I was walking home from university. The sun had just set and it quickly got dark. Behind me, I could hear the soft growl of a car. It stalked the street, headlights fixed on me.
I turned a corner. The car followed. I quickened my pace. The throttle was gently pressed. I started to run. Down went the accelerator.
I made it to a petrol station. I phoned a family member. And that was it.
I had got away.
Was the man in the car simply indulging in some grotesque entertainment, terrorising a 19-year-old woman? Or did he have more malevolent intentions? I didn’t know, but the fear was bad enough.
Almost every single woman in Britain has an experience like this.
So when Sarah Everard went missing while walking home in the dark earlier this month, like every woman I know, I was gripped with horror. I could scarcely think about anything else. I had walked those steps. I had got away. She hadn’t.
This collective trauma – still fresh in the news – made the scenes from Clapham Common harrowing. A peaceful, candle-lit vigil became a scene of violent confrontation; male police officers pinned grieving women to the floor. Trampling flowers left to honour Sarah, officers hauled women away.
Women came together to mourn a murdered sister, the Metropolitan Police came to deny them even that. And in a moment, the reality that violence is not an individual problem in our society but a systemic one was exposed.
The knee-jerk reaction of politicians to Sarah’s murder was ‘more police officers.’ That offers no answer to endemic male violence. But it is a strong impulse in Westminster these days, and it extends beyond this case.
On Saturday, the Metropolitan Police were a danger to grieving women. If the Conservatives get their way in parliament, in years ahead new police powers will be an even graver danger to us all.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will have its second reading vote in parliament today. The wide-ranging bill – coming in at 296 pages, plus accompanying documents – is being rushed through in the midst of a pandemic.
New legislation is normally subject to weeks worth of public scrutiny before it is voted on in parliament. That has been reduced to less than a week.
So, what are the Conservatives eager to sneak through? The answer has more than a hint of the dystopian about it. The bill gives the police sweeping new powers to silence dissent.
The police are granted powers to prevent protests which may cause ‘serious unease, alarm or distress’ to bystanders, with the Home Secretary having the power to later define what qualifies as such an offence.
A march that generates noise which may have ‘significant relevant impact on persons in the vicinity’ could be banned.
It is, as human rights group Liberty have said, ‘a staggering assault on our right to protest.’ And the bill doesn’t stop at policing dissent.
The bill targets Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, with new police powers criminalising these already grossly discriminated-against groups. Stop-and-search powers will be extended, while defacing a statue of a murdering slave-trader could land you with a 10-year prison sentence.
Taken in isolation, the bill is frightening enough. But when seen as part of a broader pattern, it is truly alarming.
In the last six months, the Conservatives have brought forward legislation that effectively decriminalises torture for British service personnel overseas (the Overseas Operations bill), that grants state authorities the power to license agents to commit rape, murder and torture (the Spy Cops Bill), and now this: The Police Crackdown bill and the further criminalisation of dissent.
This creeping tendency extends beyond dangerous new laws. At the same time, the Conservatives have installed a major donor as the chairman of the BBC, they repeat far-right talking points about migrant ‘invaders’ and propose deploying gun-ships in the Channel, and the Home Secretary delegitimises protesters as ‘so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals.’
The public realm is being polluted in a way unmatched even in the past 10 years of their rule. This descent into authoritarianism must be opposed, and Labour must play its role.
It took police violence against vigil-going women to shift the frontbench from abstaining on the Police Crackdown bill to opposing it. Now we must go further.
Instead of joining the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg in seeing more policing as the answer to male violence against women, the party must argue that the real answers lie in deep economic, social and cultural change.
Instead of equivocating on authoritarian legislation in fear of offending imagined ‘Red Wall’ voters, we should stand-up for our principles and defend fundamental democratic freedoms.
And in the face of an economic and social crisis the likes of which we haven’t witnessed in decades, we need a programme that matches the scale of that challenge.
The Conservatives’ authoritarian turn is designed to strengthen the dominance of the few. Our hope lies in building-up the hopes of the many. That means putting our trust in each other, not new police powers.