On 3 March, Sarah Everard went missing from the streets near my house. The route that should have taken her safely home intersects with my walk to work, and passes the homes of my friends. Police knocked on doors in the area looking for more information and advising women to stay at home, or only go out accompanied.
The call sparked an immediate reaction, with women complaining it amounted to de facto curfew and chaperone restrictions on women. At the same time, there was an outpouring of experiences, first locally and then nationally, of indecent exposure, harassment, and assault. These stories were of walks home, of public transport, but also of parties, workplaces, and home life. The psychic burden of lifetimes of sexist intrusions, and how we alter our behaviour to avoid or accommodate to them safely, unloaded publicly.
Our parks, streets and estates still display Sarah’s photograph, on missing posters put up by the local community, though Sarah’s remains have been found and Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens has been arrested for her kidnap and murder. Local women organised a vigil for 14 March at Clapham Common for Sarah Everard under the banner Reclaim These Streets.
Organisers said that they had been forced to cancel after threats of large fines. By that point, it was inevitable that many thousands would turn up at Clapham Common.
As it got dark, at around 6.30 pm, police trampled the flowers placed at the bandstand, in order to “take control” of the bandstand and attempt to move or arrest speakers. The crowd surrounded them, chanting “shame on you”, “let her speak”, “arrest your own”. Whilst the crowd was large, there was little the police could do.
Later, as it got darker and colder and the crowd dissipated, police had both motive and opportunity to shut down the uppity women who’d been chanting at them. They formed a chain and moved in on the crowd, forcing people closer to one another, dragging women away from their friends, bundling them to the ground.
Violent policing certainly isn’t rare in Lambeth. Young black men are routinely harassed. That night highlighted it to a new audience.
Sarah Everard was not the first woman to be killed by a police officer in the pandemic. Timothy Brehmer, a Dorset police officer, admitted to strangling his lover but was acquitted of murder and sentenced for manslaughter. Two officers were suspended amid allegations they took selfies next to the bodies of two murdered women, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, who were stabbed to death at a park in Wembley earlier this month.
Their mother, who said her daughters had been “dehumanised” by the officers, also reported no help from the police in finding the women because of their race and class: “I knew instantly why they didn’t care. They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and thought they knew who she was… A black woman who lives on a council estate.”
In his astonishingly ill-judged initial response, Keir Starmer called for “more police officers on the beat” as well as “a criminal justice system that works well”. Even under Corbyn, Labour could not get beyond “more bobbies on the beat” as the answer to crime.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that 1,491 complaints were filed against police officers, special constables and police community support officers (PCSOs) across 33 forces in England and Wales between 2012 and 2017-8. Of these cases, 371 were upheld, resulting in the sacking or resignation of 197 officers, special constables and PCSOs. Ten police forces did not provide data.
In 2019, the Centre for Women’s Justice complained of a “boys’ club” culture within certain police forces that allowed officers to abuse their spouses and partners without fear of arrest or prosecution. “Police officers and staff across the UK were reported for alleged domestic abuse almost 700 times in the three years up to April 2018”. Just 3.9% of those police officers reported were convicted, compared with 6.2% among the general population. “Less than a quarter of reports resulted in any sort of professional discipline”. That is the context surrounding the failure of police to investigate multiple incidents of indecent exposure by Sarah Everard’s killer.
There have been calls for Cressida Dick to resign. Yes, everyone responsible for the violence at the protest should be sacked. But what happened in Clapham was not one bad night, or a unique failure of leadership.
The police are not a neutral body, existing to protect the interests and welfare of “the public”. They are a force sanctioned to use violence in the service of the state, and the class that rules that state. It is their interests they exist to defend. They perpetuate the structures of power, domination, and violence which our society is built on.
The existence throughout the police force of corruption and bigotry of all kinds is no accident.