Policing, politics, and women’s safety in Britain

Our tale starts in London on March 3, when Sarah Everard was abducted and killed–apparently (the official word here is allegedly) by a cop, who has since been arrested. He–the cop–served in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Command and had at some point in the past been reported for indecent exposure. Twice. In a fast-food joint. 

The reports don’t seem to have interfered with either his career or his freedom.

It’s worse that the events took place in a fast-food place, isn’t it? Hamburgers can be sensitive. The man clearly had no respect.

This history raises questions about whether the police force–as they say in the blandest of bureaceaucro-speak–responded appropriately. 

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil

Policing protests during a pandemic

Now we come to the part where I remind you that all this happened in the midst of a pandemic. Remember Covid? That pandemic. Because of it, a formal vigil was denied a permit, but people–especially women–poured out anyway, both to memorialize Everard and to highlight the everyday dangers women live with and the need for change. They left flowers. They brought candles. They came together spontaneously because to have organized the vigil would’ve meant organizers facing £10,000 fines, even though the pandemic rules allow (but don’t define) “reasonable excuses” to be outside. 

Screw the permit, though. People felt the need to be out there. No one had to organize it.

For a while, the cops didn’t interfere, but toward evening speeches began and the police moved in to break it up. The police said that people had packed in to hear the speakers, “posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.”

The crowd–I’m basing this on photos–was almost entirely masked, a crowd in Scotland that had turned out to celebrate a football win wasn’t bothered, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have not been linked to any Covid spikes, so if you’re going to taste the official explanation I’d suggest more than a grain of salt. Especially given various demonstrators’ descriptions of police getting right in their faces and yelling at them as well as forcing the crowd closer together than it had been. 

If you’re worried about a crowd spreading Covid, those aren’t the recommended crowd-control approaches.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said the vigil had been hijacked by protestors.

I’m shocked,” she said, “that what started as a peaceful and important vigil turned into a protest with photographs showing ‘ACAB’ signs, which stands for ‘all cops are bastards.’ ”

Yeah, I’m shocked too. The virus is spread by bad language, signs that insult the police, and protest in general. It’s not spread by apolitical mourning. So leave a flower, girls, then go home and behave.

A photo from the demonstration has gone viral. It shows a young woman thrown to the ground and handcuffed by two cops, who are kneeling on her back. She describes herself as five-foot two and weighing nothing. Not irrelevantly in a protest about women’s safety on the streets, both were male. She had been simply standing there, she said, and that seems to be borne out by video footage.

 

The background 

Britain has a dismal track record on prosecuting rape and sexual assault. I’ve seen two figures and I don’t know which one’s correct, but honestly it doesn’t matter. According to one, only 1.4% of the rapes that are reported end up being prosecuted. According to another it’s 1 in 70. Take your choice. Both present a good argument for mourning and protest getting to know each other on a speed date and deciding that they have a lot in common.

Patel mentioned that the event involved some assaults on police and a broken mirror on a police car. Or van. Vehicle, if that’s not too bloodless a word. All of those, according to someone who trawled through videos of the event, were carried out by men. As far as I’ve been able to sort out, the four people who were arrested are of the female persuasion. 

The government has responded to Everard’s death by publicizing every quick and pointless solution that anyone thought of at a ten-minute brainstorming session involving donuts. (No, I don’t actually know where the ideas came from. They only read like they were thought up that way.) They propose more street lighting, more CCTV, more cops on the streets, undercover cops in pubs, and more other things that no one involved has called for. They haven’t called for any consideration of what’s going wrong with the way rape complaints are handled. They haven’t called for a national discussion of the pervasive, everyday harassment that women and girls face.

They haven’t even acknowledged it. 

 

The policing bill

In the midst of all this, the government is pushing through–and with an 80-seat majority, will pass–a policing bill that changes the balance between police and protesters, tipping it further in favor of the police. Protesters will face a fine of up to £2,500 for violating police directions that they should have known about, regardless of whether the police informed them. Creating a public nuisance will be an offense. Being noisy will be a reason to break up a demonstration. 

They’re setting the bar very close to the ground here. An eighty-year-old with two bad hips and a cane could get over it. And I’m close enough to eighty that I get to say that. They’re not talking about demonstrations that attack or threaten people. They’re not talking about threats to public health or safety. They’re talking about being a pain in the ass.

The police right to stop and search will also be expanded, although that’s used far more against young Black men than against white. The maximum penalty for damaging a memorial will be increased from three months to then years–longer, as may people have pointed out, than for attacking a woman. Rapists could (it’s complicated) get longer sentences under the bill, but given how few cases are even prosecuted that’s kind of beside the point.  

The parts of the bill that relate to demonstrations are a response to Extinction Rebellion, which was quite deliberate about creating a public nuisance. But then, the US civil rights movement also created a public nuisance, and by now it’s entered into public mythology in a defanged and respectable–almost sanctified–form. Sometimes being a damned nuisance is the only thing that works. When people try to make change and they run into a brick wall, they’ll stop business from being carried on as usual. It’s a law of physics. 

Is the bill a total crackdown on dissent? Probably not, although you shouldn’t take my word on that. I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of British law is spotty at best. A lot of organizations are seriously worried about it, and it does give the police a lot of leeway to crack down on dissent. And when they’re given that leeway, sooner or later they’ll take it.

