A vigil was called in Clapham Common on 13 March by a coalition of activists and local councillors calling itself Reclaim These Streets, after the murder of Sarah Everard, seemingly by an off-duty police officer. The vigil was the subject of heated legal battles, with police claiming it would be an illegal gathering under Covid legislation, despite lawyers disputing this, a High Court judgement casting doubt on the police’s claim, and scientists clarifyng that outdoor events with facemasks pose minimal risk.
Despite the decision of Reclaim the Streets to not hold the vigil, Sisters Uncut, a feminist organisation who take direct action for domestic violence services, stepped in and tweeted their intention to hold the vigil as planned. Lois JC gives an eyewitness account of a powerful event marred by shocking and gratuitous acts of violence by the Metropolitan Police.
The news of the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard has resulted in an outpouring of stories on social media about the violence and harassment which is directed at women on a daily basis. It was clear that there was a mood for protests and vigils. For women to come together and find strength in unity.
It was unfortunate that Reclaim These Streets decided not to hold the vigil; many were frustrated and worried that the vigil would be smaller due to the decision of Reclaim These Streets to not attend, leaving those who did attend isolated.
However, despite these concerns there was a very strong turnout at the vigil – perhaps around 2000 or 3000 people at peak. At 6pm, the crowd began to gather. It was a calm, peaceful and sombre experience to see people grieving collectively in the sunset. A speech by one of the members of Sisters Uncut was echoed by those around the bandstand, women’s voices calling out mournfully and angrily in a Greek chorus. There were chants to remember Sarah Everard; chants to remember that Black and trans women have borne the brunt of misogynistic attacks and violence from the police; and a chant of the Assata Shakur quote, ‘It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains’. Attendees were holding candles and flowers and there were silent vigils around trees to the sides of the main bandstand.
When it got dark, at around 6.30, the police arrived. They cut through the crowd and approached the bandstand – trampling on the flowers that had been laid for Sarah Everard, shouting in people’s faces and manhandling protestors. Women who came to grieve were grabbed and shoved. It was alarming to see a safe, peaceful vigil to remember a murdered woman destroyed by the police who had chosen to intervene so aggressively. Chants of ‘no justice, no peace’, ‘shame on you’ and ‘arrest your own’ started up. Later on the police started arresting women, grabbing people at random and pushing them into police vans. One viral photo shows a young woman, 5’2” in height, being violently seized and slammed to the ground, face-down, by two large male police officers. Anecdotes doing the rounds on social media recount instances of cops making jeering misogynistic comments to members of the crowd; despite the use of Covid legislation as the basis for repression of the protest, many cops wore no masks or wore them incorrectly. The police made it very clear: they are not there to protect people and they will not keep women safe from violence.
We should all, including those who initially organised the vigil as Reclaim These Streets, be crowdfunding to pay any fines for those who have been given them and show solidarity with those who have been arrested and who continue to attend protests. The large amount of additional money raised by the original Reclaim the Streets fundraiser should also be available for this.
Despite the affectation of shock on the part of politicians, this police repression is not a one-off event. It must be seen in the wider context of the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which, if passed, promises to crack down further on the right to protest. Until last night, Keir Starmer had whipped his party to abstain on this bill. Since last night’s vigil, with more and more Labour MPs saying they would vote against it, the party’s stance has shifted to opposition. This change brought about by independent mass action from below shows that ordinary people must not back down and need to fight to protect the right to protest.