A vigil was held last night on Clapham Common to both honour the memory of Sarah Everard and to protest about the societal backdrop to her death. People were told to stay away by the police beforehand – they came anyhow. Unfortunately, the whole thing turned ugly as the London Met responded in a heavy-handed manner, clashing with those who attended, leading to at least five arrests. What made it all the worse was that the Duchess of Cambridge showed up at the vigil, giving it the feeling of an occasion that should have been tolerated.
The reaction for some to this incident will be, ‘They were told to stay away’; that those who attended the vigil did so knowing they were going against a public order. I think this response ignores two big issues.
One is that the feeling about what happened to Sarah Everard is deep and widespread, particularly in London and even more so amongst women who live in the capital. It has a personal angle; so many woman feel that this could have happened to any one of them. Given this and the fact that Clapham Common is massive and could easily accommodate a crowd of several thousand with everyone social distancing the whole time, the police should have allowed it to proceed peacefully, only making sure social distancing was being practised. Whatever they did, trying to stop the whole thing by force was something that should have been avoided at all costs.
There have been calls for Cressida Dick, the Met Commissioner, to stand down in the wake of the whole thing. Given this is hardly the first time she’s mishandled an important policing matter, perhaps now is as good a time as any for London to have someone else running the force.
The problem runs deeper though when you consider the profession of the victim’s alleged murderer, which I’m afraid cannot be ignored. Whatever you want to say to distract from this unfortunate fact – he was off-duty at the time of the alleged offence, this is hardly representative of the wider work of the Met – it influences how this whole horrible incident is perceived.
In other words, given the fact that the prime suspect in the murder of Sarah Everard happened to be a serving member of the London Metropolitan Police should have meant that the politics of the day were a no-brainer. Let the vigil go ahead and whatever happens, don’t have the cops storm in and start grabbing women who turn up in Clapham to pay their respects. When moral duty combines with smart public affairs, what happened last night seems unforgivably wrong-headed.
Yet this was only one of the big issues upon which last night threw a negative light. The other is the whole question around policing throughout Britain once Covid restrictions are removed. I worry that the crisis has made police forces across the country more aggressive and that even after our freedoms have technically been restored, we could see many more ugly clashes that aren’t strictly necessary between peaceful protestors and police.
What makes me even more concerned about this than I otherwise would be is the Home Office’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, published this week. Some of the extra powers it would hand the police to break up protests border on draconian. It attacks one thing in particular which is alarming: unless a protest or gathering of any kind is completely silent, the police have the legal right to break it all up. As should be obvious, no protest could or would ever be silent, so this is essentially a diktat to halt any protest the government doesn’t like the look of. Not divert it or even kettle it – bring it to an immediate end, by force if necessary.
There is an authoritarian creep here that we should all be worried about. If you are thinking that the powers offered by the Home Office’s latest bill will somehow only apply to left-wing protests like Extinction Rebellion, think again. Remember the anti-lockdown protests and the crack-down that occurred at many of them – that could be about to get a whole lot worse. The right sometimes has issues it wishes to protest against and this bill passing into law would make it more difficult for that to happen without considerable risk of violence.
To put it bluntly, this affects us all. The right to gather, in protest, vigil or otherwise, is an important one in any liberal democracy. We have had a tendency to take it for granted in the past but what’s happened over the last year should make us vigilant again. Stopping people from coming together in large groups is a hallmark policy of any dictatorship. We are a long way from there as it stands, but what happened last night on Clapham Common should remind us that the road to authoritarianism can be a fast-moving, slippery slope.
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