The answer to violence against women and girls cannot simply be more police

Bell Ribeiro-Addy

On Saturday evening, people around the country reacted with justified anger to images and video footage of police manhandling women who turned up to a vigil for Sarah Everard. Chants of “let her speak” turned to “shame on you” as police officers proceeded to kettle attendees and break up the gathering at Clapham Common bandstand.

It is bitterly ironic that a gathering about the public safety of women was prevented from going ahead on the grounds of public safety. Still more so when we remember that just this week the government’s chief scientific advisers told MPs there was little evidence that such outdoor gatherings were significant drivers of transmission. Of course, Covid-19 safety concerns are valid – but so are the safety concerns of women in my constituency. The police had every opportunity to strike the right balance and repeatedly refused to do so.

Over the course of the week, the Met were repeatedly warned – by the event organisers, by myself, and others – that they could not simply cancel the vigil. After initial meetings where Lambeth Borough officers made efforts to compromise with the event organisers, they were eventually overruled from high up. Because of Scotland Yard’s decision, local officers in my constituency will be left to deal with the fallout from the weekend, and the further burden this will undoubtedly place on already strained community relationships. 

The disgraceful scenes that ensued at Clapham Common make it clear that the answer to gender violence cannot simply be more police. This is the latest in a long string of incidents that raises serious questions about institutional forms of discrimination within the Metropolitan Police. 

Between rising racial disproportionalities in the use of stop and search, complicity in historic state violence against women and officers casually taking selfies with the murdered bodies of two Black women, it’s very clear that this problem is more than skin deep. We don’t just need a changing of the guard, we need institutional overhaul.

Above all, policing requires community consent. The primary purpose of the police is to keep the peace and keep people safe. They cannot do this without listening to and making every effort to understand the communities they serve. It was evident that the strength of community feeling meant that people were always going to show up and make their voices heard. Given the prime suspect in Sarah’s murder, we knew that if the Met were seen to be preventing the vigil, there would be a backlash.

In the wake of this weekend’s events, the government will seek a second reading on its police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which has been aptly described by The Good Law Project as an attempt to “legislate protest out of meaningful existence”.

During the pandemic, parliament has never actually legislated to explicitly ban protest. The problem is that police forces across the country have acted as if this is the case. This situation is clearly untenable. But further criminalising the right to protest, especially amid rising awareness of such injustices, will only mean more instances like the one we saw in my constituency this weekend.

The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill seeks to make “serious annoyance” to the public, or a section of the public, an offence punishable by a maximum ten-year prison sentence in a clear response to the mass civil disobedience tactics of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests of recent times. It would also mean harsher penalties for damaging a statue than for attacking a woman.

After Saturday night, my inbox is already full of constituents calling on me to oppose the latest attempt to crack down on the right to protest. I’m glad that the Labour leadership will vote against the bill this week. This is in itself a reminder of the power of protest, and the absolute necessity of a full-throated defence of it. The Labour Party must come together to resist attacks on the right to protest and free assembly.

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