatever our age, background or colour. That photograph of the teenage Stephen Lawrence – striped top, grin, one arm folded upwards – was one of the defining images of 1990s Britain. Printed and reprinted, flickering on screens from electrical shops and pub TV sets, for a generation it became as ubiquitous, as powerful, as any shot of Neville Chamberlain, heavy-eyed, monochrome Myra Hindley or triangular, flag-topped Iwo Jima.

I knew the names of the gang members. Acourt, Acourt, Norris, Knight, Dobson. The first two sounding posh and French, then the three identikit English names. They took on a strange voodoo, these names. Bad luck to utter them. Creepily average. I looked at the faces, and tried to remember them too.

There was one name I did not know. The other person who’d been present – Stephen Lawrence’s friend, the boy who managed to escape. I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow it never registered. Eventually, that boy faded from my memory altogether, and only the crime – the innocent victim, the actions of the mob – remained.

By 2011, I was living in south-east London. It’s a big, open, hilly place. A few train stops and two decades separated my neighbourhood from early-1990s Eltham. Still, some things bubble and blister beneath the surface, and occasionally they rise. The London riots, when they came that summer, tore through the High Street, smashing faces and homes and shops and trust, then slipped round quiet neighbourhood corners and into evacuated parks, until the following day.

I wasn’t watching it on TV this time. Walking home, passing groups of people heading the other way, I took it all in. There were fights, screams and the sound of car doors. There were chases, and mock-furtive, too-loud talk of where was next, which houses were marked for tonight, and who was doing what. Like everyone, I was on edge, cautious, rattled. But I was curious too. So sometimes I followed as close as I could, to see what happened next. I set up multiple TweetDeck feeds, to monitor the streets, neighbourhoods and tags I suspected would see action. I began examining coverage, mapping claim against reality.

And what I saw, on the streets, in the galloping updates on my Twitter feeds, and when I turned on the TV that night, was fear. Any journalist knows TV cameras can do that – point a camera at a burning car or smoking Tube station from enough angles, and that night it will look like the whole city is ablaze. But somehow, those flickering black-and-orange images leaped off the screens and captured the popular imagination.

Fear bowled along the streets of Lewisham, even when nobody else did. Rumours spread. More riots would be coming tonight. The freesheets ran with it. Offices buzzed with it. A group of 1,000 rioters had been spotted heading North along the next road. EDL members were marching now. A race riot was about to kick off. Shops were being looted.

There were no police. Senior members of the Government were all caught out, still on holiday, as was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Tracked down by broadcast news, they looked lost, floundering, and smaller somehow. So did London. I knew it wasn’t an apocalypse, and that cover of Time was just silly, but the speculation, more than any fires or smashed windows, quickly lay waste to a lot of the residual trust people there felt, not just in the police and government, but in fellow Londoners.

There was one public figure in the city who seemed to be playing a blinder, though. I’d never even heard of him before – or at least I didn’t think I had. He was a Lib Dem Councillor in Lewisham, and suddenly he was everywhere. He seems, at one point early on, to have made it his personal mission to take on the misinformation, the rumour-mongering, the panic and the suspicion. His tweets tell the story today if you care to look back over them. He went from place to place and tweeted what he saw. When even the normally reliable Alex Tomlinson of Channel 4 News repeated an unverified rumour about a brewing race riot near Eltham, the Councillor debunked it. He replied publicly to people who claimed they’d witnessed improbable acts of mass violence, and asked them for details over the 3G airwaves. Where was this? Had they seen it? Because he was there now and the shop window looked intact. He asked Londoners to refrain from indulging rumours and retweets of things they could not personally verify. One tweet said simply: “No fighting no riots no looting no NF in #lewisham. Please stop tweeting nonsense. This is not a game. People are scared. #fixup please.”

He went further. He put his personal mobile number on his site, and tweeted it, so people could call and ask him what was happening, anywhere in the area, when they had no reliable information. He became, briefly, the single most trustworthy medium for news on developments in South London’s melting pot turned bubbling cauldron. He replied to enquiries and appeals on Twitter – all of them, publicly or individually. Again and again, he damped wild speculation about the racial demographic of rioters, and quashed rumours about white racist vigilante groups.

