‘I sat up in bed and saw a policeman standing over me holding a gun’

Lee Lawrence’s win in the memoir category of the Costa Book Awards brought back some of the trauma and anger of the incident which is the pivot of his story. His mum, Cherry Groce, was shot by police in an incident which sparked the 1985 Brixton riots. Here TOBY PORTER recalls the events which shocked a community.

Lee Lawrence was 11 years old when he and his three sisters witnessed his mother’s shooting.

Cops had been trying to find his brother Michael, who had pulled a gun on an officer who was trying to take him into custody.

Lee said: “I remember a really loud bang and a flash of light. I sat up in bed and saw a policeman standing over me holding a gun.

“I was 11 at the time, screaming and shouting, and my mum was lying on the floor.

“I thought she’d been pushed out of bed and then she said, ‘I can’t feel my legs’, and I realised she’d been shot.

“It was a traumatic experience and probably one I have not got over. It was horrible to witness my mum lying on the floor, thinking she was going to die. I just went into protection mode.”

Lee Lawrence

The accident happened when police stormed the house looking for Michael over a suspected firearms offence. But the 22-year-old had not lived in the property for three years.

Rioters armed with bricks and wooden sticks fought with the police after news of her shooting spread.

A 60-strong crowd had gathered outside her home in Normandy Road, Brixton, shocked at the shooting.

Later that day, riots erupted as rumours spread that Mrs Groce, then 38, had died from her wounds.

Shops in Gresham Road, Barrington Road and Coldharbour Lane were gutted by blazes started by rioters’ petrol bombs. Cops lost control of the area for about 48 hours.

Several shops were looted and fires started, leaving at least one building and dozens of cars destroyed.

Mrs Groce was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital in Waterloo after the officer’s bullet passed through her lung and spine.

Mrs Groce, who had emigrated to Britain from Jamaica, and the incident was immediately perceived by many locals as further evidence of what was widely regarded as institutional racism in the Met.

Scotland Yard issued a “statement of regret” that morning to calm the tide of anger. It said: “We deeply regret the tragic accident.”

Despite being confined to a wheelchair, due to a police bullet being lodged in her spine, Mrs Groce still managed to raise her seven children.

After years bearing her injuries, Mrs Groce passed away in King’s College Hospital, Camberwell in April 2011 aged 63, with her family by her bedside.

Family friend Danny Gayle said: “Cherry courageously battled with numerous complications caused by the shooting.

“Although her life expectancy was only 10 years, she continued to be an active central figure in her family and an inspiration to many.

“Her life will stand as a testament to being strong and dignified through adversity, passing on a legacy for all to learn, follow and benefit from.”

Hundreds walked behind her horse-drawn hearse to the Brixton Seventh Day Adventist Church in Santley Street in May 2011.

Brixton came to a standstill as her funeral cortege passed through.

Her coffin was taken from her former home in Normandy Road, with a New Orleans jazz band and a woman on horseback leading the procession.

The 1,100-capacity church was packed. Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson recited the poem Jamaica Woman to close the service.

Mrs Groce’s brother Danny Gayle said: “The whole community felt very much a part of what happened to her.

“People came out to pay their respects because of the struggles that she had to endure all this time.

“She takes a special place in people’s memory.”

A blue plaque was in 2012 unveiled on the wall of the house in Mostyn Gardens where she was shot and paralysed.

Lee Lawrence said at the time: “My mother was a great woman and if she can go through what happened and still be the person she was, then I have to follow her example.”

He said: “It’s beyond dispute that an innocent woman was shot by the police in her house and that event created a massive response by the community.”

The family also that day launched the Cherry Tree Trust, a charity set up in Mrs Groce’s memory to support Saturday schools for youngsters.

Lee, of Spa Close, South Norwood said: “The Brixton community has supported us and this event is our way of saying thank you.

“My mum was an amazing person – even after she was shot and confined to a wheelchair she used to cook for us all, clean the house and look after us, all on her own.

“She never blamed my brother for what happened and didn’t have anything bad to say about the police.

“She was very much a positive person who taught us well and had an amazing outlook on life.

“She was an inspirational woman who deserves to be remembered for who she was, not just for that one night.”

The family plan to unveil a memorial to Mrs Groce in April this year, the 10th anniversary of her death.

In 1987 an Old Bailey jury had acquitted inspector Douglas Lovelock – the policeman who actually fired the shot – of inflicting unlawful and malicious grievous bodily harm.

A nine-day inquest jury in July 2014, at Southwark Coroners’ Court, three years after Cherry’s death aged 63, concluded: “She was shot by police during a planned, forced entry raid at her home, and her subsequent death was contributed to by failures in the planning and implementation of the raid.”

Speaking after the verdict, Lee added: “It is a bittersweet moment for us. We fought long and hard for this victory and had to wait so long for the truth, and sadly my mum is not here to see it or to receive an apology.

“We saw the decline of my mum’s health since the incident and a pathologist was able to show that there was a causal link between the shooting and her death.

Cherry Groce in her wheelchair.

“The healing can start now, and we want to focus on the future now that the record has been set straight.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe made a public apology, conceding that the shooting was “preventable” and that “irreparable damage” had been caused.

He said: “I apologise unreservedly for our failings. I also apologise for the inexcusable fact that it has taken until now for the Met to make this public apology.

“Sadly, this means that the person who most deserved to hear the apology is no longer here.

“However, Cherry’s children, her friends and others are here and they, too, deserve an apology. I am sorry for the years of suffering which our actions and omissions caused to your family.”

Next week – an excerpt from Lee Lawrence’s book The Louder I Will Sing; a chance to own your own copy of his book; and Lee on his journey as an author.

Main pic: Cherry Groce, 38, in St Thomas’ Hospital in 1985.  PICTURES: PA

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