Rose Lee Lisa
Cherry Groce's children (left to right): Rose, Lee and Lisa Lawrence. Photo: Maeva Vitela
Life

Decades After Police Paralysed Their Mother, They're Still Seeking Justice

Ahead of the ten-year anniversary of Mark Duggan's death, we spoke to four generations of British families impacted by police brutality.
August 3, 2021, 8:30am

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan. Duggan is one of many people to have died or been seriously injured during an interaction with British police, yet no officer in the UK has been convicted of murder following a death in custody since 1969, and only two have been found guilty of manslaughter. In ‘Those Left Behind’, we meet British families from different generations who have lost loved ones to police brutality.

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For those who know the name Dorothy “Cherry” Groce, the extent of their knowledge likely begins and ends with the night she was shot by police in 1985. Officers in search of her son, Michael, raided Groce’s home in Brixton on the 28th of September while she was in bed. Four of her children were home, along with two children she was looking after that evening. 

Shot in the shoulder, the mother of six was left paralysed from the chest down. After she died of kidney failure in 2011, a 2014 jury inquest found that the shooting and its resultant complications contributed to the 63-year-old’s death. The police officer who shot Groce was prosecuted but ultimately cleared of malicious wounding.

When word spread about what had happened to Groce, it angered her local community, sparking two days of disorder that would later come to be known as the 1985 Brixton Riot. Caught up in the middle of all this was a family left grieving their loved one. 

On a Sunday morning, I met with three of Cherry’s children - Rose, Lee and Lisa Lawrence - at Lee’s home in south London. As they settled down to chat in the living room, it became clear that Lee – who has done decades of campaigning on behalf of his mother, and has written an award-winning memoir called The Louder I Will Singis much more at ease talking about their painful past. Rose and Lisa, who have been reluctant to give interviews in the past, took more time to share their memories of the incident that forever changed family life as they knew it. 

After being catapulted into unexpected visibility years ago, Cherry Groce’s children have had decades to make sense of how their lives suddenly combusted that night in 1985.

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VICE: What are some of the key things that stick out to you when you remember your mum?

Rose: Music. Motown and Al Green specifically. Al Green and Percy Sledge, it’s one of my fondest memories of my mum.

Lisa: Just being around the house, coming in with shopping, Christmas, just all the fun times.

Lee: Pre-shooting, I describe my mum as being this kind of lioness, warrior-type woman. She was very petite, but big in character, you know? She commanded respect. We didn’t mess around with my mum. But at the same time, she was very open and free with us – it felt like there wasn’t much about mum that we didn’t know. She had a very deep connection with music, to the point where I felt that we could determine her mood through the music she was listening to. We went to bed with music. The tape was just playing and it might be – as Rose said – Al Green, Percy Sledge, Randy Crawford or Marcia Griffiths. Those tunes were embedded in your psyche because there was always music in the background.

Cherry Groce's son Lee Lawrence

Lee Lawrence. Photo: Maeva Vitela

You made a distinction there with “pre-shooting”. Did your relationship with your mum shift or change after she was injured?

Lisa: The music was still vibrant in the house – she couldn’t go to her friends, so she brought them all to her. That continued and kept her going for a while, until she stopped getting out of bed.

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Rose: The relationship actually didn’t change. It was the environment and the situation, but nothing else.

Lee: What did change was the way we would maybe access our mum in the same way. For instance, she couldn’t come to the school if there was an incident or anything anymore. We were mindful about what we would go to her for. Though she was still this strong character, we knew she was in this position where she was very vulnerable. 

You’d second-guess what kind of problems you might bring to her, bearing in mind she’s already got all these challenges. That kind of child-parent relationship, where you’re reliant upon your parent, did shift for us. Her moods would then also change as well, because, you know, she’s not always able to connect to the moment because she’s in pain. There’d be times when you might look at her and you can see that she’s struggling to keep up with everyone and she doesn't want to let anyone down.

Lisa: Or she’s remembered something or a certain song has reminded her of something before she was injured. 

That puts you in a really tricky position as children – that’s a lot for you to be trying to process and hold space for. How did you find out about what had happened to your mum on the night of the shooting?

Lisa: I was asleep in the living room with two other children, so I was in the house and there were the dogs coming into the front room and a whole heap of chaos. That’s how – well, I knew there was something going on.

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Rose: I was in a taxi. It was on the news on the radio. I told the driver to take me to the house, and I remember that it took so long to get there. Or at least, it seemed so long to get there. 

Lee: I was in the room at the time, and I was woken up by the gunshot itself. Well, first the kicking in of the door and then the gunshot. When I looked at mum, she was already on the floor and this man was already holding his gun, shouting at my mum. I was hysterical and started screaming. Then he pointed that gun at me. We were literally woken up and confronted with this. It felt like someone picked up the house and shook it.

Considering what happened and your proximity to it, how have you coped together as a family? What has that process been like?

Lisa: Later on in life, we spoke more about what each other thought about the situation. Before that, it was automatically not talked about and we just got on with life. That’s it. It was only later, with the inquest and things coming out, that we learned about things that had happened to one another [and] what everyone was dealing with. There were years of carrying certain things on our own without telling each other.

Rose: I guess, as well, we didn’t talk about it because we didn’t want to upset mum, so we didn’t want to talk about it.

Lisa: Plus, no one asked us questions – like, fend for yourself, get on with it. No one taught us how to look after her, nothing.

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Rose: There weren’t no counselling, showing us what to do about it or telling us how to cope with it. 

Lee: Like Lisa said, it wasn’t until we were going through the inquest - so we’re talking some 28 or 29 years later - we went through a process where I said to the family, “Write down how you were affected by this.” I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw. It was really overwhelming, to be honest, to understand how this one incident happened and we had all been affected by it in such different ways. It’s a lot to process about each other.

