A little over a year ago, along with hundreds more, I met a couple of friends outside Clapham Common tube station, and we followed the crowds moving in twos and threes up toward the Common bandstand. Most were young women like us, some holding signs painted with slogans like ‘We are the 97%’.
The police had deemed the gathering illegal earlier that day. The original organisers, Reclaim These Streets, had told attendees to hold private vigils at home, but Sisters Uncut had stepped into the space they vacated and we all came anyway. The ground around the bandstand was already packed when we got there, the police presence heavy. We watched as officers closed in, and then turned quickly and shockingly violent.
Sarah Everard had been kidnapped near the Common ten days before, on Thursday 3 March. Six days later, a serving Met Police officer, Wayne Couzens, was arrested and charged with her murder. It eventually emerged that he had used his police ID and handcuffs to ‘arrest’ her on the basis of breaching Covid regulations. After that he had driven her out of the city, raped her, murdered her, and burned her body.
The police attempt to stop the vigil, a thinly-veiled effort to limit the salience of the news about Sarah Everard and the occupation of her killer, backfired. Photos of unarmed women being pinned down on concrete spread across the country’s front pages like fire, and one woman’s murder became quickly and irrevocably tied up with the issue of state violence. Before, one might have argued that Wayne Couzens was a rotten apple abusing his powers; but the officers who tried to shut down the vigil were doing their job.
Violence against women in the civilian population is not unusual. Sarah Everard’s murder proved the extent to which it pervades and is reinforced by state power. The vigil demonstrated the retributive violence the state is prepared to commit when civilians acknowledge—let alone challenge—it.
In the year following Sarah Everard’s disappearance, police bigotry has made headlines again and again. It emerged that police officers tasked with guarding the bodies of two murdered sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, had shared and joked about photos of them on a WhatsApp group. The investigation into Wayne Couzens revealed his colleagues in another group had shared ‘grossly offensive’ sexist and racist messages. October 2021 saw the revelation that 2,000 officers had been accused of sexual misconduct in the previous four years. Just last month, new stories broke about messages sent by officers at the Charing Cross police station—which according to the BBC included jokes about ‘rape, killing black children and beating their wives’—and another Met Police officer was charged with twenty-nine sexual offences against eight different women.
For the Met, it’s worth bearing in mind that misogyny is not collateral. It is not an unfortunate coincidence that people who are sexist keep signing up to be police officers. In December I interviewed the brilliant Donna McLean, an activist who was deceived into a relationship with an undercover police officer in the early 2000s. She is a woman whose story, along with those of an as yet unknown number of other women over almost sixty years who share her experience, including many who may not themselves know it yet, proves that this is an institution that sees women as tools to be used and abused in the carry-out of operations. We’re not talking about ancient history: the last known relationship between an undercover officer and a female activist ended in 2015.
It bears repeating, too, the nature of the ‘threats’ the Met used relationships with women to gain access to: socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists. Our national elite, who oversee and direct these operations and doubtless consider the whole dirty business beneath them, are more than happy to weaponise misogyny when it serves their own ends—and a state that will lie its way into your bed to protect the bosses’ cash flow knows it will inevitably attract, if not create, ‘rotten apples’.
It is hard, in the face of such overwhelming evidence of multi-layered institutional brutality, and not just toward women, not to feel angry that Cressida Dick was ultimately seen off by the blowback from an attempt to shield an unabashedly dishonest government from an investigation into that dishonesty. It was worse to see her relationship with Boris Johnson blamed for sullying the reputation of an otherwise upstanding institution, and worse still to see attempts to frame her retroactively as a victim of the misogyny of the force she oversaw. That kind of discourse should be remembered as a warning about what happens when we divorce gender politics from its context, especially when the context includes hundreds of deaths in police custody and the point-blank execution of innocent men on tube trains.
This is all the truer when the same week that sees the first anniversary of Sarah Everard’s murder also sees the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill enter its final legislative stages. If we still need proof that those in power have learned nothing in the intervening twelve months, it’s this: members of a police force newly empowered will grow bolder, and our ability to question or challenge the actions of the police when we believe they are in the wrong—one thing that might actually have saved Sarah Everard’s life—has been even further hacked away.
A lot of people have called the response to Sarah Everard’s death a watershed moment for our common understanding of violence against women, and in terms of common knowledge of how widespread the problem is and the extremes it can reach, that’s probably true. But unless we couple that knowledge with demands for change, we risk accepting her story as an unavoidable reality and normalising a world in which women fear walking home alone at night.
This will be evidenced next week, on International Women’s Day, when the government ministers who pushed through the Police Bill will tweet out supportive messages, as will the corporate bodies they serve. These figures recognise the existence of societal misogyny, and they employ that knowledge as a liberal gloss for the brutality they sustain. Sexual violence statistics in the civilian community, meanwhile, remain catastrophic; the current cost of living crisis, especially spiralling rent, will see more women trapped into homes they share with violent partners, while the state defunds the shelters and support services that could allow them to escape.
Last year, frustrated that the only response available to women at times like these seems to be to share our trauma over and over again in a way that sometimes feels more self-flagellatory than revolutionary, I wrote that Sarah Everard wouldn’t have been saved by resource redistribution. That’s still true. But other women might; and other women will definitely be saved by the pursuit of a politics that refuses to let any one group of people be treated as a means for achieving the ends of another.
It is difficult to find a way to end on a hopeful note, so let’s just say this: today, we mourn for Sarah Everard. She was an individual, with a family, and it is impossible to imagine the suffering they have experienced and will be reliving today. Neither she nor they chose for her to become a symbol of the violence committed against her. The same is true of all women whose lives are cut short, of all victims of state violence. Next week, on International Women’s Day, we reaffirm our commitment to building a type of world in which we don’t have to mourn anymore.