Living in fear
The murder of Sarah Everard has become a symbol for the violence, threats and everyday sexism suffered by women, writes Eddie Ford
We all know the basic facts by now. The Socialist Workers Party might have stupidly claimed that Sarah Everard was killed by “the police”. But, no, it was actually allegedly Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer with the Metropolitan police force. He was charged on March 12 with her kidnapping and murder. The plea hearing and provisional trial are set for July 9 and October 25 respectively. A long wait for the family and friends of Everard.
No-one can deny that the response of the Met has been a PR disaster, showing extraordinary insensitivity and incompetence. How come it did not foresee what was going to happen and handle things differently? After Sarah Everard’s remains were discovered on March 10 in a woodland near Ashford, it became increasingly clear that people up and down the UK wanted to hold vigils for her. Women in London, organising under the Reclaim These Streets banner, approached Met commanders for help in setting up a vigil on Clapham Common - close to where it is believed that Everard was abducted. Refusing to cooperate, the Met said a vigil would be considered an “illegal gathering” under the sweeping Covid-19 pandemic emergency legislation - and the court refused a request by the organisers of the event to intervene by making a declaration that would force the police to think again.
Despite Reclaim These Streets reassuring the authorities that the vigil would be socially distanced, we had the absurd - if not slightly sinister - situation where the organisers were being threatened with fines and arrests. In today’s Britain, of course, you need the permission of the police to hold any sort of protest or demonstration: otherwise you face a possible fine of £10,000 as an organiser and up to £200 for attending. The organisers backed off, but the vigil went ahead anyway on March 13 - something that was totally predictable. Throughout the early part of the day, hundreds of people attended to pay their respects, including dangerous radicals like the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. Interestingly, Kensington Palace released a statement saying that the Duchess “remembers what it was like to walk around London at night before she was married”.
By early evening, a large crowd congregated at the park’s bandstand to hear speeches. Given the nature of the demonstration, with one of their own charged for this terrible crime, you would have thought that the Met would have handled the event with kid gloves - helping people to keep socially distanced and being generally supportive. But instead, whoever was in charge of operational duties that night totally screwed up. We had images of mainly male officers wading into the crowd and forcing women to the ground, dragging them away in handcuffs, trampling over the flowers laid in respect to Sarah Everard. If you had gone out deliberately to incite public anger, you could not have done a much better job. Showing the Met in an even more unfavourable light, unofficial peaceful vigils have been held in several British cities including Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham and Sheffield - with no heavy-handed police intervention there.1
Unhappy, the Labour London mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the police actions were “neither appropriate nor proportionate”. Furthermore, he was “not satisfied with the explanation” given to him by Cressida Dick, the head of the Met - which is directly under the command of the home office, unlike the other police authorities. Keir Starmer described the police response as “deeply disturbing” and Boris Johnson was “deeply concerned” by footage of the event. The Liberal Democrats even called upon Dick to resign, but so far she shows no sign of doing any such thing - attacking her critics “saying what they would do differently” from the comfort of their armchairs. Indeed, what happened on Clapham Common makes her “more determined, not less”, to lead the Met.
The Conservatives seems split over Dick. Several prominent Tories agree with the police decision to remove the women from the bandstand, claiming the vigil had been “hijacked by lefties and extremists” and arguing that the police had to enforce coronavirus restrictions. Priti Patel herself, the home secretary, has also said that the vigil had been “hijacked” by political protestors and that “undermining faith in the police” would ultimately fail victims. But other Tories despair of Dick for all sorts of reasons. Several asked why police danced with Extinction Rebellion protestors, but manhandled women at a vigil for a murder victim. One senior government insider said Dick had shown again that she was “out of her depth” and was not fit for her role - citing the Operation Midland false VIP sex abuse scandal, when the Met credulously believed everything said by the fantasist, “Nick”.2
Compounding the anger, and the scandal, the Independent Office for Police Conduct is now holding an investigation into whether two officers had “responded appropriately” to a report on February 28 that Couzens had indecently exposed himself in south London - he was actually being held on suspicion of that crime when he was accused of the murder of Everard. Perhaps even worse, a woman has claimed she was flashed by a man on her way home from the Sarah Everard vigil, only to be “shunned” by a male police officer. The 27-year-old woman told Lambeth Life that a female police officer had said it “would be looked into” when she reported it - only for a male officer to intervene and say: “No, we’ve had enough tonight with the rioters”.3 Things are just getting better and better for the Met.
