The case of Sarah Everard
On 3rd March, 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard went missing on her way home from a friend’s flat in South London. Her route home would take her from Clapham Common to Brixton, through some of London’s brightest lit streets, a route that many young women of London would be familiar with.
Whilst the Metropolitan Police described the potential abduction of a young woman off London streets as an “incredibly rare event”, the harrowing truth unravelled in the days that followed. Just days after Sarah’s disappearance, one of the Met’s own, Wayne Couzens, was arrested on suspicion of her kidnap and murder.
On 10th March, tragically, human remains were found in a forest in Ashford, Kent, and were confirmed as the remains of Sarah Everard.
Couzens was charged with the murder of Sarah Everard on 12th March. More information surfaced about his previous misconduct, most recently for indecent exposure in a takeaway showing his clear mental instability. He was off-shift the night that Everard was kidnapped and is believed to have coerced her into his car under the illusion that she was safely with a police officer. This was met with outrage online, and the questions raised included: if the police cannot be trusted to keep the public safe, who is there to protect us?
Abuse directed at women is unfortunately a daily occurrence, and at a time when walking is encouraged due to coronavirus restrictions on social contact, the question of how safe the streets are for women has been raised as a result.
Social media became awash with women speaking out at their experiences of harassment, catcalls and rape – all contributing to them feeling unsafe simply walking alone. A public vigil was held for Sarah in Clapham Common – the area in which she was kidnapped – despite her family pleading otherwise. Hundreds of people (plus a visiting Kate Middleton) gathered in solidarity for Everard, whilst also acknowledging the danger women face walking alone, especially at night.
The vigil, however, will be remembered for the controversy that followed. Police were seen violently clashing with mourners, whilst video footage showed Metropolitan Police officers dragging women away from the vigil when they appeared to have been merely sitting peacefully on the ground. Whilst the public scrutinised the force’s response, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, defended the actions of her officers. Home Secretary Priti Patel also pointed out that coronavirus legislation outlaws gatherings of people in public spaces, in which case the police were doing their job.
Patel has faced backlash over her proposed policing bill, ultimately giving the police more powers against peaceful protests. Some sections of the public consider this an authoritarian step owing to the way it suppresses the democratic right to protest. With tensions towards the police and government from the public already high due to the coronavirus lockdown, police action at the vigil has been a catalyst for further public backlash, sparking protests aimed at the police bill and the police as an establishment.
This should not distract from the issue at hand; a young woman was tragically murdered by someone who should have kept her safe. The national discussion of women’s safety as a result of her death has been long overdue, yet one that should not be forgotten, given that the protests of the last month have pulled the media’s attention away.
Responses to the policing bill
The timing of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s bill to amplify the measures the police have in regard to public protests could not have come at a worse time.
The past month has been filled with swathes of emotion and outpour from women globally across social media. The death of Sarah Everard has sparked a hugely important discussion regarding the safety of women on our streets. It has also called into question how much power the police hold at peaceful protests.
In Bristol, the ‘Kill the Bill’ protests escalated in reaction to the new legislation and the supposed lack of empathy towards the feelings of women across the UK. Police vehicles were vandalised and burned as protestors clashed with the force.
Many believe that the police acted irresponsibly towards protesters in what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration. They argue that the fact the tensions escalated into violence was the fault of the police for arriving in riot gear. People who were at the event, and those who watched on with anger and disgust, took to social media to condemn the nature of the police response. One post that gained a significant amount of interaction depicted a text message reading “text me when you get home”. The post received thousands of shares and promoted the notion that women should not be blamed or held accountable for the actions of men. This can be largely seen as a response to the #NotAllMen movement, which surfaced on social media after a UN-Women survey found that 80 percent of women had admitted to experiencing sexual harassment in public places.
