A vigil was held last night on Clapham Common to honour and pay respects to Sarah Everard and to illuminate the societal flaws and backdrop to her death. The vigil was initially denied by the Metropolitan Police, due to coronavirus regulations that prohibit the meeting of large crowds. However, the area in which the vigil was held was large, outdoors and the majority of the crowd was masked. The vigil was also somewhat legitimised by the attendance of the Duchess of Cambridge who came to pay her respects earlier that day. Despite this, the police reverted to heavy handed, authoritarian policing that lead to at least 5 arrests and widespread outrage.
Many people have been quick to defend the Met’s behaviour, reverting to the pandemic as a safety net and also their earlier warning to ‘stay away’ from the site. This is a spineless defence of an intolerable act by our police and a shameful dismissal of the true meaning of what last night was and the consequences that will likely follow.
The police are facing a serious crisis, they were already staring down the barrel of a substantial lack of confidence from the public, especially with women. The 33-year olds murder has had a deep and profound effect across the country and especially in London. A lot of women feel like this could have happened to anyone, many friends and journalists have pointed out that Sarah did ‘everything one should do’ to keep themselves safe; she texted friends and walked down well-lit public streets, yet she was still murdered. The Met underestimated the true fear and anger held by the women who attended the vigil last night. I have a sister; she is in her 20’s and I messaged her after the initial reports of Sarah’s murder asking her how she felt, she replied; ‘we are feeling quite weird about it?! It is scary stuff’. I think she speaks for a lot of women.
Two things really stick out from me about last night on Clapham Common. The first was the behaviour of a man, who took it upon himself to jump onto the podium with a megaphone and begin shouting to the crowd. I will address the content of his speech later, but from first instance that was just wrong and plain narcissism. The vigil last night was part of the Reclaim the Street movement, a movement designed to make women feel safe by uniting around each other and protecting themselves on the streets. It was a woman’s vigil, organised by a women-based movement as a result of the murder of a woman. It was not the place for a man to take centre stage and have his moment in the limelight. The man’s speech was also just completely irrelevant, he ranted about anti-lock-down measures and the creation of a dictatorship. He tried to turn a peaceful vigil into a protest, which is both counter-productive to the movement and completely baseless. Even when the crowd started to chant ‘Not your place’, he then mimicked the crowd, cupping his ear and grinning. His behaviour is symptomatic of the delusion a lot of men are under about what this murder represents. I do not believe women want to take instructions or speeches from men at this time, they want men to educate themselves on the real dangers women still face in society and try to understand their perspective, this was a podium for women to speak on, not men. I hope he wakes up this morning ashamed of his behaviour last night.
Furthermore, the behaviour of the police last night is what really worried me. The road to authoritarian states is slippy and fast-moving, whilst we are a long way off that, last night was the hallmark of an overly powered police. Over the past year we have entrusted the state and the police with a momentous amount of power, the “liberal loving Brits”, as we affectionately nickname ourselves, have sacrificed a huge amount of self-determination so to give the Government the appropriate weapons to fight the Coronavirus. This should have made the state hypersensitive of overstepping the mark and ensuring that a relationship between the state and public based on trust is emphasised. I found it almost nauseating seeing Priti Patel demand a ‘full report’ on the events of last night whilst simultaneously preparing the new Home Office Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court’s Bill. This new bill gives even more powers to the police to break up all public gatherings, unless they are completely ‘silent’. Large vigils, protests or marches are almost impossible to be silent, so this is a significant swipe at a fundamental right of liberal democracy, the right to protest, dressed up as a Coronavirus policy. The Home Office is making an authoritarian encroachment on liberal society. The behaviour of the police last night and the videos of the 5 arrests that took place were violent and completely unnecessary. If you think that this new bill will only be used to tackle radical protests like Extinction Rebellion and Anti-Vax, you are wrong.
I am not being overly dramatic and proposing we are now in an authoritarian state or a dictatorship. I am saying we need to be vigilant. Last night a peaceful and highly public vigil was aggressively broken up by the police who, according to the Met, were acting well within the lines of the Law. This was a vigil, not a protest and no matter how much Government spin doctors try to make it out to be one, it is important to remember that yesterday was about remembering and paying tribute to a murdered woman, not staging a protest. This was an opportunity for women to unite and ignite constructive conversations about the very real dangers they still face in society, instead, it turned into a spectacle of brutality and an attack on liberal democracy. Cressida Dick, the first female commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Service may now lose her job for the abuse and mistreatment of women. A worrying and sad week not only for women, but also society, just came to a very upsetting close.