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.
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.
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.