Why has the murder of Sarah Everard generated such intense grief and anger? It must be emphasised that such an abduction and killing by a stranger is extraordinarily rare. But Sarah Everard serves as a symbol for an entire spectrum of opinion crossing all class lines and going right into the heart of the establishment. Why? Firstly because she is regarded as a ‘respectable’ woman - a marketing executive for a digital media agency. It is difficult not to be reminded of Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, who targeted and killed mainly prostitutes. It was only when Sutcliffe killed a 16-year-old who was not a prostitute in June 1977 that the pressure for serious action began - the police described her as an “innocent” victim! The obvious implication was that the prostitutes somehow deserved their fate.
But much more important than Everard’s ‘respectability’ is the fact that in this society women encounter harassment or worse as an everyday experience. At night many women will not walk down certain roads unless they have a man with them. They will not go to a club or a bar by themselves, only in a group. And they will not leave by themselves but only in a group. In other words, women live in fear. That is true for all women. Whatever their class, all women face the danger of violence on the streets, at work and above all in the home. Of course, the poorer you are, the more dangerous things are: the rich can afford bodyguards, chauffeurs, expensive lawyers and always have the option of moving to a new luxury apartment. Nonetheless, it is easy to understand why bourgeois women, even Kate Middleton, have identified with Sarah Everard.
Before Wayne Couzens was arrested, it was suggested by a senior police officer that women should stay at home - impose a self-curfew upon themselves. In response, quite logically - as a propaganda provocation - women said that it should be men put under a curfew, given that the killer is almost certainly a man. Obviously this was not put forward as a serious policy proposal, as it would be hugely anti-democratic and socially impossible. Nevertheless, it is not something to be instantly dismissed as crazy - rather, it is a way of dramatising the question. Anyway, as already noted, most violence against women is domestic violence. The home is no safe space, no sanctuary, no haven of peace and tranquillity.
Listening to various interviews and reports, the overwhelming message you get is that something really radical and drastic needs to be done - which is obviously true. But often the very same people saying this instantly turn to the law - how the police handle accusations of violence or rape, and so on, or go on about the need for stiffer sentences and yet more draconian legislation. This is not going to solve the problem. Nor is the ridiculous idea of plain-clothes police officers patrolling pubs and nightclubs to protect women from “predatory” offenders. Pathetically, the government has said it will double its ‘Safer Streets’ fund to £45 million, which provides for things like better lighting and CCTV.
So, once again, what is the answer? There has been a lot of understandable hand-wringing. Maybe we are ‘bringing up boys wrongly’, for instance. Then we have the complex and thorny question of human nature. Contrary to what some think, Marxists would not deny for a minute that there is such a thing - added to which, men on average tend to be stronger than women. So is violence against women just inevitable or innate? Communists would go back to what Engels called the world historic defeat of the female sex - which happened either in the late Palaeolithic or Neolithic.
Therefore, if we really want to come up with genuinely radical solutions we must turn to the maximum programme. Communists seek to abolish the nuclear family, not the family per se. We should be championing a different sort of family - and society - within which women are central. Marxists are not saying we should be aiming for the restoration of original communism, somehow going back to hunting and gathering - which would be neither possible nor desirable. Instead, we should be aiming to restore the principles of original communism, but on a higher level. Such concepts urgently need to be reintroduced into this debate.
In a minimum programme though, on the other hand, you have got the whole question of laws and provisions - which is another highly complex question, when you are dealing with economic vulnerability and inequality. Clearly there needs to be an extensive system of safehouses and refuge centres - but there also needs to be protection and assistance for women in the family home, where the violent male partner has been forced to leave, for example. For that to be economically viable it brings questions such as legal aid, low wages, housing benefits and universal credit into the picture. Without all that being changed it is poverty that beckons. Then there is the police, an alien force for most working class communities. A popular militia is far better placed to deal with violence against women, because it is the community. We also demand measures directed towards the socialisation of housework, free 24 hour kindergartens and creches.
None of these demands conflict with the demands of the working class: no, on the contrary they complement them.