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Clapham Common Vigil

When Will The Met Police Address Structural Gender Violence?

It has been a harrowing week for women in Britain. We sat and watched as news reports on the murder of Sarah Everard unfurled against a backdrop of global International Women’s Day virtual events and a flurry of corporate activity took place for gender inclusivity. We have seen the Met Police’s actions publicised on our screens like a rap sheet whilst they aggressively defy our right to protest them. To say we are tired is an understatement.

The national response to Everard’s murder has been overwhelming, with calls of #NotAllMen competing in pitch with demands to ‘educate your son’ on social media. Alongside this, the Guardian has released their International Women’s Day news content crème da la crème, reporting data that 97% of women have experienced sexual harassment. Even that mysterious 3% (whoever they may be?) must feel the heavy weight of inclusion in these statistics. An inclusion in a structural disadvantage that guarantees figures such as these their glorified status in the nation’s newsreel rather than in meaningful action against gender violence.

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In-fighting on social media and the sharing of statistics offer up valuable solutions to shifting the attitudes of individuals yet fail to reflect the pre-existing history of misogyny that is endemic of police power. Whilst the death of Sarah Everard at the hands of a policeman has come as a shock to many, it is just one example of the way in which the Met Police fails to address structural gender violence within the force. Typically, it has taken the death of young white woman who did ‘all the right things’ (the ideal victim) to spark a national response to violence against women.

For women who do not fit this category, the structural violence of the Met Police will not come as a surprise. The failings of the police to address violence against women is no less apparent in the case of Blessing Olusegen, who was found dead in Sussex last year with no conclusive information on the nature of her death. Cut from the same oppressive cloth was the suspension of two police men last year after taking ‘inappropriate photos’ posing next to the crime scene of a double murder. The two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, suffered multiple stab wounds by a stranger and were not found until the next day. The death of Shukri Abdi, a young refugee from Kenya, in 2019 has still not resulted in justice after police came under investigation for misconduct. The barrage of these cases piles up as evidence of the trivialisation of violence against women within the Met Police.

With rape prosecutions at a record low, it is impossible to ignore the erasure of women’s experiences of abuse by the UK justice system. The Met Police’s response to reports of sexual violence has continuously deterred victims from reporting incidents and has colluded in a culture of victim-blaming. As if their history of institutional racism wasn’t enough to warrant the defunding of the police into social welfare schemes, their continued failure to take sexual violence seriously reveals the incompetency of their services for addressing the social conditions which lead to crime.

Alongside the news of Sarah Everard’s murder at the hands of a policeman has come the government’s announcement of a new crackdown on the freedom to protest. Situated within a 300 page Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill published by the Home Office, these new measures grant police the power to “tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect”. Largely seen as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, these laws come as more evidence of the government’s failure to address the structural racism they continue to perpetuate.

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With the cancellation of Sarah Everard’s Saturday night vigil by the Met police, the emotional pressure cooker was set to burst. Despite calls to stay home, the event continued as planned, beginning as a peaceful socially distanced vigil. As the sun came down the overwhelming police presence turned to more aggressive tactics to disperse protestors, blundering attempts to ‘Reclaim The Streets’ and affirming fears that women will always be more at risk under the cover of darkness. The heavy-handed tactics of the police have been well documented, sparking criticism from the likes of Priti Patel and Kier Starmer- evidence enough that they have gone too far. Yet the police response reveals a far more insidious problem for women, that our safety is not guaranteed by those we rely on to do so.

It is not surprising that women do not feel supported by the police, with only 31% of women making up the police force in 2020. Whilst there is no one solution that will break down the conditions that breed structural violence against women, pushing for gender parity within the Met Police may help to produce greater support for women who have experienced violence at the hands of men.

As we acclimatise to the whirlwind speed of last week’s events the weariness we have felt must begin to slip away. The sharing of these stories of collective trauma has been hard, emotionally draining, yet ultimately cathartic. We are aware of the change that needs to be made, and from who we are demanding it. We have been galvanised.

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