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London Police Under Fire For Treatment Of Women At Sarah Everard Vigil

Protestors marched from Scotland Yard to Parliament Square in London on Sunday, the day after police forcibly arrested several participants of a vigil honoring Sarah Everard. The 33-year-old London resident's alleged kidnapping and murder have prompted a national reckoning over street harassment and violence against women.
Guy Smallman
Getty Images
Protestors marched from Scotland Yard to Parliament Square in London on Sunday, the day after police forcibly arrested several participants of a vigil honoring Sarah Everard. The 33-year-old London resident's alleged kidnapping and murder have prompted a national reckoning over street harassment and violence against women.

London's Metropolitan Police are facing a firestorm of criticism over their aggressive disbanding of a weekend vigil honoring Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old woman who was abducted and killed allegedly by an officer serving in that same force.

The high-profile case, which has ignited a reckoning in the U.K. over street harassment and violence against women, prompted female organizers to plan a "Reclaim These Streets" vigil in London for last Saturday night despite COVID-19 restrictions limiting outdoor gatherings.

They ultimately canceled the Clapham Common event, with people instead coming by during the day to lay flowers and pay their respects. After an impromptu crowd gathered for speeches at the park's bandstand, police said they were forced to disperse them because the gathering violated COVID-19 restrictions.

Footage of officers pulling women off the bandstand, handcuffing them and pinning some to the ground has sparked fury across the country, as well as calls from local and national leaders for investigations into the police's actions. Commissioner Cressida Dick has resisted calls to resign, saying recent events have made her "more determined" to lead the organization and help keep women safe.

"This is fiendishly difficult policing, but also I'm sure for the people who wanted to express their feelings, that was a difficult situation for them," she said on Sunday. "And that's why it needs a cold light of day, sober review, and I think we're all agreed on that."

Officer charged over Everard's kidnap and murder

It's the latest chapter in a tragic saga that began earlier this month, when Everard vanished while walking home from a friend's house in the Clapham area of London. Investigators found her remains in a woodland area in a neighboring county last week, and Police Constable Wayne Couzens has been charged with kidnap and murder.

The Metropolitan Police said in a release that 48-year-old Couzens, who joined the force in 2018, served on the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command "where his primary role was on uniformed patrol duties of diplomatic premises, mainly a range of Embassies." Police have said he was not on duty at the time of Everard's disappearance.

Couzens was also arrested on a separate charge of indecent exposure, which British media report involves an incident at a fast food restaurant three days before Everard went missing. The Independent Office for Police Conduct will investigate thepolice handling of those allegations,police said last week.

After Everard's disappearance, women took to social media and the halls of Parliament to discuss their experiences with street harassment, share the safety precautions they've had to adopt and call for male violence to be taken more seriously.

Organizers also announced plans for a series of "Reclaim These Streets" vigils in cities across the U.K.

Uncertainty over COVID-19 concerns

Police attempted to block the London event, citing the COVID-19 risk and England's lockdown prohibiting outdoor gatherings of more than two people.

On Friday, organizers asked the High Court to declare that pandemic bans on outdoor events must yield to the right to protest. The judge declined to ban the gatheringbut left open the possibility it could ultimately be deemed unlawful, effectively leaving police and organizers to figure out how to proceed.

In a statement released Friday, police urged people to "stay at home or find a lawful and safer way to express your views." The following day, Reclaim These Streets organizerssaid they had been in contact with police since "day one" of planning and had sought to find a way forward for the event, such as by proposing staggered start times. They said the police was "unwilling to commit to anything."

"It remains our view that with the appropriate mutually agreed safety measures in place, this evening's vigil on Clapham Common would have been safe and in line with restrictions and safety regulations," organizers said in a statement ahead of the event. "However, in light of the lack of constructive engagement from the Metropolitan Police, we do not feel that we can in good faith allow tonight's event to go ahead."

They urged would-be attendees not to go to Clapham Common and to participate in a Saturday evening "doorstep vigil" by shining a light from their homes.

Modified vigil-turned-rally

For about six hours on Saturday, police said, hundreds of people streamed through the park to lay flowers and honor Everard "in a safe and lawful way." They included Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, who came by seemingly unannounced to pay her respects.

People began to gather around the park's bandstand at about 6 p.m. local time, according to Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball, and the crowd continued to grow as people started making speeches.

"At this point, officers on the ground were faced with a very difficult decision," she said. "Hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19."

By Ball's account, officers spoke to those in the crowd "on a number of occasions and over an extended period of time" to encourage them to leave. While the vast majority of people left quickly, a small minority began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items at them, she said, and four people were ultimately arrested for public order offenses and violating health protection regulations.

One protester told NPR's Frank Langfitt that she felt the police had "grossly mishandled" the situation, adding, "At no point did you feel like they understood why you were there."

Videos and photos from the scene captured the officers' heavy-handed approach and circulated on social media, where it quickly drew condemnation.

On Sunday, Langfitt reports, a larger crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the Metropolitan Police central London headquarters to remember Everard and protest the police's handling of the vigil.

Seeking explanations and promising change

Government officials at the local and national level have called for investigations and demanded explanations of police tactics. They are also pledging to take steps to address the root cause of the problem: violence against women.

"The scenes from Clapham Common are unacceptable," London Mayor Sadiq Khan said. "The police have a responsibility to enforce Covid laws but from images I've seen it's clear the response was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate."

Khan said in a statement on Sunday that law enforcement officials had previously assured him that the vigil would be policed "sensitively." After inviting the commissioner and deputy commissioner to brief him personally on Saturday's events and the days leading up to them, Khan said he was not satisfied with their explanation and called for investigations by police watchdog Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary as well as the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

On Monday, Khan said he had met with Reclaim These Streets organizers to discuss how to make London safer for women, noting the importance of a citywide strategy and formisogyny to be classified as a hate crime.

In a tweet calling some of the vigil footage "upsetting," Home Secretary Priti Patel said she had asked police for a full report on what happened.

Patel had previously reopened the Home Office's survey on combating violence against women, citing the powerful stories shared since Everard's disappearance, and said it had received nearly 20,000 responses in its first 24 hours.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is "deeply concerned" by the footage, the BBC reports. He is set to chair a meeting of the government's crime and justice task force on Monday to discuss ways to better protect women.

Martin Hewett, head of the U.K.'s National Police Chiefs' Council, also said that he would bring the chiefs together for a meeting on Monday to discuss the same topic.

"No woman should feel unsafe, but too many do," he wrote.

The handling of Saturday's vigil has also reignited interest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a proposed piece of legislation that members of Parliament are debating this week. Part of the bill would allow police to put more specific restrictions on certain demonstrations, which Labour Party critics say would infringe on the right to protest.

Feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut is calling on Johnson to block the bill, saying that police are "institutionally violent" against women and that granting them more powers will increase violence against women. The group organized Sunday's protest, and has another planned for Monday.

"We have a right to gather," they wrote. "To grieve. To cry. To rage. To collectively acknowledge the fact that Sarah Everard could have been any one of us."

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.