It was the silence that was so striking.
We had come to Clapham Common to lay flowers for Sarah Everard. After a horrifying ten days culminated with the 33-year-old’s body confirmed as lying in Kentish woods, we had to pay our respects. It was not a choice. Sarah was my age. We shared a neighbourhood. We walked the same streets.
We weren’t alone. Lines of women streamed onto the Common from all directions, many carrying pot plants after local shops ran out of bouquets. Mothers, friends, sisters; all ages, all masked and at a sensible distance. All here, drawn by the need to do something. Around the bandstand, a floral carpet silently spread. We weren’t there to talk – what could anyone say?
My friends and I had been harassed that week. One was catcalled in her pyjamas, another screamed at in the street for not giving a guy her number. That morning, I’d used the shoelace trick – stopping near bystanders to ‘tie my laces’ in case the man who’d tailed me from the park was still following. We didn’t tell each other these stories at the time. They weren’t remarkable. It was just another week.
All women have our safety tricks. Ask your mum. Ask your sister. Ask your wife. Ask your daughter, if you can bear to hear her response. No one should feel unsafe in public, yet the risk for all women, our trans sisters included, is always there, regardless of age, race, sexuality or what we happen to be wearing. The onus has been on us to deal with these moments for so long – despite them being entirely out of our control – that we’re used to it.
How is that normal?
It’s standard for women to scan the horizon for threats and weigh up walking after dark, but that does not mean it should be. Sarah’s disappearance from a residential street on an unremarkable Wednesday is grotesque – and relatable. She was one of us, and could have been any of us. That is so far from ‘normal’ it sickens the soul.
That’s why what happened on Clapham Common when the police decided to intervene – I’m being polite – hurts so much. To watch officers grab, push and shove women to the ground is the visualisation of a society skewed far away from women’s experiences being taken seriously. Yes, they were ‘just’ doing their jobs, which no one disputes are even harder since Covid-19. But after a terrifying week in which a woman-snatcher seemed at large in south London – admit it: we were all scared – and claims emerged that officers may have missed a chance to arrest Sarah’s suspected killer just days before she disappeared, if ever a moment called for professional restraint, it was this. The Met were treading ice worn perilously thin, and they blew it. You do not give reassurance with a slap.
The carnival of mismanagement continues. At points during the last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking a Black Mirror staff writer was running the country. 48 hours after ministers scrambled to tweet their “concern” about scenes on the Common, the government’s flagship crime bill passed it’s second reading. It boosts the maximum penalty for damaging a statue to 10 years. Sentences for rape start at five. You now risk getting longer in prison for tossing a statue in a river than assaulting a woman, if the bill makes it through the Lords and becomes law. And just in case we’re in any doubt about the government’s real priorities: enshrined in the bill are more powers for the police to use their ‘discretion’ in handling protests, just like we saw on Saturday. Riiiiight – so your answer to concerns about how the police handle protests is to give the police freer reign in how they handle protests? And you’re sure you’re not joking?
In fact, women are not mentioned in the bill at all. Not once, nada, zilch – despite the government insisting it will restore public confidence in the justice system. How, exactly, when 55,000 women reported rape last year and just 1,800 prosecutions took place – and that’s still not enough to warrant specific policies in the very bill that would make a difference?
Instead, we’re told that undercover officers will now patrol bars and clubs. No offence, but deploying a nocturnal army of unidentifiable police officers in the immediate aftermath of a woman’s suspected murder by an off-duty police officer is laughable at best, dystopian at worst. What next: liaison officers in changing rooms? Flying squad following us home? Can the government really not think of better ways to use the money they’ll have to shell out on Becks Blue?
Supervised socialising leaves the root causes of male violence – the clue’s in the name – against women and girls unchallenged. Women don’t need DIs lurking around dance floors. We need a male issue to stop being framed as our problem. We need empathy, respect and consent to be taught effectively in classrooms and boys given the same emotional encouragement as girls. We need a legal system that takes women’s experiences seriously, and a new social dialogue that focuses as much on how to prevent male violence in the first place, as protecting women and girls from its worst effects. Fires aren’t put out by soaking the building next door.
No one will forget what happened to Sarah Everard, or at her vigil. What happens next depends on us all.
She was just walking home.