His huge presence, his championing of perspective and truth, was quite a contrast to the vacuum the Met and the Cabinet had left us inhabiting those first few hot, suspicion-filled, dangerous days. I remember tweeting his details at the time, “[Councillor’s name] – he’s on fire. This is what politicians are for!”

And all the while, in the midst of the chaos, I had two images in my head. One was of something this local politician reminded me of, an image drawn from the book I had just finished. It was Boris Yeltsin clambering up on a tank in front of Moscow’s Parliament building during the attempted Russian coup of 1991, and facing down the crisis with sheer presence (and reportedly some vodka too). It made me laugh with its bathos even then, but on some level it was true too.

The other image?

That didn’t make me laugh, it made me tense. It was an image of the worst that can happen in South London. It was a picture of what the city had to avoid, at all costs. It was a picture from 1993, of what happens, of what is lost, when people let themselves hate and mistrust, blindly. It was that shot of Stephen Lawrence, and I kept it in mind every time something immoderate appeared on a front page, or crackled over the airwaves.

The riots ended with the run of hot weather, and with the late, slow arrival of the police. I meant to thank the Councillor. I’d heard phrases like ‘community leaders’ before, and I’d always sort of thought they referred to self-appointed spokesmen or religious elders among discrete, probably ethnically or culturally homogeneous communities. Muslim community leaders. Black community leaders. I suppose for the first time I saw leadership being shown, rather than claimed, and I realized that I was part of one of those communities experiencing a degree of leadership. So I thought about composing a quick email – maybe a tweet – just to say how much of a difference his work for those few days had made.

But I never did. I left it just too late. And by then, the man I wanted to thank was in the news again, for very different reasons, and probably receiving more emails than anybody could be expected to handle.

I saw the Councillor in the news during this winter’s trial of two of the men who had killed Stephen Lawrence. His name was Duwayne Brooks, and back on that evening in 1993, he’d been the friend who’d escaped from the gang. I felt stupid for not having remembered the name’s significance that summer. Then I thought: wow.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve read more about Duwayne Brooks – the terrible impact of the murder itself; the long campaign of intimidation, prejudice and smears against him by the Metropolitan Police; his treatment at the hands of the law and, often, the media; his transformation from frightened, suspicious virtual fugitive to politician; and his dignity and perseverance at the final reckoning for two of the murderers.

And here’s what impressed me most. If there was ever anyone who had the right to feel hate, or suspicion, or to welcome some form of blowback against the power structures of a city that had let him and his friend down so badly, it was Duwayne Brooks. If anyone could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia about a police vacuum and rumours of racial conflict in South London, it would have been him.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, for those long, hot days in South London, when those structures let everyone down and fear threatened to take over the streets, he was as a powerful force for tolerance, truth, reason, calm, and – more than anything – trust. He was markedly less speculative, panicky or paranoid than most of the better journalists I know.

What I started out wanting to say was this. I don’t usually write praise for politicians, but in this era of photo opps, press briefings and presubmitted questions, It’s worth remembering Duwayne Brooks was there for the people he represented. On his mobile, on the streets, and on the case.

And yet this is not really about politics either. It’s about how we let ourselves feel as people, as Londoners, and about how we react to what shapes us. Because if a city like this can’t learn more from Duwayne Brooks than how to survive a terrible ordeal and come through, then we miss the point. And if we can’t learn from his incredible presence during that week of madness how to help others through their troubles and suspicion and fear too, then we’ve got no-one to blame but ourselves.

So… So what? I don’t know the rest. Like I said at the start, it’s not really a story, and this is too messy to be an ending. But in the years to come, I hope we – Londoners, people, whatever – can give it an ending, and make it a proper story. And I really hope we make it a good one.

Update 16th January 2012: After receiving a copy of this piece for syndication, the London Evening Standard ran it, originally changing the byline to one of their staffers. That issue has now been rectified, and you can read their shorter edit of the piece here.

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