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Sarah Everard protests vigil
Photography Melissa Arras

5 steps to imagining radical change with Sisters Uncut

The activist group has been leading vigils in honour of Sarah Everard and all the women murdered by men, as well as protests against state violence and increasing police powers

“The police has been a violent institution since its inception,” states Sisters Uncut. “Every day in the UK, police enact violence against Black and brown people, trans, queer, and gender non-conforming folks, against sex workers, Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, and against those with insecure immigration status. Saturday’s events should therefore not be seen as exceptional, but as part of this long history.”

On Saturday (March 13), the grassroots activist group led a vigil for Sarah Everard, whose kidnap and murder, allegedly at the hands of a serving police officer, has reignited urgent conversations about male violence against women, as well as police brutality. The vigil was originally organised by Reclaim These Streets, who cancelled the event after the Met said it would be in breach of current coronavirus restrictions. The group has since faced criticism for playing into respectability politics instead of confronting the all-encompassing danger of state violence.

What was meant to be a peaceful gathering for women to pay their respects to Everard and all women murdered by men, including Blessing Olusegun and sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, ended in unprovoked police violence. As Sisters Uncut tells Dazed: “We witnessed a police force so drunk on power that they manhandled women who were mourning a woman who had died allegedly at the hands of one of their own.”

33-year-old Everard disappeared on March 3 while walking home to Brixton from Clapham – her body was formally identified on Friday (March 12) after being found in Kent woodland. Met officer Wayne Couzens has since been charged with her murder.

“This is not a case of one bad apple,” continues Sisters Uncut. “It is structural and it echoes the institutional violence against women and non-binary people that we expereince everywhere: in the streets and in the systems that claim to protect us.”

“Last week started with International Women’s Day and ended with the confirmation of the murder of Sarah Everard,” says Lisa King, the director of communications and external relations at Refuge. “We are all shocked and horrified. Misogyny, gender inequality, sexism, and male entitlement are all firmly rooted in the patriarchy that has been in play since our society began. Women’s lives depend on cultural revolution.”

The government has responded to nationwide outrage and resistance by proposing further police powers, including making misogyny a hate crime and sending plain-clothes police officers to patrol clubs and bars to ‘protect’ women. Speaking to Dazed this week, Jess Poyner of the Good Night Out Campaign said the latter move was “another example of the government’s clampdown on civil liberties”, adding that it would not prevent sexual violence and would only serve to over-police “nightlife spaces where people of colour gather”.

On Tuesday (March 16), Sisters Uncut led its fourth day of action against male and state violence, as well as the proposed changes to the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, which could see increased restrictions on protests and dangerous ‘reforms’ to the criminal justice system. The bill has since passed its second reading.

“The police do not protect us,” explains Sisters Uncut. “Only yesterday, it was reported that police failed to help a woman who was flashed on the way home from Saturday’s vigil, a mum was threatened with social service action for attending a vigil in Liverpool, and Met officers involved in the Sarah Everard case were taken off duty for sending offensive messages; all the while the police suggest increasing police powers and presence.”

“It can be much easier to focus on individual violence than on state violence,” the group adds, “because it keeps intact the idea that our state institutions are fundamentally there to protect us. Imagining radical change can be scary, especially for those who have stakes in maintaining the status quo. This is not the case for the many of us who have never been protected by the state. Only we can keep us safe.”

Here, Sisters Uncut expands on demands from its ‘Feministo’, outlining some of the key ways to end state, police, and male violence – all of which are one and the same.

“Imagining radical change can be scary, especially for those who have stakes in maintaining the status quo. This is not the case for the many of us who have never been protected by the state” – Sisters Uncut

INCREASED FUNDING FOR DOMESTIC AND SEXUAL ABUSE SERVICES

“Since 2010, the government has cut refuges by a quarter. At the same time, violence against women has massively increased, particularly under lockdowns due to COVID-19 – the total number of women killed in the year ending March 2019 increased by 10 per cent from 220 to 241, the second consecutive annual increase and the highest number since 2006. Domestic violence helplines have seen an 80 per cent increase. Moreover, according to 2018 ONS data, 33 per cent of female homicide victims were killed by partners or ex-partners, compared with 1 per cent of male victims. 

Given these horrifying numbers, we would imagine that the government would allocate increased funds to protect survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, but Tory austerity means instead that funding has been cut in the middle of a crisis. The government’s promise of £165 million for domestic abuse support service falls far short of the £393 million that Women’s Aid estimates is needed for domestic abuse alone. And the last three months of 2019 saw domestic abuse prosecutions fall by almost a quarter. 

Particularly as women are more isolated and have been, in many cases, forced to stay with abusers under lockdown, it is critical that we secure increased funding, not only for domestic violence and sexual abuse services, but for centres that can prevent abuse before it happens by attending to the economic, mental health, and other needs of families.”

AN END TO AUSTERITY

“Too often, we look at violence and crime as if they are the product of evil people; but more often than not, they are the symptoms of the disease that is structural violence, which leaves working class communities, racialised communities, and other marginalised groups without any support. Things like benefits, a real living wage, health and social care, and reproductive justice can lift the stress that survivors live under, removing the impetus for violence before it starts. These systems increase the quality of life for all, which research has shown means violence decreases. 

However, austerity has taken the opposite approach, being tough on crime without providing any proactive care or support systems, either to survivors or to communities as a whole. Many of us at Sisters Uncut work in domestic violence care, and we have seen first-hand that this doesn’t work. That’s part of why we have campaigned so hard against austerity and for things like a Women’s Building at the former Holloway Prison site: we know that we need community support systems and a just economy to prevent violence and protect survivors.”

OVERHAUL OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

“The burden of proof often lies with survivors to prove their experience, rather than on perpetrators to prove their innocence. The system is set up to inflate rates of false reporting – which are exceedingly rare – and to dismiss cases when the police don’t consider the evidence to be open and shut. Particularly, when the police are the perpetrators of violence themselves, they are quick to dismiss cases and don’t investigate internally. Moreover, the experience of having intimate and triggering aspects of one’s life and relationships investigated can dissuade many survivors from reporting in the first place. As an abolitionist group, our main goal is not to have more people in the policing and prison system – including perpetrators. Rather, we work to change systems to prevent violence before it happens. That means listening to women, funding community support groups, and improving quality of life.”

AN INTERSECTIONAL APPROACH

“Evidence for the harms of a non-intersectional approach to tackling male violence can be found in the continued dependence on a broken criminal justice system which only breeds more violence, and the current transphobia running rampant through the sexual and domestic violence sector. To us, a comprehensive LGBTQ+ inclusive strategy centres our trans siblings and is rooted around transformative justice and community accountability.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE IN THE IMMEDIATE SENSE?

“Right now, the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill is going through parliament. The bill would reward the police with more power, only leading to more violence. Giving the police more power, as is proposed in the bill, will lead to an increase in the number of survivors being arrested, especially Black, minority ethnic, and poorer survivors. It will give police more power to digitally stripsearch survivors of gendered violence who report to the police. It will give police more powers to enact sweeping new stop and search powers, to increase surveillance and criminalise Gypsy and Traveller communities. And, most importantly, it will give police more power to decide where, when, and how citizens are allowed to protest institutional systemic violence. Opposing the bill is therefore an absolute priority.

There are many other ways that abolitionists are making small changes that do not involve giving more power to the police. Supporting and amplifying the work that is already being done is a great way of making such changes in your communities.”