On Saturday the 13th of March, a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard, a 33-year old woman who was abducted from Clapham Common and murdered, was held. The vigil had been planned days in advance with measures taken to make it Covid secure. However, the Met police went to the High Court to petition for the protest to be banned…and succeeded. The vigil still went ahead albeit illegally.
As with all mass gatherings in London, the Met were on duty to police the crowd, but given the suspected murderer of Sarah Everard was in their ranks (Wayne Couzens, a Met officer, appeared in court yesterday charged with Ms Everard’s murder), one would imagine they would approach the vigil with decorum and sensitivity. Nope — instead they made hostile lines around the vigil of the sorts usually seen in riots and it quickly turned violent. The police started running into the crowd, grabbing women, then bundling them into vans and driving away — this is of course the tactic of kidnappers, a similar thing may have happened to the same woman these women were mourning, and by a Met officer.
The police justified their actions by saying they were trying to stop the spread of Covid, but the Shadow Cabinet has condemned the action, stating that with the amount of men the Met deployed, they should have only been enforcing social distancing. In summary, a woman was abducted and murdered, the man who stands accused for the crime is a serving Metropolitan Police Officer (and was serving in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, an armed unit responsible for guarding the Parliamentary estate and embassies in London). Women who felt scared for their safety wanted to hold a vigil in Ms Everard’s memory whilst still obeying coronavirus law. The Met, instead of assisting with this and making it as safe as possible, lobbied against it and won. When it became clear the vigil was going to happen anyway, instead of working with the women to keep it Covid secure, they became hostile, aggressive and violent — many videos from the protest can be seen all over social media of officers acting with extraordinary violence and unwarranted brutality.
This wasn’t a protest — it was intended to be a socially distanced vigil for solidarity and remembrance of Sarah Everard. But this kind of of police brutality will soon become common. Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted, “Some of the footage circulating online from the vigil in Clapham is upsetting. I have asked the Metropolitan Police for a full report on what happened. My thoughts remain with Sarah’s family and friends at this terrible time.” But Patel doesn’t care about women. Carrying the torch from the Iron Lady herself, Patel tells women they are important, but doesn’t invite them to become, like her, powerful or at all empowered. Patel invokes only the idea of ‘woman’, not the lived experience — she is not a feminist. This is the same Home Secretary by the way who ordered that the non-violent protests over Black Lives Matter should be met by police officers on horses, leading to horrible brutality…from the Met…again. Calling those necessary protests against racism in this country last summer, “dreadful” and saying she did not support them.
Patel pretends to be upset about the violence the police dished out at Clapham, but her words drip with insincerity. Patel has announced plans for a new crackdown on the freedom to protest, buried in the 300 page Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are sweeping new powers to “tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect.” Where peaceful protest has been repressed quite heavily due to concerns over the spread of Covid-19, this Bill would see the same amount of brutality that the BLM protests and the Clapham vigil were met with as the common response by the Met, pandemic or no pandemic. These draconian laws are a threat to any protest group who take to the streets.
The whole point of peaceful protests is that they are disruptive so that the government take notice — the new bill would make it an offence to cause “serious annoyance” or “inconvenience”, effectively allowing the police to criminalise any public protest. Police will have new powers to target one-person protests if they are causing “noise” that may result in “unease, distress or alarm” — stopping activists from targeting offices, banks, and businesses. The area around Parliament Square will once again be a “controlled area”, meaning the police have powers to shut down protest and rallies outside Parliament.
Protest is a human right, a right that is protected under the Human Rights Act. Though this right has been curtailed due to the pandemic, Patel is attempting to make that permanent with this new Bill. What the violence at the vigil has shown is that the police do not keep us safe, yet Priti Patel wants to give them even more power via this new Bill set to be voted on on Monday. Britain’s descent into fascism and authoritarianism is becoming more and more obvious, and yet, it appears there is nothing we can do about it: The Tories hold an electoral dictatorship, Keir Starmer as leader of Labour is basically a non-entity of opposition, and the people are being silenced by these draconian measures. In the face of hopelessness, fear, oppression, discrimination, and injustice, we as the public must not remain silent — to use the words of Thomas Jefferson, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”