Despite the official Reclaim These Streets vigil being cancelled due to Covid-19 safety concerns, crowds gathered at Clapham Common bandstand last night to pay their respects to Sarah Everard and all the women lost to violence on the streets and in their homes.
The past seven days have been a particularly harrowing experience for many of us. What started with the celebration of International Women’s Day quickly became a week of horror and sadness as the news of Sarah Everard’s disappearance broke, prompting thousands of women to share their experiences of street harassment and abuse.
The shocking fact that Sarah’s story is a reality shared by many other women and their families added to the collective outrage and grief felt by women across the country. In the UK, someone is reported missing every 90 seconds – over the last six months, Sheetal Gussar (39, Ealing), Umayma Amrania (16, Islington) and Aminata Toure (29, Southwark), are just a few of the names of women who have been reported missing in London alone.
And that’s not forgetting the fact that male violence against women isn’t rare, either. Last year a report found that, on average, a woman is killed by a man every three days. It’s a statistic that has dominated much of the discussion surrounding Sarah’s case – women aren’t just at risk on the streets, but in our own homes, too.
All the heartbreaking facts and stories brought to light by Sarah’s case triggered an outpouring of anger and energy online, as people looked for ways to shine a light on what was going on.
At first, a nationwide vigil – Reclaim These Streets – was organised for yesterday evening, with the main event scheduled to take place at Clapham Common, near to where Sarah went missing. That event was cancelled on Friday due to risks associated with Covid-19 following discussions with the Metropolitan Police, and a national doorstep vigil – in which people were asked to light candles on their doorstep at 9:30pm – was set to take its place.
However, throughout the day on Saturday (13 March), hundreds of women and men made their way to Clapham Common’s bandstand to pay their respects, including the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, who joined those laying flowers and lighting candles around the stand’s foundation.
Placards were also laid among the flowers, with statements including “RIP all Sarah Everards” and “You did nothing wrong. You should have been OK,” painted in bold lettering.
Earlier in the day, the feminist group Sisters Uncut took to Twitter to call people to gather at the site at 6pm as the original plans had suggested, writing: “We are angry. We will not be controlled. We will not be silenced. See you in Clapham at 6.” And as night fell, many did gather around the site, although it cannot be said how many were following Sisters Uncut or simply wanted to make their voices heard.
In the darkness, the crowd – most of whom were wearing masks – lit candles and shone their phone torches to show their support for the cause.
However, as the night went on, police intervened, attempting to break up the crowds and forcing people from the bandstand. Four people were arrested, and the actions of the police have now been criticised by social media users, journalists and politicians alike, including Labour MP Diane Abbott.
Reposting a video of police behaviour at the vigil, she wrote: “Appalling scenes at Clapham Common last night. Women at a peaceful vigil about male violence being violently manhandled and hand cuffed by police officers.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer also responded, calling the events at Clapham “deeply disturbing”.
“Women came together to mourn Sarah Everard – they should have been able to do so peacefully,” he said in a statement. “I share their anger and upset at how this has been handled. This was not the way to police this protest.”
London mayor Sadiq Khan also called the scenes “unacceptable,” saying it was clear that the police response “was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate”.
And Labour MP Jess Phillips called the events an “awful, awful example” of the “police by consent” approach, adding: “It didn’t have to be like this.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Home Secretary Priti Patel also responded to the footage of the vigil circulating online, calling it “upsetting” and confirming that she has asked the Metropolitan Police for a “full report on what happened”.
“My thoughts remain with Sarah’s family and friends at this terrible time,” she added.
In a statement regarding police action at Clapham Common last night, the Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball said officers were “extremely saddened and shocked” by the tragic circumstances surrounding Sarah’s death, but said that breaking up the crowds at the vigil was “the only responsible thing to do” in light of the ongoing pandemic.
“Part of the reason I am speaking to you tonight is because we accept that the actions of our officers have been questioned,” she said. “We absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary. But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety.
“Let me end by saying that across the Met, we review every single event that we police to see if there are lessons that can be learnt. This one will be no different.”
Although the conversation about the Metropolitan Police’s presence at the vigil will likely continue for some time to come, we mustn’t forget the real reason why so many felt compelled to attend the vigil at Clapham Common – to pay their respects to the women who have lost their lives, and raise awareness of the lack of safety so many women feel on the UK’s streets.
Speaking exclusively to Stylist, women who attended the vigil explained why they decided to attend, and their words are a poignant reminder of the reality faced by so many women.
“I came to pay my respects, but also this has started a bigger and really important conversation,” said Cat, 28. “We keep saying she was so unlucky and I think that’s obviously true, but also are we just really lucky every time we do walk home and it doesn’t happen to us? Or if we only get catcalled? So, I wanted to come down to pay my respects, but also make sure something is done. Enough is enough.”
Georgie, 27, shared a similar story. “It felt like a small thing I could do,” she explained. “A way we can show support to this movement. I firmly believe that as a woman I should be able to walk the streets and not worry if there’s risks out there. That’s something we need to amplify the conversation about. Being present and showing that this has to change – that feels like the best thing an individual can do.”
Claire, 33, spoke about the fear she feels as a woman who lives locally to the spot where Sarah disappeared. “I think it’s that thing we’re all scared of happening, all the time,” she said. “Every single time a woman goes anywhere, particularly at night, this is what we’re scared of. This is why women are constantly in fear. And the worst possible thing that we all fear all the time, has actually happened to someone. And so close to us. It could’ve been anyone.”
If the last week has shown us anything, it’s that we need real, systemic change to address the continued lack of safety experienced by women on the streets and in their homes.
While it’s not our responsibility to teach others how to create a world that’s safe for women and girls, if you want to show your support and/or take action, here are some things you can do.
- There is currently a parliamentary petition to get local authorities to fund specific domestic abuse services for women, which you can sign and support here.
- Stylist’s women’s editor Moya Crockett wrote this 2019 piece on what men can do to make women feel safer in public, which is currently being reshared on the internet.
- You can donate to charities including Refuge, Missing People and Women’s Aid.
Images and quotes supplied by Marita Upeniece