Conroy received the call at 6am on a Tuesday. He was in his flat in Lewisham watching the news when his ex-partner and the mother of his two children rang and said, “Justyn’s been shot.”
Shot dead? “Yes.”
Conroy went to her house, where he was greeted by their eleven-year-old daughter, who didn’t yet know the news. The family sat quietly. His daughter asked why he was there so early in the day, and Conroy told her that her beloved older brother had died. She started to shake, then cry, and then she ran upstairs and brought down a pair of trainers; they were the last gift Justyn had given her.
They carried on talking quietly as a family, until his daughter said that she wanted to see her brother’s body.
Conroy Lawrence works as an electrician for Lewisham hospital, fixing lights, air conditioning systems and anything else that breaks. This year he will have been working for the NHS in Lewisham for 35 years; he was born in Lewisham and has lived there all his life. He’s often a very serious-looking man, not least when recalling his son’s murder. But he also has a warm laugh and a smile you can’t help smiling back at.
A family in mourning
Back in April 2004, Justyn Lawrence was a music promoter, a vibrant 23-year-old who had just bought a flat with his girlfriend. On 13 April he went out with his friends to a club called The Ministry of Sound. What Conroy understands from the night is that Justyn and his friends met another group of men and an altercation took place. Later that night his son went to Bagel King and the same group turned up, a fight started and spilled out onto the road, one man ran off and when he returned he had a gun. Justyn was shot five times. He died outside the NatWest Bank on Walworth Road.
The year before this tragedy, Conroy’s mum had passed away. Conroy describes her as the head of the family, the person who would take charge if anything went wrong. Without her there to offer guidance, on the morning of Justyn’s death Conroy realised that it was up to him to lead his family now. He decided that he would let his daughter see Justyn’s body, if that’s what she wanted.
The family went to Kings College Hospital, where they were led half way into a darkened room. A red velvet curtain was pulled back to reveal glass, and behind the glass was Justyn.
In the weeks that followed, the family grieved and Conroy began to seek justice. He knew there were a number of witnesses at the scene when his son died, so assumed it wouldn’t be hard to find his killers.
But the weeks went by and the killer wasn’t found. Conroy spoke to some of Justyn’s friends, but describes encountering a ring of silence; he thinks that no-one spoke up, out of fear.
During this time Justyn’s body was still on ice at the morgue, where Conroy could see that his body was starting to change. They needed to bury his son, and Justyn’s mother needed to have the funeral so that she could to start to grieve.
It was around this time that Conroy began to feel that he had to tell his story. He decided to talk about what had happened to his UNISON colleagues, and was invited to speak at UNISON’s women’s conference. When he got up to speak he had to pause a few times, as emotions threatened to overpower him, but he managed to get his story across.
With still no sign of a suspect, Conroy decided to keep telling his story, travelling to UNISON conferences up and down the country. Every few months he went to a different committee and told his UNISON colleagues about Justyn and the lack of justice.
A campaigning spirit
The police still didn’t find Justyn’s killer. Conroy started to turn his attention to the laws around gun crime. He wanted there to be fewer people on the streets with guns, he wanted tighter laws on gun crime, he didn’t want any more parents to have to go through what he had. He talked about this at UNISON conferences, hoping to pass a motion on changing gun laws at national conference.
Then when Conroy spoke to that motion at national conference in 2008, something happened to change the direction of his campaign. Sitting in the audience was the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission at the time, Trevor Phillips. When Phillips spoke later that day he mentioned the debate on gun crime and called it “an issue which is close to my heart.”
Conroy was one of the growing number of people speaking out on gun crime at the time. UNISON channels enabled him to reach one of the most influential figures on the issue, and in doing so he helped keep up the pressure on politicians to crack down on the problem.
Still today, no-one has been prosecuted for Justyn’s murder. The family still grieves, but Conroy keeps himself busy. In 2013 Jeremy Hunt tried to shut down the A&E department at Lewisham Hospital. Conroy and his UNISON colleagues joined with others to campaign against the move, and Conroy stood up and made a powerful speech to over 45,000 who marched to save the hospital (see below).
Conroy is proud of helping save Lewisham Hospital. He’s now worried about the impact of the impending Trade Union Bill, which he sees as “a threat to our democracy, and to organising in the workplace.
“They’re trying to attack DOCAS, the ability for the employer to collect our union subs. But my employer hasn’t got a problem with DOCAS, they haven’t indicated to us that they’re not happy with it. It’s not a problem to them, it’s a way of stopping us organising.”
Though there still hasn’t been justice for Justyn, Conroy will keep campaigning for his son, and for others. As he tells me, with a smile, “Once you get going and you campaign on one thing, you’ll campaign on anything that you feel is necessary.”