Violent police response at Sarah Everard vigil underlines a dangerous reality for women

Violent police response at Sarah Everard vigil underlines a dangerous reality for women
Comment: Sarah Everard's murder and the repressive scenes at her vigil highlight exactly why women can't rely on the very people entrusted with their safety, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
19 Mar, 2021
Hundreds attended a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in London [Getty]
The kidnap and killing of Sarah Everard has shocked many in the UK and beyond. To some it was a wakeup call, for others, another sad reminder of the dangers girls and women of all backgrounds face every day. 

The 33-year-old went missing on 3 March as she was making her way home from a friend's house in London. Her body was later found in a builder's bag in woodland in Ashford, Kent. Metropolitan police officer, Wayne Couzens, has been arrested over her kidnapping and murder, with a trial due to take place in October 2021. 

Unsurprisingly, the tragic event caused uproar, and many began sharing their experiences of harassment, sexual and domestic abuse on social media. Last weekend, a vigil of around 1,000 people was organised on Clapham Common, the spot where Everard was last seen.

Gathered peacefully, women at the vigil were sharing their own stories and fears. But soon, police began manhandling and arresting attendees, and the horrifying footage of their violent actions once again highlights exactly how the state responds to violence against women and girls: with more violence directed at women and girls.

The murder of Sarah Everard, and the repression of those women who came together to demonstrate against the violence that killed her, bring to the fore the structural realities of gender based oppression. 

This is not an issue caused by a few bad apples in society, nor by the actions of a lone wolf. That is not the cause for six women being killed every hour by men around the world, and one in three women experiencing physical or sexual violence. 

The term femicide is disproportionately used to describe deaths of this nature in the Global South, but this targeting of women is exactly that, even on the streets of Britain.

The institution that we are brought up to believe is there to help us is neither protecting nor defending us

After all, Everard's case is not an isolated one. And while some may be reassured that there is a named culprit, her case has lifted the lid on many recent tragedies, like that of Blessing Olusegun. The 21-year old was found dead on a beach in Sussex in September. And yet, her death received neither widespread public attention, nor an investigation that might give her mother and loved ones any answers. 

Too often, the violence experienced by women doesn't lead to justice, let alone an end to the cycle. In 2019-2020 on average, less than three percent of cases reported to the police led to any charges in the UK, for example.

The fact that a policeman is at the centre of Sarah Everard's murder has only reinforced the structural nature of the problem. The institution that we are brought up to believe is there to help us is neither protecting nor defending us.

And the low level of prosecutions following complaints of rape shows how often those violent and traumatic experiences are dismissed and delegitimised by the so-called justice system. If only the police pursued those guilty of sexual violence with as much gusto and energy as they have deployed to repress the last week's demonstrations, how different the world might be.

Instead of the state addressing the very real and pressing concerns expressed by thousands on the streets following the death of Everard at the hands of one of their men, it focuses instead on pushing through repressive measures, both immediate and long-term. 

One of their genius ideas includes using plainclothes police officers in bars and nightclubs to supposedly "protect women". We have seen in the past, what such powers led to. Through the Spycops campaign we know that thousands of people were spied on over the course of 40 years in covert operations led by British police.

Read more: 
UK police defend handling of women's street safety protest

At least 20 of those officers entered sexual relationships with women using fake identities - going as far as fathering their children. That the same people are now supposed to protect us from sexual violence is - at best - a very bad joke.

Another Tory government response is to impose even heavier policing of communities via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The bill aims to criminalise dissent even further by expanding the police's ability to place more stringent restrictions on protests. It also allows them to hand out considerably stronger punishment to demonstrators who refuse to abide by these new draconian measures.

The logic is the same: more repression follows more repression. More injustice responds to more injustice.

The UK is not alone. Around the world, the Covid-19 crisis has led to an alarming increase in violence against women and girls, which the United Nations has called a "shadow pandemic". The problem is not going anywhere, and is in fact likely to continue getting worse as we navigate these uncertain times of economic, ecological, and public health crises.

The need for our society to develop - and impose - serious, lasting, and structural solutions to the problem is truly pressing.

The logic is the same: more repression follows more repression. More injustice responds to more injustice

There is however, also some positive news. Not only have thousands taken to the streets in Britain to express their disgust and revolt in the face of continued violence against women, so too, have many around the world in recent times.

From the large-scale protests in
Chile against rape, social injustice and inequality, to the huge mobilisations in Brazil following the assassination of Marielle Franco, to the mass strike led by women in Poland against the criminalisation of reproductive rights, the global resistance against sexism and women's oppression is constant.

Women have led revolutionary waves across North Africa and the Middle East, they successfully fought for abortion rights n Argentina, and even the US saw hundreds of thousands of women take to the streets in the Women's march on Washington.

It is through these mobilisations, in these struggles, in the process of getting organised and fighting back that a new world starts to emerge. One that sees women as people, with rights, desires, and aspirations. One that ends violence in the streets, the workplace, and the household. One that fights back against the violence of the state, the police, and the growing far-right threat. One that is better for all, liberated, and free. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.