It was obvious to all that women would turn up on Clapham Common yesterday evening to keep vigil for Sarah Everard. The overwhelming sense of rage, frustration, anxiety, rage, grief, did I mention rage? So it was obvious.
It wasn’t just the need to reclaim the streets, to show solidarity, and to mourn a murdered woman. Clapham Common is in the heart of south London. Tens of thousands of women live within a few minutes’ walk. This is no isolated beauty-spot (not that that should matter for women’s safety). Before her abduction, Sarah Everard was seen walking down the South Circular, which runs through the heart of the common. So many women could identify with the same journey. So it was obvious women would come.
And the final green light was given by Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, the high priestess of upper-middle class respectability, who appeared at the bandstand on Saturday morning to pay her respects.
Once it was obvious that women would attend the vigil, the question then became one of how to police the event to guarantee public safety. The questions that the Metropolitan Police need to answer do not only focus on the heavy-handed violence meted out to women, with Covid masks, peacefully holding a vigil. The question needs to be asked why the police and organisers could not agree terms for a peaceful event. The common is vast, has no gates or fences, and it can easily take a Covid-safe gathering. Just ask all the groups of men playing football on the common yesterday afternoon.
By mid-afternoon, it was clear something would go wrong. Interviewed on Channel 4 News, Rushanara Ali MP, called the police ban on a vigil disappointing. It was that police intransigence that became the violent confrontation. Of course, as with any largescale political gathering, there were those seeking to subvert the event to their own ends. The SWP, with its own stomach-churning record on rape, misogyny, victim-blaming and cover-up, was there. As was a pro-Julian Assange protester, speaking up for a narcissistic male accused of rape and assault by women who have been denied justice. I read that the pro-Assange idiot was given short shift by the decent women present, and driven from the event. Good riddance.
However, whatever violence occurred was not the fault of agents provocateurs, or the people arrested, but the police. It was the Metropolitan Police who failed to plan properly with Reclaim these Streets, and it was the Metropolitan Police who misjudged the public order response required. No wonder that so many politicians are angry this morning, calling for heads to roll. Perhaps the resignation, or sacking, of Cressida Dick will assuage some of that anger. Sadiq Khan, who holds the role of police and crime commissioner within London’s set-up, might show her out of the door. The problem, though, goes much deeper. For a start we need to know the role of the home secretary Priti Patel and the police minister Kit Malthouse.
In our society we police by consent. Our police are ‘citizens in uniform’. It goes back to the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. The key principle of Sir Robert Peel was that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police.’ Unlike so many societies, such as in the American cities, we do view our police as an arm of the state, tooled up to hold down the mob. We do not want to ‘Defund the Police’. Indeed, we want more police on the streets. We judge our police by the absence of crime, not the numbers in prison. The Metropolitan Police stands diminished this morning. Their behaviour, from top to bottom, fell far short of what we demand, and they must be held to account.
Of course, the real issues are not the behaviour of the police, nor of women, but of men. As Emma Burnell tweeted four days ago: ‘We know it’s “not all men” but we absolutely don’t know which men it is’. (14,000 retweets and rising). It’s about male violence, male hatred, male language, male curb-crawling, male wolf-whistling, male stalking, male harassing, male bothering women in bars. Moves in the House of Lords this week to strengthen the laws on stalking, for example are welcome. Harriet Harman is rightly calling for curb crawling to become a criminal offence. These are all steps forward, but into a prevailing wind that seems so overwhelmingly powerful. But it was not fierce enough to blow out the candles on Clapham Common last night.