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Sarah Everard protests vigil
Photography Melissa Arras

‘We want to exist without fear’: protesters at Sarah Everard vigils speak

Thousands gathered at Clapham Common, Scotland Yard, Westminster, and Central London locations to resist state violence, led by Sisters Uncut – ‘We’re fed up of saying the same thing over and over again’

In November 1977, in response to police telling women not to go out after dark to avoid being murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper, hundreds of women in Leeds and across the country took to the streets for the first Reclaim the Night march in the UK. Two years earlier, women in Philadelphia had organised the first Take Back the Night rally to protest the murder of Susan Alexander Speeth, a young microbiologist who had been brutally stabbed to death while walking home alone at night. 44 years later, and we’re still fighting for a woman’s right to walk without fear at night. 

Last Saturday (March 13), hundreds of people gathered in London’s Clapham Common to pay their respects to Sarah Everard, whose kidnap and murder earlier this month sparked anger and mourning across the country. In response to the peaceful vigil, during which attendees carried candles and laid flowers, police turned to violence, using force in an attempt to break up the gathering and silence those addressing the crowds. 

The bitter irony of male police officers using violence against women who were mourning a woman allegedly murdered by a male police officer was not lost on anyone. Dazed’s photographer, Melissa Arras, witnessed a disproportionately violent arrest in Westminster. In protest of the police’s aggressive tactics, and in opposition of a new policing bill that threatens our right to protest, hundreds more people marched and gathered in Parliament Square on Monday (March 15). To chants of, “Shame on you”, “Kill the bill”, and “Say it loud, say it clear: brutality is not welcome here”, demonstrators and activist groups, including Sisters Uncut, marched, made speeches, and joined together in solidarity. 

Talking to those on the ground, the sentiment was clear: enough is enough. “We’re tired of this fight, it’s been too long. How are we still complaining about this, how is this still something we still need to protest for?” one protester said of her reasons for attending the march on Monday. “We’re fed up of saying the same thing over and over again and nothing happening.” Many of the women present said that Sarah’s murder had brought up trauma for them and the women around them; many were survivors of domestic and sexual abuse themselves. “I’m here because I was raped and nothing happened,” one protester said simply, devastatingly, as to why she was there.

“I’m here because I want to live in a world without rape, and I want to see accountability. I think that’s the most important thing,” explained another protester in Parliament Square Garden, who was there to stand in solidarity not just with cis-gender women but also, she said, queer and trans people, and non-heterosexual men who face violence in a patriarchal society. Others, meanwhile, were there to protest the police who have fundamentally failed in their duty to serve and protect. “If we can’t get protection from the police, who do we turn to? We turn to ourselves,” as one veteran activist put it. 

One mother on Westminster Bridge told us that the police had tried to separate her and her daughter as they were marching along Tottenham Court Road. “They told us we were in breach of COVID-19 regulations and tried to split us apart. I went fucking bonkers and told them, ‘You know that we’re here because of you’. If they hadn’t killed one of us, or more than one of us, we wouldn’t be here. I was almost arrested,” she said. 

Many others had come to Westminster in opposition of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would hugely restrict the ability to protest, as well as expanding police powers such as search and stop. “I’m here today because the bill that’s being debated in parliament at the moment infringes on one of our basic rights as part of our democracy, which is the right to protest. And any infringement on that is a direct attack on our democracy,” said one protester. Another described the legislation as “ass-tinglingly worrying”, while a group at Parliament Square Garden said they had come from the Denham HS2 resistance camp where they had experienced constant confrontations with the police. “If we don’t stop this now, if we can’t even protest, then none of it matters. We need to resist this above everything because everything stems from police oppression, you can’t get anything done if the police are cracking down on things.” 

Over the two days, the phrase that came up the most was simply, ‘I’m tired of this’. Tired of women being blamed, tired of our movement being restricted for our “safety”, tired of the responsibility being placed on us to not be raped and murdered, instead of on men to not rape and murder. Another demonstrator in Parliament Square Garden told Dazed: “This is an existence that we’ve just become accustomed to, and it shouldn’t be. We should be allowed to walk the streets at night. We should be able to exist without fear. We should not have to be scared.” 

Despite everything, the mood that prevailed was one of determination and fight. “We’re screaming as loud as we can and our throats are sore! But we’re going to keep going because this is our lives, and we’re going to fight to the bitter end,” two friends in the square said. “Enough is enough, and we’ll keep shouting until it’s done.”