The disappearance and death of Sarah Everard has sent shock waves through the Met and across wider society, sparking conversations about the safety of women in the UK, after women were denied the right to hold a vigil in her memory.
It was the first week of March that a missing person’s poster started to circulate on social media with no attention from elsewhere. It was six days after being last seen, that a Metropolitan police officer was arrested in connection with the disappearance of Sarah Everard.
On March 3, Sarah Everard was walking home via Clapham Common, from a friend’s house and was last seen around 9pm.
On March 10, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick announced “human remains” had been found in Kent during the search for Sarah Everard.
As the police investigation’s heightened and the plea for information intensified, social media users became increasingly more anxious to get answers for where Sarah Everard could possibly be. More information started to become available about the realities of what had happened to Sarah and as the week continued, there was a dwindling hope for any chance of a clear sensical answer.
Above all the noise and chaos around the investigation – one thing had become apparent. Sarah Everard had most likely been kidnapped and murdered by a Met Police Officer while she was walking home by herself at night.
‘Reclaim These Streets’, attempted to work with the police to organise a vigil. The organisers of the vigil said, “this is a vigil for Sarah, but also for all women who feel unsafe, who go missing from our streets and who face violence every day,” and was originally planned for 6pm at the bandstand in Clapham Common. More saddening news followed after the Reclaim the Streets organisers tweeted a response to their conversations with the police and after not being able to reach a compromise, had no choice but to cancel the vigil for Sarah Everard:
Tensions and sadness began to rise. The accumulation of Sarah Everard’s story accompanied with various women coming forward with similar stories of feeling unsafe, and the vigil being cancelled held a dark cloud over the UK. A pandemic could not stop this unsettled feeling and people still went to Clapham Common in an act of solidarity to Sarah Everard. Organising group, ‘Sisters Uncut’ then posted information for the vigil they had organised and helped facilitate a safe space where people could come and grieve.
Remembrance at the bandstand
People showed in their masses, with respects paid from women and men all across London including the Duchess of Cambridge who visited the Common earlier in the day:
As night-time began to set over south London, what started off as a respectful and quiet display of unity became a clash between attendees and the police. Officers were videoed forcefully pushing people, especially women, in and around the bandstand which resulted in several arrests. The “police had said the gathering was “unsafe” and was a breach of coronavirus regulations.” Following the conflict between vigil attendees and police officers, there were various calls for Dame Cressida Dick’s resignation, who has since refused to step down and said in response to this pressure, “what has happened makes me more determined, not less, to lead my organisation.”
The vigil attracted a large volume of women, who mourned not only for Sarah but their safety. The reality of what had happened to Sarah resonated with many women and social media was flooded with an abundance of stories about the various times women have felt unsafe around men. These stories were all different in circumstances or settings, but they all had the same overwhelming message. The fact so many stories and experiences have surfaced after Sarah’s disappearance, only corroborate the statistics which already exist around women’s safety.
According to a survey conducted by UN Women, “among women aged 18-24, 97% said they had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.” Women bravely took to Twitter to candidly speak about the times where they have either been harassed, felt threatened or felt unsafe doing their daily activities:
This movement to share stories and experiences are to emphasise how your friend, neighbour, sister or mother could have been Sarah. These stories of harassment are not a faraway story on the news, but regular occurrences that have become normalised. By sharing these stories, it highlights the blame culture around women – women are held accountable for men’s behaviour. There is a hope by speaking openly about these experiences will help dismantle this narrative that women should change their behaviour to keep themselves safe. Instead, men should be creating a safe and unthreatening environment which lets women wear what they want, go where they want and live their lives without the constant fear of being harassed, assaulted or killed.
Women also shared resources and tips for men to help them understand how they can create a safer environment. For real change to take place, it has to start with the understanding and cooperation of men in society, and by sharing this information, men can begin to create more secure environments for their colleagues, friends and strangers.
Since the vigil, Sisters Uncut mobilised hundreds of protestors to resist the policing bill that would crack down on protests and organised a march on Parliament Square. They also arranged an online open meeting to #KilltheBill which helped delay the Police Crackdown Bill and stopped the bill from being rushed through Parliament by the government – a step in the right direction for the group and protestors.
The protests that have taken place in memory of Sarah Everard, were heightened with the police presence at the vigil and the exhausting week of news that transpired over the week. On Monday was International Women’s Day, followed by the fall out of Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah and Piers Morgan’s comments regarding her mental health. Then, Sarah Everard’s story was of high public interest and by Saturday, women were exhausted from the emotional and physical toll of what you experience, just by being a woman. It felt insulting and ironic that the week was bookended with International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day but filled with distress and sadness for young girls and women, up and down the country.
It’s unfortunate, but Sarah Everard’s story is just another reminder of the reality women have to face every single day, hence the overwhelmingly passionate and needed response to wake people up to what continues to rage on alongside the pandemic. Abuse, misogyny and harassment against women does not just stop because of a health crisis. It is always simmering away, but Sarah Everard’s story gave women the opportunity to speak their truth. At a time where women were being warned and told to be cautious walking down the street, women came out stronger and louder – they wanted to reclaim the streets. Being allowed to carry out an act of vigil in memory of Sarah Everard felt like a right that was owed to every woman in the country, and is a reminder as to why the feminist movement is so important.
We are all Sarah Everard – we just made it home.