Rose: It was like our own therapy, and we shouldn’t have had to do our own therapy - we were children. 

Cherry Groce's daughter Lisa Lawrence

Lisa Lawrence. Photo: Maeva Vitela


It’s so shocking that you weren’t offered these things, especially given that your mum’s shooting sparked a widely-documented riot. What was that like for you, knowing that the protest and outrage originated because of what happened to your mum?

Lisa: It’s really touching that the community came together straight away, and they’ve always been there for us and her. 

Rose: At the time of the riots, it was kind of scary. You’re aware of all of this happening around you, and why, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. 

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Lee: I’m glad that you’re capturing this because, a lot of time, the way the riots have been described – it’s always in a very negative way. But there was a sense of comfort that the community felt our pain as well, that they felt what we went through, and it meant a lot. Initially, I wasn’t really too concerned about what was happening outside - we were in a bubble. Our priority was whether mum was going to be alright, while still trying to get over the shock of what just happened. ‘Is this real? Are we dreaming still?’ We were going through those stages of grief, and outside felt like noise to us. 

Then, on the second day after the shooting, a boy from my area came round and was like, “Lee, did you know that they were rioting for your mum? Come, let’s go up there.” We went down [to Brixton] and I remember that, as we got closer and closer, it just looked like a war zone. It looked like someone had just bombed Brixton. I felt Rose’s fear as well, but also understanding that there was an explosion as a result of what had happened to us. We weren’t alone.

I think what you’ve touched on is so important - it’s not mindless and senseless destruction. Frustration with being targeted by police, sus law and the conditions that Black people in Britain were facing had reached breaking point. With that in mind, how do you feel the police and other authorities dealt with your mum’s case?

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Rose: Disappointing, disappointing. The guy [who shot our mum] literally just got away with it.

Lisa: Mum had hardly anyone in her corner. She had to find every person that she had representing her on her own, from the Yellow Pages. No one helped her. 

Rose: Imagine that. She had to look for everything.

Oh wow. I did not know that. What about you, Lee?

Lee: I was 13, probably, by the time of the criminal trial. I was seeing it on the news because we seemed to get updates at the same time as everyone else. We were watching the news to get information. I remember going to the Old Bailey as a witness, and all they asked me was if I could point out the man who shot my mum. They didn’t ask me anything else about the day. When the “not guilty” came in and I went into the kitchen where mum was, I said, “Mum, did you see the news? The man, he got off.” She was very calm. I asked her how she felt about it and she said, “Lee, the police are a force and we can’t beat the force.” 

It was this acceptance that this shit can just happen to us. It was a huge turning point as to how I viewed the system. I became more rebellious with how I dealt with the police. Sometimes I’d be purposefully confrontational with them because I was so angry. I was there at my mum’s shooting, I saw what happened. It wasn’t questionable, but these people were protected by the system. 

Cherry Groce's daughter Rose Lawrence

Rose Lawrence. Photo: Maeva Vitela​

What does justice look like for you? Justice for your mum, your entire family, your community – does it feel achievable?

Lisa: It should be equal for everybody. In the case of my mum, the officer should have at least lost his job or something. 

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Rose: Hmm, I’m thinking. I mean, the monument to my mum [a memorial pavilion unveiled in Brixton in 2021] – is that justice? It’s something to remember my mum for, and to show what she went through, but is it justice? Are we supposed to be satisfied with that as justice? I don’t know. I don’t think it is, because it’s something she deserved. I don’t know what justice looks like.

Lisa: Mum was failed by a lot of people – not just the police, not just the justice system, but also social services and everyone around her. If what happened then had happened today, she probably would have had a lot more help. She probably would’ve lived a lot longer if she’d had the help she needed. It’s actually surprising that she lasted as long as she did, because she was left to fend for herself with her children, basically. 

Lee: The justice system is not designed for us. Do we feel like we got justice? No, we received restorative justice and that’s different. We take strength from it, and it’s something that has helped us as a family start to heal from what we’ve gone through. However, the man who shot my mum and the people who were responsible for decision making have not been held accountable. We’ve held the establishment accountable to some degree for the impact this had on mum and our family, but that’s not the same.

I want to end with thinking about your mum and your favourite memories with her. Are there any particular moments that are still crystal clear in your mind?

Lisa: My favourite thing about her was her dry sense of humour. She was so witty. Definitely also miss her cooking. I just miss her whole presence.

Rose: Her domino skills, definitely. We had to know how to play dominos – we were trained well. To this day, we still play and are pretty competitive.

Lee: Rose has taken on that role of mother hen, like hosting the family on Sundays. We have dinner, play music and play dominoes. It’s like the closest thing to that vibe and energy when mum was around. It’s an unsaid connection that we have around it. My little daughter has never met my mum, but she knows her through that sense of connection.

I have two favourite memories with my mum. One was the day when she brought home “Someone Loves You Honey”, which was a record she bought in Brixton. She came home and put it on and I just remember us all dancing together in the living room together. It’s probably my last proper memory of her on her feet. 

The second is about how fearless she was as a person. One day, pre-shooting, I was playing out in the area and some boys decided to bully me and spit on me. I went home and I was upset. My mum asked what the matter was, and I told her that these bigger boys had roughed me up - they were teenagers, and I was only about nine. She goes, “Come.” I was thinking, ‘Oh my god,’ because there were about seven or eight of them, and my mum was so small. They were all lined up on a wall, and she just went up to them and goes, “If any one of you put your hand on my son again, I will chop it off.” I was in awe. How did my little, little mum do that? All of them just held their heads down in shame and I was never troubled again by those boys. She was fearless. It’s something I’ll never ever forget.

@paulaakpan