Maev McDaid and JS Titus argue that police powers need to be curtailed, not expanded, in the context of the heavy handed policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard.
On Saturday 13th March we attended the vigil to remember Sarah Everard in Clapham Common. Sarah was snatched and killed on her walk home on 3rd March, and the prime suspect is a serving police officer.
The vigil held in Sarah’s name and memory was an event for all women and non-binary people who have been victims of gender-based violence. Footage from the event was dominated by pictures of the heavy handed policing of the women in attendance. The Metropolitan Police have been hit by a major crisis in its aftermath, with many calling for its Commissioner, Cressida Dick, to resign.
Since Sarah was reported missing, women have been sharing their experiences of harassment and assaults in their thousands. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (2017) estimated that over half a million women between the ages of 16-59 were sexually assaulted in the year to March 2017. The level of under-reporting of such incidents indicates that this is a low-end estimate. In a climate of deep-rooted gender based violence, where women are asking to be heard, being silenced will no longer be tolerated.
The vigil was planned quickly by a group called Reclaim These Streets (echoing Reclaim the Night, a women’s liberation movement that started in Leeds in 1977, which demanded women’s right to public spaces). The vigil became contentious when police claimed that it was illegal to gather under Covid-19 legislation. In a statement, Reclaim These Streets said they planned to hold a ‘short gathering, centred around a minute of silence to remember Sarah Everard and all the women lost to violence.’
However, the Met said the vigil would be unlawful citing Covid-19 legislation and that the organisers would face fines. Although scientific evidence indicates that 90% of transmissions occur indoors and outdoor risk is small, particularly when face coverings are used, unless it involves close and sustained interaction, Covid-19 has become a convenient excuse for authoritarian policing in the last year.
The organisers fundraised over £30,000 from supporters on social media in order to cover the costs of any fines they would incur by proceeding with the event. A High Court ruling suggested that the protest would be legal if the Met police themselves gave it the okay. The Met decided to refuse permission and the organisers backed down, urging people not to attend.
The radical feminist group Sisters Uncut, knowing that people would attend, unwilling to be silenced, put out a statement calling for people to turn out regardless, and thousands heeded their call.
When we arrived at the vigil the atmosphere was very sombre and many women were laying flowers by the bandstand. It was socially distanced and most people had face-masks on. There were chants to end gendered violence, and of solidarity like ‘sisters united will never be defeated’.
There was a moving call and response chant of a quote by Black radical activist Assata Shakur:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
As it got darker, at around 6.30pm, the police arrived in dozens. They pushed through the crowd and trampled on the flowers that were placed earlier by mourners, showing deep contempt for the women in attendance.
At the bandstand, women were grabbed with force and moved by the police. This instigated a series of chants against the police, and officers responded by arresting women, including by holding them down. They even had women police officers shoving through mourners and pushing them.
We are told that the solution to gendered violence is to have more police on the streets, but our reality is that the police are perpetrators of violence and have used their powers to frighten, ambush, and arrest women.
Response to the Events
In response to the police violence of Saturday night, Sisters Uncut called another protest in Parliament Square for the following day which was attended by about 2000 people. A banner read ‘In Britain, Myanmar, Greece, the oppressor is the police’. Police repression is international and so is our solidarity.
A commanding police officer was heard ordering others to protect a statue of Winston Churchill ‘at all costs.’ The new police powers bill being debated today in Parliament would mean that defacing a statue or monument could land you ten years in prison, whereas physical harm to a woman stands at around five years. It is clear that the police are motivated to protect capitalist order and property, not women.
As well as widespread condemnation of the police’s actions from across the political spectrum, women’s groups and activists, ordinary people are not being fooled by the excuses being made by the Met that they were there to uphold safety. Sadiq Khan and Priti Patel have both announced they want an enquiry and this morning Boris Johnson added his concern about Creddisa Dick.
The extent to which this is a government in crisis or merely paying lip service to the degree of outrage remains to be seen. While Dick should unquestionably be sacked, merely replacing her would not begin to fix the problems with the unaccountable and authoritarian state of policing today.
The right to protest
Patel claims she found the Met’s actions ‘upsetting’ but is currently rushing a bill through Parliament that will increasingly limit the right to protest. Patel’s decision to clamp down so quickly on protest is clearly motivated in large part by the size and strength of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which she described as ‘awful’. Last summer, we saw that the police kettled BLM protestors and used disproportionate force such as baton charges and horse charges which left a woman unconscious.
The Labour party had initially tailed the UK government’s proposals, saying on 9 March that the new bill wasn’t strong enough. On Friday, it was being briefed that Labour MPs would be whipped to abstain on the vote for the bill. The events of the weekend rendered such a position totally untenable and they have since announced that they will oppose it. The fact that Labour have shifted their position in response to the protests shows that mass mobilisations are a crucial factor in forcing the party to change its positions, much more so than internal politicking.
There is a worrying statement from the original organisers of the event on Twitter stating that working with the police is the best way to keep protests safe. Indeed, they have undermined demands for Dick’s resignation, saying they do not want to remove a high profile woman from office!
We know that we cannot depend on the police to ‘cooperate’ with activist groups, and that our right to resist state repression should not be dictated by poorly written legislation effectively denying our right to assembly. We must urgently and emphatically ask activists, trade unions, and community groups to support Netpol’s Charter for Freedom to stop further authoritative measures. More than this, we need to coordinate our efforts on the left to demand, defend and demonstrate our right to protest.
We must continue to protest
The last two weeks have been hard and women are being confronted with all of the ways in which they have limited resources for support and help. Some of the main perpetrators of gender and race-based violence are the on-duty police officers who operate with impunity. You would be hard pressed to find one woman at that demonstration who felt in any way safer when the police bullied their way to the bandstand. Meanwhile, virtually all young women (97%) have experienced sexual harassment and yet only 1.7% of rape cases end with a conviction. The numbers are not adding up.
The events of the weekend have also brought up important questions around policing and the pandemic. The police made the choice to respond aggressively and have radicalised another generation of young people who know they will not protect them. However, it must be remembered that this discussion happened because a woman was murdered as she was walking home. It is heartbreaking, sickening and cruel and Sarah’s family, and the family of all those murdered by the police, deserve justice.
The systemic oppression of women affects all areas of our life – limits on reproductive rights, job losses, the gender pay gap, and unaffordable childcare, to name but a few. Lawful assembly is a human right, and our collective grief and solidarity is our power: we will not be silenced.
Maev McDaid and JS Titus are activists and researchers who live in London.