Last weekend saw an appalling abuse of police power. The actions of the police single-handedly turned a dignified vigil honouring the memory of Sarah Everard, and highlighting the all too pervasive issue of violence against women in our society, into a tragedy. Instead of policing by consent, upholding their role to protect citizens and to enable, not disable, lawful action, the Metropolitan Police needlessly turned to brute force, underlining the fact- as if women needed any further emphasis, given the identity of the man accused of Everard’s murder- that the British state fails to protect women. And rather than see those responsible held to account, the likely consequence will be even greater powers handed to the executive to restrict the people’s right to gather and protest.
Because we are living amidst a health crisis that has given unprecedented powers to the government does not mean that all the other issues pervading our society can be put on hold, put in stasis until they can be discussed at a more convenient time. As we saw last summer with the Black Lives Matter movement, the sparks that ignite dialogue and drive change are struck spontaneously, and if they are left to smoulder and fizzle out, the harm is perpetuated and the injustice allowed to continue.
This is why the High Court refused to permit the Metropolitan Police to forbid Reclaim These Streets (RTS) and other activists from gathering on Clapham Common this weekend. The decision of Justice Holgate recognised that while the pandemic made public health concerns pre-eminent, such concerns did not justify a ‘blanket ban’, and that there was instead an obligation on the police to facilitate the vigil. Their duty was to reconcile these conflicting issues, not to refuse one in favour of the other.
Rather than engage with this duty, the Metropolitan Police abdicated their responsibilities. They maintained their stance that it was impossible to reconcile the two conflicting interests, and failed to come to an accommodation with the organisers at RTS. Inevitably, even with RTS cancelling the vigil, women, including the Duchess of Cambridge, and some men still visited the Common, leaving flowers at the bandstand, with a crowd growing as dusk descended. Had the police, who up until this point had been a quiet, reserved presence, maintained this stance, it is likely that the mood would have remained sombre and reflective, as it did at the Nottingham vigil, with the crowd quietly dispersing as darkness fell. But by intervening, putting a helicopter overhead and forming a chain around the bandstand, where activists were making speeches about women’s safety, the Metropolitan Police sparked a conflict, leading to the traumatic scenes that dominated Sunday’s front pages.
If there was any justice in the world, Cressida Dick would have taken responsibility for this failure and offered her resignation to the Home Secretary. But if there was any justice in the world, Sarah Everard wouldn’t have been allegedly abducted and murdered by a serving police officer, and the response of the government to this would not be to debate legislation virtually obliterating the right to protest in the House of Commons tomorrow, but to consider why women feel the need to protest about their right to feel safe in their communities.
Yet this is where we are. And what underlies these individual injustices is the fact that far too often, people are not held to account for their actions across every part of society. Whether it is men who harass and intimidate women, police commissioners and officers who fail in their duty to the public, or parliamentarians who vote to strip away people’s rights, it is rare to see them held responsible for the wrongs they have done, to see them forced to explain themselves and made to face the consequences of their actions.
Take two examples from last year alone. First, we have a Prime Minister who has consistently failed to respond effectively to the pandemic, yet who soars in the polls because of Britain’s vaccination success – the one arena in which he was, ironically, barely involved. Second, we have a Home Secretary who rails against immigrants, criminals and the courts while starving the justice system of funds, leaving it unable to effectively prosecute defendants, including those accused of violence against women, yet who is still feted by some as the next leader of the Conservative Party.
In a democracy, it is often not voting, but protest and public pressure that shifts government policy and inspires real change. Robert Jenrick, the Local Government Secretary, did not abandon the plans to build a coal mine in Cumbria because of electoral concerns, but because of the work of campaign groups to build public opposition and because of their threats to challenge the coal mine’s construction in the courts. Without mass protests like those of Extinction Rebellion that raise public awareness and shine a light on issues that matter, the force of threats from smaller groups like the South Lakes Action on Climate Change would be diminished, and easy to ignore
The government knows this, which is why it is using the facade of the pandemic to push through some of the most authoritarian restrictions on protest imaginable. In the bill to be debated before Parliament tomorrow, it will be an offence to protest in a way which not only causes ‘serious annoyance’, but which poses the ‘risk’ of someone suffering serious annoyance. This legislation stands in stark contradiction with the very purpose of protest, which is to cause annoyance, serious or otherwise. Without causing at least annoyance, the protest is purposeless, the urban equivalent of a gadfly on an elephant’s tail. This legislation, if it passes in its current form- which last weekend’s events have managed to put in question-, would grant overwhelming powers to the Home Secretary and police to ban or significantly restrict protests and demonstrations, reducing the right to protest to something that exists in theory alone.
Sarah Everard’s murder has shown that we are still a deeply unequal society, with women forced to live lives that are unfathomable to men. The only way that this will change is through pressure. Ironically, even as the government laments Everard’s death and promises inquiries into the events of this weekend, it puts forward legislation that will do much to stop this change from ever coming about. If the Conservative caucus still believes in individual rights and liberties, it will join Labour and the other opposition parties in voting down the legislation as it stands.
If it doesn’t, it is a blow against equality as well as being another nail in the coffin of British democracy.