“I wanted it to be real” An interview with Lee Lawrence

by Sophie Marie Niang, Deputy Features Editor

There are two possible introductions when writing about Lee Lawrence’s The Louder I Will Sing. I could say that it is incredibly timely as a book, thirty-five years in the making, about police brutality and its consequences. Or I could suggest you go listen to “Someone Loves You Honey” by J.C. Lodge, which is mentioned in the preface of the book. I have a strong personal preference for the second option.

At the time of our interview, the book has been published for a day, “finally out” as Lee tells me. The Louder I Will Sing focuses on two central events in Lee’s life. The first took place on the 25th of September 1985, when his mother, Cherry Groce, was shot in her own home during an unnecessary police shooting which left her paralysed for the rest of her life. The second is the inquest which took place in 2014, after she died in 2011, to investigate the shooting and possible links between this event and her untimely death. When I ask him how this book came about, Lee answers that as they were getting close to the end of the inquest, he felt the need to start writing things down, to document his journey. “I wrote anything down at that stage, raw and uncut, with the aim of later making it into a story.” Later, via an acquaintance, Lee was introduced to an agent, and from that The Louder I Will Sing was born.

Music is a recurring theme in the novel, from the title to Cherry’s love for music and its omnipresence in the Brixton of the 1980s Lee grew up in. This wasn’t a conscious decision from the start, but while working on the manuscript, music imposed itself as something central in Lee’s and his family’s life. “Music was more than something to listen to and vibe, it told a story.” Lee goes on to talk about how the music which was perpetually playing in his childhood home reflected her mum’s internal state, and was yet another way for everyone to communicate.

Because he mentioned her, I point out how, while reading, I appreciated the way in which his mother is depicted not just as a victim, but as a full human being with her flaws and her qualities. I remember a specific passage in which he describes her lashing out at him after he asked her if she wanted a cup of tea. Lee tells me that I’m not the first one to pick up on this passage, which he hadn’t expected to resonate with so many people. “I wanted it to be real. As strong as my mum was, and as much as I looked up to her courage and dignity, what happened to her also got to her. Sometimes, she had bad days, and I wanted to show this in the book. I also wanted to talk about the relationship that forms between a person with a disability and their carer.” At the same time, by talking about how much she loved music or dancing, and her life story before she was shot, Lee Lawrence depicts his mum in all her complexity, in a way that victims of police brutality are often denied.

I then ask Lee about his work with the police, and then I correct myself, his work to reform the police. He notices it and tells me that he doesn’t think of himself as working with the police, but rather as engaging with it, to find ways that it can be improved. When I ask why he still believes it is worth fighting for change within police forces, given his own history with them, Lee points to a specific event, which happened during the process of mediation after the inquest. “I was talking to a senior police officer, telling my story, almost like a speech. And almost like in an MC battle, when I was done, I expected him to reply. And then he didn’t. He recognised that I won, and more than that, that I deserved to win.” Lee felt empowered by this acknowledgement of the validity of the cause he and his family had been fighting for for years, and he wondered what mediation could achieve for more people, given how much it had achieved for him. This led him to train in mediation and restorative justice, and also motivated his choice to engage with the police. “I think of myself as a humble little student going in to observe, and then with these observations, I see whether it would be possible to shift things within their system.” Lee is currently part of the independent advisers’ group, which observes and gives advice to the police forces, but they don’t have to follow that advice. “I know that we have different objectives, but I try to use my experience to provoke positive change.”

Talking about the police, we come to the topic of the global Black Lives Matter protests which emerged last spring in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. Lee tells me about how, when the movement first emerged, in 2013-2014, it felt like something which could unite those who, individually, had been advocating for their loved ones’ lives to matter : “I do this work because I want my mum’s life to matter.” He tells me how he decided to turn down interviews at the time, because it felt distasteful to seem to use this wave of support to talk about his book. At the same time, he made sure to come out and support the movement: “I remember how we felt, thirty-five years ago, when people came out in the street in protest of what had happened to my mum. How it felt to see the community rise up in support of her.” He also points out how heartwarming it was, this time around, to see support coming from people who aren’t subjected to that violence. “I’m sure that if we’d had videos, social media, at the time, there would have been a similar wave of support. But at the time it was only the immediate community, people who also experienced this treatment by the police, who came out. Because other communities wouldn’t get it, they didn’t experience so they couldn’t really believe it.”

Finally, Lee tells me about the importance of measuring change. “I’m an optimist, but at the same time I’m a realist. I understand that all the change that I want to see isn’t going to happen in my lifetime.” You, as an individual, can’t save the world, but you can do your bit, and maybe the next generation will start reaping the fruits of your labour. Lee adds: “I want the outcome of my work to be measurable. People always ask ‘what’s changed?,’ even though others have sacrificed, or dedicated their whole life to making changes. So I want to be able to answer that question, and point to what’s changed. I can’t do that yet, but I have hope that I will be able to.”

And putting his story and his mum’s story on paper is part of this work. The Louder I Will Sing is an important book. It shows the many ways in which, in the UK, encounters with the police can be fraught and dangerous for a Black man throughout his life. It shows that, in certain communities, anyone can be a victim of police brutality. It shows the importance of talking about victims as more than simply victims. And it shows the power of resilience, and sometimes, of restorative justice.

The Louder I Will Sing (Sphere ) is now available in hardback.

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The print and digital literary review by Black, Asian, and racialised community writers.