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Sarah Everard
Sarah Everard

Activists condemn police pushback on Sarah Everard vigil

The Metropolitan police are trying to stop Londoners gathering to honour the murdered 33-year-old, threatening its organisers with fines and prosecutions

Earlier today (March 12), it was confirmed that the human remains found in Kent woodland are that of Sarah Everard, whose disappearance and murder has sent shockwaves across the UK.

The 33-year-old vanished last Wednesday (March 3) while walking home to Brixton from a friend’s house in Clapham. The journey should have taken her 50 minutes – the last known sighting puts her just 20 minutes away from home before she was kidnapped.

In a grim development, a serving Metropolitan police officer was arrested on Tuesday (March 9), and detained on suspicion of Everard’s murder. Yesterday (March 11), it was announced that the Met would face an inquiry into whether it properly investigated a claim of indecent exposure involving the accused officer – an incident which happened just days before Everard’s disappearance.

Obviously, the Metropolitan police have a lot to answer for – but, instead of reflecting on how an alleged sex offender and murderer went under the radar, the force appears to be focused on policing women. On Monday (March 8 and International Women’s Day), authorities told women in Clapham to be “careful” and to “not go out alone”. They did not tell men to stop murdering women.

Now, the Met is attempting to silence women further by stopping them gathering for a vigil to honour Everard and all the women killed at the hands of men. The event is set to take place this Saturday (March 13) on Clapham Common, but, despite initially approving the vigil, the police have now said it’s unlawful because of current coronavirus restrictions.

In a statement, its organisers, Reclaim These Streets, said: “We were always aware of the challenges of organising a COVID-secure vigil, but safety has been a top priority from the beginning.” The group explained that the police are now threatening organisers with fines and criminal prosecution if the event goes ahead.

On advice from lawyers, Reclaim These Streets has requested an urgent order from the High Court confirming that the Met’s “understanding of the law is wrong”. The group also launched a crowdfunder and raised over £30,000 in less than 24 hours to cover legal costs and potential fines – any unused money will be donated to women’s groups.

“We are currently having our case heard in the High Court and will review the situation after the ruling has been heard,” one of the group’s organisers Grace Jessup tells Dazed. “If we are told we cannot go ahead with the socially distanced vigil this weekend, we will likely appeal and look to reschedule.”

“Parliament has not specifically acted to limit the right for such a vigil to take place, so I believe this is entirely lawful,” adds Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the Labour MP for Streatham (where Everard was a constituent). “It will be taking place in a large open-air area, with every effort made to ensure it’s compliant with social distancing measures.”

She continues: “We have a responsibility to ensure that women and girls are safe, and feel safe at all times in all places: in public and in private, by day and by night. Women have been shaken to the core by recent events and have looked to the vigil as a show of hope and support. It would be deeply ironic if women were prevented by police from coming out to show their solidarity this weekend.”

“Women have been shaken to the core by recent events and have looked to the vigil as a show of hope and support” – Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Labour MP

Danielle Roberts, the co-organiser of Reclaim The Night Belfast, which is hosting a virtual vigil this weekend, says the Met’s response is “unsurprising”. She explains that the Northern Ireland group has decided to hold an online event due to “heavy-handed policing of the Black Lives Matter protests here in June 2020”.

Further vigils are planned in Bristol, York, Edinburgh, and beyond. Speaking to Dazed about the Bristol event, co-organiser Aisling Nolan says: “I felt we needed a space here for the collective grief felt by women nationwide, and for women to know they’re not alone in their heartbreak. The resounding feeling is that Sarah could be any one of us, and she is one of us.”

Hannah McIvor and Ciara O’Connor-Pozo, the organisers of two vigils in Derry, express a similar sentiment, telling Dazed: “Sarah did everything that women are taught to do to stay safe, and yet it wasn’t enough. We are tired of being blamed for the actions of men.”

Roberts adds: “To have the police suggest a curfew for women, decades after the same thing was suggested following the Yorkshire Ripper attacks – which led to the first Reclaim The Night marches – shows how little public attitudes, and the reality for women and girls, has moved on.”

Jessup says Everard’s murder has “cruelly reminded us that we, as women in the UK, can have no expectation of safety as we go about our daily lives”. Many on social media have referenced the fact that, during lockdown, walking is the only thing we are allowed to do, and women can’t even do that safely. “It doesn’t matter what you wear,” continues Jessup, “who you’re with, where you live, or what time of day or night it is – you deserve to be safe.”

Ribeiro-Addy believes that Everard’s case has resonated with so many women because of the “pervasiveness of these experiences”. She tells Dazed: “Every woman has a story to tell of harassment, abuse, assault, violence, and near-miss encounters.”

Just this week, UN Women UK released a survey which revealed that 97 per cent of young women in the UK have been sexually harrassed, dropping to 80 per cent when it came to women of all ages. “Street harassment makes girls feel ashamed, frightened, and vulnerable,” Rose Caldwell, the CEO of Plan International UK, told Dazed on Wednesday (March 10). “It causes them to chase their behaviour, like avoiding certain streets or changing their clothes before leaving the house, (which has) serious implications for their freedom and autonomy.”

Discussing what needs to be done to help end violence against women, Ribeiro-Addy says we need to “get to the roots of why this is happening”. She continues: “We need a wide-ranging conversation about the cultural and material issues that mean women continue to face appalling rates of gender violence. This needs to involve everything from confronting the disgusting culture of victim blaming, which still persists, to tackling shockingly low conviction rates for rape, to giving better resources for lighting.”

McIvor and O’Connor-Pozo believe “more needs to be done to educate boys and men about consent, respecting women, and not treating us like sex objects”. They add: “The solution is not just to get more police on our streets, because, as we have seen, the police are frequently the perpetrators of violence themselves, and this would disproportionately affect POCs. We want a solution that focuses on prevention, not just punishment.”

As well as being a stark reminder of how unsafe the world is for women, Everard’s killing has, once again, exposed the failures and dangers of the police. Last year, it emerged that two Metropolitan police officers took selfies next to the bodies of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, while last summer’s historical Black Lives Matter protests shone a light on all the Black people who’ve died in police custody in the UK.

For Sarah’s family and friends, I hope there is justice.