I don’t suppose I should be surprised when governments do what they can to keep people from opposing them. Not all of them do that, but the temptation’s got to lie just under the surface. And when they give in to it, the cost is high. Not just to protesters but to any semblance of democracy, to the possibility of peaceful progress, and sooner or later to the government itself. Because you can shut up some of the people all of the time and you can–

Hell, you know how that goes. Sooner or later, you’ll hear from them and it won’t be a pleasant discussion. 

Will the bill make women safer in the streets and their homes? 

Are you kidding me? That’s not the priority.

31 thoughts on “Policing, politics, and women’s safety in Britain

  1. The more and more I read about this case, the aftermath and that insidious bill going through, the angrier I get. I don’t normally talk about anything ‘outside’ myself in my blog but this has wound me up. I generally do feel more safe if there were more coppers on the beat, just fully clothed and fully visible. Not under cover and certainly not uncovered!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I do too (except at demonstrations, where they have the opposite effect on me), but the thing is that they can’t be everywhere. We need to talk about the culture that underlies all this. Until that changes, we’re playing whack-a-mole.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Definitely! The rise in easily accessible porn, the slashing of all the auxiliary services you used to get for kids and adults like sports, mental health help etc. After several years drop in violent crime, they’re seeing rises in knife crimes. Go figure. And minuscule amount of rape convictions to the number reported. Oh, blimey, I need to stop before I implode!

        Liked by 2 people

        • And the sense that boys get from a thousand elements in the culture that they can measure their manhood by being obnoxious to women. And that this is their right. And that if there’s no blood on the floor they’ve done no harm.

          Liked by 3 people

  2. This is very well written, thank you. Such a heavy, sensitive topic- and general ‘atmosphere’ – that I haven’t managed to get my head around yet, let alone write about! But I love your tone. You communicate things so well. X

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Grrr…and then there’s the cases of those under cover cops who had lengthy relationships with women (and sometimes, even had children) using fake identities. There are at least 20 women who suffered in this way. Can you imagine the profond sense of betrayal and confusion they must have experienced?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve been reading about this. It not much different here–police have impunity to kill, largely. I think the demonstrations might have gone differently, but that’s beside the point. People have absorbed (internalized) this culture, in spite of all efforts in the last 50 years to change it. Even the language around assault and rape doesn’t involve the perpetrator. It’s passive voice, like the woman did it to herself or it just happened. I had to point that out to my niece, who suggested that perhaps Andrew Cuomo’s accusers were lying about him (not likely when there are that many). It reminds me of an old John Prine song, Unwed Fathers, which describes the girls hidden away while “unwed fathers, they can’t be bothered/They run like water, through a mountain stream.” You’re spot on about culture, that’s for sure. I hope the bill on demonstrations fails.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh all of this makes me so angry.

    I’m a Londoner and learnt young that you cant trust the Met at all, for anything. Including your safety as a woman. I’ve been wolf whistled and leered at by Met policemen in the past. My future daughter-in-law is from the East End and she vouches that it still happens.

    If you complain, nothing happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In Atlanta this week the guy who killed eight people – six of them women of Asian descent – was characterized by a sheriff’s department spokesperson as “having a bad day.” (Several years ago when Dylan Roof shot all those black worshipers at a church, the cops allegedly let him get a sandwich before they hauled him in.. Kyle Rittenhouse, whose mother drove him from his home to Kenosha where he shot two protestors because he was there to “protect” the police, got given a bottle of water before he was taken off the scene.)

    Congratulations. “We have met the enemy and he is U.S.”

    And many thanks to Arlingwoman. I will look up that John Prine song !

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hello from across the pond! Man…it’s like those in power have a playbook they follow. Population brings up an issue in the form of peaceful protest. It gets a lot of bad press. The narrative gets co-opted. Legislation in crackdowns occur. The original issue goes on addressed while laws and fees become all the more stringent.

    It’s beyond infuriating. And that’s not even touching the whole female experience and perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! It does seem to be a law of physics that if you’re in power you really, really (really) don’t want to be bothered by people telling you the system’s not working for them, and isn’t there something that can be done to make them go away? Sometimes it makes me angry enough to want to throw things. But since it would my things that end up getting broken, I manage to refrain.

      Besides, I don’t have a throwing arm that anyone would want to brag about.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It has always been thus. :( … I have very little hope, and what there is glimmers and flickers like a tiny candle flame in a sheltered nook against a hurricane.
    Oh, our species will continue in some form or another, in some dystopian scenario. You and I will be long gone by the time it gets that bad. (I hope)

    We watch the children battle to be heard, and our elders battle to breathe, Is it any wonder then, that so many of us create our enclaves of sanity against the madness, inviting only those we know to be sane.
    We wait, we live, we laugh amongst ourselves. We support those who go forth to slay the armoured knights who would kill all the dragons just because they can. Never understanding that they’re killing themselves. But we see, it’s why our hearts break.
    We mend each other, with such balms as we can find, we women who see the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish I could say it’s all going to get better. I was once fairly sure of that. These days, I haven’t a clue. All I feel certain of is that if we don’t do anything, it won’t. We need to do what we can, however large or small, and support the people who do more. Keep that candle burning. Someone may see if and find a way to shelter.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I understand that Conservative means wanting to maintain (more or less) the status quo. But sometimes it seems downright regressive. I was shocked when I read about the Everard protest, but I guess it might not have been as shocking to those of you closer to the scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s easy, I think, for people who consider themselves conservative, small C, to want to return to an imagined status quo from some golden age in the past. In pursuit of that, they can become surprisingly radical–certainly some of them have recently.

      The Everard protest shocked a lot of people here as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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