Since the protests, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been altered, giving the police more power over protests which aim to cause “serious disruption to the public”. The new bill proposes to give police added control over starting and finishing times for a protest, as well as setting noise limits. These measures will be taken when needed, even if the demonstration consists of just one singular person. Fines of up to £2,500 could now be issued for those refusing to follow guidelines, with the Home Secretary having the power to define what serious disruption may entail. One final – and perhaps most controversial – new changes the bill proposes surrounds the prosecution for the vandalism of memorials. The new penalty is up to ten years in prison. Many felt this was yet another distasteful act as currently sentences for rape tend to have an upper limit of 8 years.
Although the bill was passed on 16th March, numerous feminist activist groups, such as Sisters Uncut, as well as human rights activists, believe the police have already abused the powers they hold. They have also voiced concern that the bill will send out the wrong message to women who already feel vulnerable and unsafe whilst walking alone. Many held gatherings to signify their contempt, with Sisters Uncut laying out 194 bouquets of flowers to mark the 194 women killed by police and prison violence since 2010. Anti-bill protests in Central London featured a collaboration of grassroots groups with women’s safety at the forefront of their cause. However, protests were also attended by BLM activists and climate change groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who also felt the bill was an attack on their right to free speech.
The government has proposed an additional £25m for better lighting across parts of the country, as well as improved CCTV and a pilot scheme which involves plain-clothes police officers in nightclubs. However, opposition parties have continually criticised the measures, arguing that they do nothing to help women feel safer, and the problem lies with the fact that they have ultimately lost trust in the institution itself.
Most recently, an independent investigation ordered by Priti Patel into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the vigil for Sarah Everard has concluded that officers acted appropriately to the situation, despite the mass outrage and shocking images that emerged. The report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) deemed that the police behaved in an appropriate manor to deal with the protest. It seems that despite government legislation and independent investigation, this is just the start to an ongoing debate regarding the safety of women on our streets.
A man’s job
Put simply, it is on men to ensure that women are safer in the streets. Despite taking small and widely encouraged measures to benefit their safety, women are still subjected to abuse and harassment on a daily basis. When combined, these factors construct an unsafe environment for women to walk the streets alone.
Following the tragic death of Sarah Everard, social media has been awash with awareness campaigns and stories to educate those on the issues at hand. The main underlying issue being: women simply do not feel safe on the streets. If men took some time to reflect on their role in this problem, large inroads would be made into making the streets a safer place – as there is a likelihood that most men will have unknowingly contributed to the issue at hand.
Shockingly, an investigation by UN Women UK found that 97 percent of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, with a further 96 percent not reporting their experiences because of the belief that it would not change anything. Whilst mass protests and awareness campaigns led by women are deeply meaningful, the onus is on men to ultimately change and call out inappropriate behaviour towards women.
As the hashtag ‘#NotAllMen’ gained traction on social media, we were once again reminded that men frequently – and perhaps understandably – try to distance themselves from these issues. However, this ignorance is perhaps the greatest problem. If we realise that we all have a part to play in making women feel safer, then the problem will be reduced in its potency. The conversation too often centres around women having to stay inside to avoid these horrific actions, when the emphasis should be placed on men not committing such attacks. This was cleverly highlighted by Green Party peer, Baroness Jenny Jones, who suggested that there should be a 6pm curfew for men going outside. The uproar that this statement was met with confirmed Jones’ point; men should not have to stay inside, but neither should women – and at the moment, they are almost forced to in order to avoid such situations. Whilst it is true that ‘not all men’ have physically committed acts of sexual violence towards a woman, there is no separating a potential offender in the minds of women walking the streets alone.
Many men have been too complicit in allowing others to contribute to creating an unsafe environment for women. Large swathes of inappropriate incidents come from ‘catcalling’ in the street which is an action that if witnessed, should be called out immediately. These cases happen on a daily basis without retribution. Similarly, jokes about sexual assault between men have added to the culture that it is not an important and deeply concerning topic.
Too much significance is put on women to make themselves safe when in public. In reality, men have to be stronger in opposing any unsuitable behaviour they witness and helping to construct a safe after-dark environment. Sarah Everard’s harrowing story shows the ability some unstable men have to abuse their power. But the issues stretch deeper than that, and we all have a part to play in changing it.