Thousands of people gathered in south London on Saturday evening for a vigil in honour of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old marketing executive whose kidnapping and murder has ignited national debate about violence against women.
Tensions ran high at the vigil. The man accused of Everard’s murder, Wayne Couzens, was a Metropolitan police officer. A firearms officer, Couzens served in the Met’s Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, the unit responsible for guarding Parliament and embassies across London.
Mr Couzens appeared in court on Saturday, and has been charged with kidnapping and murdering Ms. Everard. A police watchdog is also investigating whether officers properly investigated an allegation of indecent exposure against Couzens.
The organisers of the official event, Reclaim These Streets (RTS), cancelled the vigil, saying police had failed to “constructively engage” with plans for a Covid-secure event and urging not to gather on Clapham Common. RTS encouraged mourners to shine lights on their doorsteps at 9.30 pm GMT instead.
Mr Justice Holgate, a High Court judge, had refused to intervene in a challenge against a police ban on the vigil. The Met’s statement about the court judgement said that attendance at a large gathering could be unlawful, noting: “we have consistently enforced the Covid regulations and have made difficult decisions during a range of gatherings on issues about which people have felt very strongly.”
“Our hope has always been that people stick to the Covid rules, taking enforcement action is always a last resort,” it added.
By 4pm Sunday afternoon, however, dozens of people had started to arrive at Clapham Common’s bandstand, near the spot where Everard was last seen. Many brought bundles of flowers and lit candles. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, made a private visit earlier in the afternoon.
The event was ostensibly a vigil. Nevertheless, this journalist was at the rally for some hours on Saturday, and observed that the memory of Everard played second fiddle to the question of gendered violence and fury directed at the police.
Signs reading “Protect all women” and “On the way home I want to feel safe not brave” blended with others directed at the police: “Cops don’t keep us safe” and “You kill us and now you silence us”, a reference to the official vigil’s cancellation.
At the protest, the smell of burning wax wafted through the air, strangely reminiscent of a solemn advent mass, clashed with the beating drum and cult-like chants of “Say her name”. The chant was the first thing I heard, when I got within earshot of the bandstand. And I couldn’t help but wonder, is there any truer way to forget someone than to scream their name?
As the vigil continued, Police attempts to disperse the crowd, citing Covid-19 regulations, culminated in four arrests, amid chants of “Let them go” and “Arrest your own”.
Dozens of police waded through the crowd to the bandstand to make the arrest. Footage and photographs of the event, showing officers pinning a woman to the floor while applying handcuffs, met with outrage across the country.
The event has put the Metropolitan police under intense public scrutiny, with Police commissioner, Cressida Dick facing demands for an explanation of the police response to the event and calls for her resignation. Home Secretary Priti Patel has also demanded a full report from the police about the handling of the vigil.
The police’s heavy-handed response to the vigil was met with public outcry across the country from feminist organisations and politicians from across the political spectrum.
The Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice David Lammy tweeted that the images of male officers “manhandling women at this moment of national trauma” as distressing.
“The way this was policed was wrong,” he added, “and lessons must be learned.”
Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, who chairs the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select committee, tweeted that she was “truly shocked” by police actions at the vigil.
Truly shocked at the scenes from Clapham Common – in this country we police by consent – not by trampling the tributes to a woman who was murdered and dragging other women to the ground. Badly misjudged by #metpolice
“In this country we police by consent – not by trampling the tributes to a woman who was murdered and dragging other women to the ground. Badly misjudged by #metpolice,” she said.
At the event, the anger and sadness at Everard’s murder, the disgust at the police and the pain of those who have been or fear being harrassed in future felt visceral.
The manner of her death was reprehensible, vile beyond imagining, but outrage seemed in part to eclipse, in part to transform, the mourning. A friend of Everard, Helena Edwards, wrote that her friend’s death had been “hijacked”.
“It is not a tribute to her any more,” she said, “it’s about something else.”
And she’s right.
Like it or not, Ms Everard in her death has become a symbol for a campaign against entrenched cultural mainstays and power structures that serve “toxic masculinity” epitomised by Couzens.
The cack-handed and authoritarian police response will do little to thwart the narrative.