Man who saw his mum shot by police officer fights for justice 35 years later

This summer, Lee Lawrence took his two daughters to a Black Lives Matter protest at the US embassy in London.

“We were looking at the banners remembering George Floyd and other police deaths in the US,” he says. “Then we saw their grandmother’s name.”

Among the placards held by protesters was one bearing the name ‘Cherry Groce’, remembering the 37-year-old mother shot and paralysed by a British police officer in 1985, sparking the second Brixton riot.

“I took my daughters to the protest because I wanted them to understand who we are and where we’ve come from,” Lee, 46, says. “I can’t believe this is still going on three decades after my mum was shot.”

Among the words on the banners, was the slogan “I can’t breathe”. Words used by Eric Garner, choked to death by New York police in 2014, and by George Floyd as he lay dying under the weight of a Minneapolis officer’s knee.

The same words Lee had heard his mother repeating as she lay on the floor, shot by a British police officer.

“When I saw the footage of George Floyd saying those words it triggered me straight back to the moment I saw my mum being shot,” he says. “That was what she cried out – ‘I can’t feel my legs’ and ‘I can’t breathe’. Thirty- five years later, there’s a man saying the same words my mum said.”

Lee, then just aged 11, lived in an overcrowded house and slept in his mum’s bedroom. Witness to the shooting, he had screamed at the officer. The policeman had turned the gun on him, saying, “Someone had better shut this f***ing kid up”.

Everything in Lee’s life since has been defined by that moment. Not just his mother’s shooting which left him a child carer, but being aggressively silenced. Now he is having the final word by writing a book that brings his music-loving mother to life and shows just how much she lost.

“She was 37, cut down in her prime,” he says. “She went from this really outgoing person who loved social- ising, music and dancing to someone who didn’t want to be seen in a wheel- chair because she didn’t want to be defined by what had happened.”

I first met Lee in 2014, when he was campaigning for legal aid so his family could be represented at the inquest into his mother’s death.

In 1987, Detective Sergeant Douglas Lovelock had been acquitted of malicious wounding and later promoted to Inspector.

But in 2011, after spending 26 years in a wheelchair, Cherry passed away at the age of 63 from injuries relating to the shooting.

This meant there could finally be an inquest, and the chance for her family to seek justice.

Lee said then that one of the things he most wanted to see was Lovelock, the man who figured in all his nightmares.

“When I was a child, he was overpowering, overbearing, aggressive, towering over me,” he says. “But this was a frail man, a weak type of man. I felt like the tables had been turned.”

Lee realised the monster from his nightmares was in the machine.

“At that point I became even more hell bent on holding the establishment to account,” he says.

After the inquest, then Met Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan- Howe apologised unreservedly for his force’s failings. Later, Lee met the Met’s Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu as part of a restorative justice programme.

“He said to me, ‘I would hate for my mum to go through what your mum went through. I don’t know how I would have coped with that’,” Lee says.

“That was a really big moment for me. It was the first time I felt my voice was heard.”

The story of Cherry Groce was almost unknown for many years. The rapper Akala has called it “arguably one of the most important, yet least known, events in modern British history”.

Lee’s patient, dogged campaigning has led to a charity, The Cherry Groce Foundation, a book, an upcoming TV drama series, an educational package for schools about his mum and, next year, a permanent pavilion memorial for Brixton’s Windrush Square that means she will never be forgotten.

Now, as news breaks that there could be further criminal charges in the Stephen Lawrence case, Lee admits he is looking at whether there is a criminal case to answer.

“It was hard for a child to witness something like that but without me being in the room going through that with mum I don’t think I would have been so passionate and committed,” he says.

The title for Lee’s book, The Louder I Will Sing, comes from the Labi Siffre song, Something Inside So Strong.

The lines go: “The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing”.

Thirty-five years later, Lee Lawrence is still the boy who refused to shut up.