The Clapham vigil could have been a moment for police to show solidarity with women (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

March 15, 2021   4 mins

It would have been a peaceful vigil. Women laid flowers for Sarah Everard, lit candles, held placards: “She was walking home,” read one. “We will not stop until women are safe,” another said. The Duchess of Cambridge was there, quietly adding a bouquet to the tributes. It would have been a peaceful vigil, and then it wasn’t anymore. Now the defining image of the protest on Clapham Common isn’t the flowers or the candles or the placards. It’s of a young woman, pinned to the ground by male police officers, eyes wide over her mask.

It is hard to imagine how this could look worse. The man charged with abducting and murdering Everard is a serving police officer; and the Independent Office for Police Conduct is now investigating the Met over its handling of various matters relating to the case. All week we women had been asking ourselves why we don’t feel safe in public spaces, why we so rarely report assaults to the police and why we get so little justice when we do.

Here, in one picture, was the bleakest possible answer: women don’t feel safe because the police are against us, just as they were against the vigil even taking place. Earlier on Saturday, the organisers of Reclaim These Streets had formally cancelled the gathering, saying that the Met “would not engage with our suggestions to help ensure that a legal, Covid-secure vigil could take place”. A representative of the police said: “We take no joy in this event being cancelled, but it is the right thing to do given the real and present threat of Covid-19.”

But the “real and present threat of Covid-19” had not seemed to apply to last summer’s Black Lives Matter rallies, which were policed with an admirably light touch (so light that in Bristol, protesters were able to topple the hated statue of slaver Edward Colston and chuck it in the harbour while the police looked on). And a week ago, in Glasgow, police seemed to take a much less aggressive approach to Rangers fans, who packed their bodies into a heaving mass of virus-sharing celebration.

We know that outside events are low-risk for Covid transmission. So an outside event where women quietly mourned together at a safe two-metre distance from each other is not a plausible superspreader event. Put these things together, and there’s an ugly undertone that when male-dominated crowds occupy public spaces, they’re exercising an essential human right; but when women do it, they do not.

This suspicion only grows when you consider the immediate police reactions to Everard’s disappearance, which included telling women in Clapham to “be careful going out alone”, an echo of the advice given in Yorkshire when the police were failing to capture Peter Sutcliffe. Women were outraged then, just as they are today: why should their freedom be curtailed because of a violent man’s actions?

Sure, it’s appropriate to urge vigilance when an active offender is on the loose; but it would also be appropriate to warn men that those acting suspiciously in the area will be challenged by police. This would send a message to perpetrators that they’re being watched, and another to women that they’re being protected. Somehow, though, that never seems to happen, because only women’s presence in public spaces is conditional.

This effectively means that men commit crimes, and women get policed for them. And look at who women are policed by. Less than a third of officers are female — and notwithstanding that the Met currently has a female commissioner in Cressida Dick, the police have a track record of appalling failures when it comes to serving women.

Look at the Rotherham care scandal, where men were permitted to carry on exploiting the most vulnerable girls by police who dismissed the abuse, disgustingly, as “p*** shagging” (so much for the pretence that their inaction was down to fear of “inflaming racial tensions”). Look at John Worboys, free to continue raping women because police ignored his victims’s testimony. One woman recalled police laughing when she described her injuries. Look at the collapse in convictions for rape, which Harriet Wistrich of the Centre for Women’s Justice has described as “sending out a message that rape is decriminalised, virtually”.

The Clapham vigil could have been a moment for police to show solidarity with women, to make a public commitment to deep reform. Had the Met cooperated with Reclaim These Streets in the first place, we might now be seeing pictures of officers standing alongside the protesters in a moment of communal grief. But the Met didn’t do that. Instead of helping to organise a safe and peaceful demonstration, it created a vacuum into which the reckless and vicious could rush.

Anti-lockdown speakers hijacked the stage, showing their typical sensitivity to the value of human life by making a dead woman into the vehicle for their idiocy. The anti-austerity organisation Sisters Uncut promoted itself to a leadership role in the protests — as though a group that previously defended Tara Wolf, a transgender woman convicted of assaulting a 60-year-old woman, has any moral authority on the issue of male violence against women. Now they can point to the actions on Clapham Common and make statements such: “Police are perpetrators of individual and state violence against women”.

The police’s own failures have made it easy for the hard Left to luxuriate in the pretend feminism of anti-law-and-order. But only people with no real fear of becoming victims can afford to treat “abolishing the prison industrial complex” as a serious political ambition. The police, courts and penal system all let women down disastrously; but “abolishing” those things isn’t going to make women safer. Women have a right to policing that treats us fairly and protects our freedoms and interests.

Before Saturday, the police had a heavy burden to convince women that the service could be part of the solution to men’s violence against women. After Saturday, the burden is a boulder. It’s hard to see what, exactly, can fix such a toxic situation — though if I were Cressida Dick, I might start by begging feminist legal groups (such as the Centre for Women’s Justice) for root-to-branch recommendations on making policing work for women. Every woman who becomes a victim of men’s violence deserves justice under the law; the police’s manifest errors can’t be a reason to let that slip away, least of all for Sarah Everard and the people who love her.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.