Disclaimer: some readers may find some of this content distressing
Shards of light spread ochre fingers through the middle of the Clapham Common bandstand, reaching out over a fractured crowd. Hundreds of women had gathered, their broken hearts heavy, chests weighed down but the familiarity of it all, to pay their respects to Sarah Everard. ‘She was just walking home,’ one of the signs, threaded in amongst flowers and candles, read at the base of the stand. ‘Dear Sarah, we are sorry,’ another inscribes. ‘You did nothing wrong.’
Sarah, 33, disappeared on her way home from a friend’s house on 3 March. As has been widely reported, she travelled along a brightly lit main road. She made a 15-minute phone call to her boyfriend, Josh Lowth, and arranged to meet him. It was Josh that sounded the alarm the next morning when she didn’t arrive home. Her remains were found a week later, thrown into a builder’s bag and discarded in woodlands in Kent. Dental records had to be used to identify her, and a 48-year-old Metropolitan Police Officer – a man in a position of power and trust – has been charged with her alleged murder. Just a few days before she went missing, another woman had reported the same man for indecently exposing himself. A police watchdog (the IOPC) is now looking into whether two officers responded “appropriately” to the report of flashing at a fast food restaurant in south London. It is understood that, following the report, he was allowed to work a shift at the US Embassy in Battersea.
The details are shocking, but perhaps most terrible of all is the fact that in our collective grief and anger we shared one thing in common: none of this was surprising. Male violence is ever-present. We have been born into it. Keeping ourselves safe from it is stitched into our DNA: a hyper-vigilant mutation passed from one weary generation to the next. We’re so used it – so used to men getting away with it – that it feels inevitable. So I was similarly unsurprised to hear that one of my peers had been at the vigil mere minutes before she was harassed by a male journalist, who had appeared from the all-male centre of the stand, a ring of flash lights and cameras and a lack of respect.
“The guy approached my boyfriend for a comment, and he didn’t even realise I was there. I was sitting on a bench near the stand with my crutches as I am disabled. I had to make my presence known. He asked why I was at the vigil, and I told him that I’m a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, that I have nieces that are harassed by adult men on the way to school, and that I’m fed up with male violence not being treated as the crisis it is.”
His response? “He said, ‘Yeah, but it’s not all men is it? Men aren’t the problem. It’s state violence.’ I told him that for me, all men are a potential risk to women until we know otherwise. He wouldn’t accept my answer, and kept asking over and over again, pushing closer and closer into me and reasserting his point. His mask was flapping away from his mouth, and he was so close to me I had to shout at him to back off.”
A short while later, another man decided to place himself front and centre of the slowly increasing masses, shouting and stamping and generally proving our points. Piers Corbyn, the brother of Jeremy and now a famous anti-vaxer conspiracy theorist, was seen slinking around, leading to rumours that the as of yet unidentified mansplainer was from the same movement. As the sun began to sink, the air shifted, and what had started out as a peaceful affair turned to one of tangible protest.
“He started shouting from the bandstand about state sponsored violence and police brutality. ‘I didn’t come here to hear you speak,’ I shouted back. ‘We came to hear women speak about women.’ At which point, another member of the crowd shouted at me, telling me my brand of feminism was the problem and that men are allowed to speak. Around that point, the crowd started chanting, ‘Not your place,’ and the mood really changed.
“I began to feel uncomfortable and it did feel dangerous. He was taking up a space that he did not deserve to take up. We had the minute’s silence. Then everyone clapped. All I wanted to do was scream. And then more men turned up and started shouting about police violence.”
Not wanting to disappoint, the police waited until dark before they took their moment to strike. Footage of officers in fluorescent jackets, snaking through the crowd, circulated on social media. Even watching from a virtual distance, there was a palpable shift to an atmosphere of apprehension, the sounds of worried cries and boos yanking hair off the back of necks.
Their first act was a welcome one – taking away the man on the bandstand to cheers and applause. Then the violence erupted. One by one, they grabbed women standing at the edge of the bandstand, dragging them backwards away from witnessing eyes, disappearing into the centre. One video showed a girl desperately trying to hold on to a woman who appeared to be her friend, panicking as she watched her be manhandled by men twice her size. Another officer appeared to her left, punching down to warn her off. Live streams showed policemen, their hands on their batons, running after groups of women who fled in fear.
The photos that emerged the next day, of male police officers holding women face down on the ground, said more than words ever could. At a gathering for a woman who was dragged off the streets and murdered, allegedly by a serving Met Police Officer, here were the Met, literally dragging women off the streets. Like stalkers, they lurked around the shadowy edges, moving in for the attack when the lights went out with the bruised ego of an abuser in the midst of a meltdown.
“We absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary,” a Met statement read the next day. “But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety.”
Look what you made me do.
It is true that the original organisers of the vigil, Reclaim These Streets – a group of 10 women from Sarah’s community who came together to plan the event – were not given official permission to hold it. After a High Court case pleading for the Met to co-operate to make it Covid-secure, they refused on the grounds of the health crisis. This led to direct action group Sisters Uncut taking over the affair, successfully galvanising the danger and frustration women feel at the other health and social crisis that dominates their lives – that of male violence. The irony was not lost on us that, just hours before, a group of at least 22 men were safely and freely allowed to play an illegal game of football on the Common without the slightest State disturbance. The irony not lost that the same anti-vaxers that were lingering amongst the crowd that evening took over large swathes of central London every weekend and were afforded nothing like the heavy-handedness that greeted women standing with candles on Saturday because one of their neighbours was killed.
The next day, thousands of women – and yes, some men – gathered outside New Scotland Yard and later, Parliament Square. Led by Sisters Uncut, they called out the names of more than 200 women – including Sarah – who have died in the last year while in custody or at the hands of the police. It was also a demonstration against a Bill going through Parliament on Monday that would give the Commissioner of the Met Police, Cressida Dick, even more powers to clamp down on protests in the future that disturb public peace or cause “annoyance”. Meanwhile, calls were made for Dame Cressida to resign – ones repeatedly rebuffed by the first female officer ever to hold the position, who continues to maintain that the force did nothing wrong.
More irony, then, that this whole event was planned in response to police advice for women in the area Sarah was abducted to simply stay at home and avoid going out after dark. As usual, the onus is on us to prevent men from harassing, stalking, or attacking us, not on men to stop being criminals and to educate their sons.
The fact is, we’re not particularly safe at home either. We know that almost all young women experience cat-calling on the streets. We also know that at least two women a week are murdered at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. We know that one in five women (20%) have experienced some form of sexual abuse or violence since the age of 16 – the equivalent of 3.4 million women in England and Wales. We also know that only 1.4% of all reported rape cases actually end in a conviction, that it has affectively been decriminalised, that men can do what they want to us and expect to get away with it. The irony will never be lost on me that the one night I chose to stay at a friend’s house rather than walk home, I was raped in my sleep by her husband. Since then, I’ve always taken my chances with the streets.
It’s hard to know what else to say at this point, other than that women are completely and utterly exhausted. We’ve spent the past year watching our rights rolled back, our liberties curtailed, our jobs and family lives eroded at the hands of one crisis, while the other is allowed to continue and escalate.
The sight of broken signs, crushed flowers, and trampled candles on Sunday morning just encapsulated how we feel so well. Downtrodden, spoiled and sad. It was mere hours, though, before they were replaced, and the stand at Clapham Common bloomed once more. That’s what women do, though, isn’t it? Constantly rebuild ourselves. From one violent act to the next.
You Might Also Like