Murder of Sarah Everard
The murder of Sarah Everard has been traumatic for many women across Britain and abroad. Her story is one we have all been warned about and many women recognised the steps she took to try and stay safe. Sarah did everything we’ve been told to do to ‘stay safe’, she wore bright colours, and appeared to take the longer, more well-lit route, as she made her way home. The ‘stay safe’ directed at women list goes on - clutching keys, calling a friend, taking out headphones. Whilst the police searched, they told women in the area to “be careful” and “not go out alone”. A few days after her disappearance, we heard a police officer, Wayne Couzens, had been arrested (and now charged) for her murder. My love goes out to her family and friends.
The police began to distance themselves from their colleague, always stressing that he was off-duty, and placing flowers in the vigil that had been created. Met Police Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave described it as "shocking and deeply disturbing'' that a serving police officer had been arrested in connection with the disappearance of Sarah Everard. Through these actions, we are led to believe that Couzens is a bad apple, and that other police officers would keep us safe from the likes of him. We later heard that Couzens exposed himself days before murdering Everard - reports that appear to have not been taken seriously by the Metropolitan Police.
Expansion of policing powers
We have consistently been told that in order to stay safe, we need more policing and we need to spend more on policing. And yet, the government spent almost the same amount on policing, prisons and courts last year as it did on public health and social housing and social care – despite these leading towards very different, and in many ways conflicting, outcomes. Behind the scaremongering, we find that we actually have too many police officers - post a massive expansion in the early 2000s that saw a 20,000 boost.
Just a few days prior to this incident, we saw an attempt to expand hate crime laws - in practice, leading to an expansion in policing. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill states it will seek to equip the police with the powers and tools they need to protect themselves and the public. This has been legitimised by the narrative that the police are the ones that will keep us safe, including from violence against women. That is to say, the same police who beat Sarah Reed and then lied about it. The same police that were slow to investigate the murder of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa, and after her body was found by loved ones, took selfies with bodies (and are still serving). The same police who are half as likely to be prosecuted for domestic violence but 40% more likely to be committing it.
97% of women aged 18-24 and 80% of all women experience sexual harassment. As women shared stories of their own abuse on social media, there was an overwhelming number of stories showing how little the police did to help. Rape cases are systematically dropped when victims refuse to hand in their phone and there are reports of victim blaming when recording evidence. With the very few cases that do make it to the courts, the rape conviction rape is shockingly low at only 3%.
Just last week, this government passed the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act - which allows police officers and other agents who are undercover, to abuse women - including rape - without any repercussions. Once again, it will be police officers themselves - this time with state backing - who will be able to abuse women, lying and manipulating them.
The function of the police
We need to remember that the police’s primary function is to maintain law and order. Under the guise of protecting the “police and public”, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill also aims to make it easier to stop and search, manage protests “where they threaten public order or stop people from getting on with their public lives” - a direct response, in part, to the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality last year. Not only are they ramping up the use of power that have consistently harmed black, brown and working class communities, but they are also trying to stop us from protesting against that.
The irony was not lost when the #ReclaimTheNight vigil organised in memory of Everard was blocked by the police - with threats of imposing hefty fines on the organisers. When thousands attended anyway, the police waited until sunset to brutally attack and arrest those gathered. London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted “The scenes from Clapham Common are unacceptable. The police have a responsibility to enforce Covid laws but from images I’ve seen it’s clear the response was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate. I’m [in] contact with the Commissioner & urgently seeking an explanation.”
And whilst it is important to remember the police are often the direct perpetrators of harm and directly uphold systems that do the same, it is also important to remember that myth that the police keep us safe only harms us. It upholds the narrative that there only a few “boogey” men can be spotted and locked away. The reality is unfortunately more sinister with more than 90% of sexual abuse victims knowing thier abuser. Clearly the current system is not working - and it is time we commit to radical change.
We deserve more than the police
What we need is the upheaval of the patriarchal society that creates the toxic environment that leads to #notallmen trending and men asking what a woman was wearing, or why she was out alone. Although it often feels easier to demand stronger hate crime laws, the evidence shows they don’t keep us safe, and often place many communities at more risk. Our education systems need to prioritise the unlearning of harmful behaviours. Community organisations that provide the training, support and healing that women and society need to be well funded. We need to learn to take responsibility and accountability of our actions - because we care, and not because we’re scared of getting caught.
With so many of us feeling scared for our safety, and angry that we are made to feel this way, it is difficult to imagine a world where it is not this way. But through our fear and anger we must not fall for the single narrative presented to us. We must demand a better world that prioritises the reduction of harm and building accountability - and not one that comes with surveillance and oppression.
Hajera Begum is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice. She works to increase access to Higher Education for refugees. She is part of Nijjor Manush, an independent campaigning organisation that aims to educate, empower and organise Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK. She also organises with Abolitionist Futures, a collaboration of community organisers and activists in the UK and Ireland who are working together to build a future without prisons, police and punishment. Twitter: @haj_eraa
Article co-edited by Taimour Fazlani, a mentor for the تحریر // Tehreer 2021 cohort. Taimour runs Expert By Experience, a volunteer-led anti-imperialist platform that creates a dialogue around mental health in South Asian communities through an intersectional and critical lens.