UK police defend handling of women's street safety protest

UK police defend handling of women's street safety protest
4 min read
London's Metropolitan Police defended its handling of a high-profile protest calling for greater public safety for women, after male officers were seen scuffling with the crowd and restraining female demonstrators.
Tensions and mounting anger spilled over at Clapham Common (Getty)
London's Metropolitan Police on Sunday defended its handling of a high-profile protest calling for greater public safety for women, after male officers were seen scuffling with the crowd and physically restraining female demonstrators.

Hundreds defied coronavirus restrictions on Saturday night to gather on Clapham Common park to mark the death of Sarah Everard, who went missing nearby as she walked home earlier this month.

The 33-year-old marketing executive was later found dead. A serving police officer with the London force has since been charged with her kidnap and murder.

But widely shared footage of uniformed police officers restraining and handcuffing some women marking Everard's death with a candlelit tribute has triggered outrage.

Protest organisers Reclaim These Streets condemned the actions of officers "physically manhandling women at a vigil against male violence".

Both Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is in charge of national policing, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is in charge of London policing, called for an independent investigation.

Patel believes there are "still questions to be answered" after meeting with under pressure Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, according to a ministry source cited by the Press Association news agency.

Khan has demanded the independent police watchdog hold a "full investigation" into the "completely unacceptable scenes", according to a press release from his office.

He also held talks with Dick, who has faced calls to quit, saying he was "not satisfied" with her explanation.

Dick said Sunday she had no intention of resigning, but admitted "none of us would have wanted to see the scenes we saw at the end of yesterday's events".

"If it had been lawful, I'd have been there, I'd have been at a vigil," she told reporters, adding that officers had been put in a "really invidious position".

"They moved to try to explain to people, to engage with people, to get people to disperse from this unlawful gathering and many, many, many people did. Unfortunately, a small minority did not."

'Public awakening'

One of Dick's deputies, Helen Ball, said police, who had refused permission for the vigil to take place, "must act for people's safety".

"Hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19" she added in a statement early Sunday - Mother's Day in Britain.

But the main opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer, a former chief public prosecutor, called the scenes "deeply disturbing".

Four arrests were made for public order offences and for breaches of coronavirus regulations, the force said.

Everard's disappearance, and the huge search to find her, has renewed attention on women's safety in public places and the issue of male violence.

She had visited friends in Clapham and was returning home to Brixton, about 50 minutes walk away, when she disappeared around 9:30 pm on March 3.

Her body was later found in Kent, southeast England.

Tensions and mounting anger spilled over at Clapham Common on Saturday night, where the park's bandstand has turned into a floral shrine for Everard.

Prince William's wife, Kate, visited the scene, while across the country candles were lit on doorsteps as a mark of respect.

"She remembers what it was like to walk around London at night before she was married to Prince William," the Sunday Mirror quoted an unnamed royal source as saying.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who left a lantern outside the door of his 10 Downing Street office and residence, promised action.

"I will do everything I can to make sure the streets are safe and ensure women and girls do not face harassment or abuse," he tweeted.

But the police action to disperse the crowds has done little to calm public anger. Protesters shouted "shame on you" as officers took people away.

Mourners gathered again in Clapham on Sunday to pay their respects and call for change.

"I felt compelled to come here today because it feels like all the women in my life have been really, really affected by Sarah's death," 34-year-old Isabel told AFP.

"I feel like it's a more conscious public awakening."

But one of Everard's friends on Sunday warned that her death had become "hijacked".

"I think my friend would have been unsettled at how her death has been politicised," Helena Edwards wrote in online magazine Spiked.

Vigil organisers have already raised more than £500,000 ($696,000, 582,000 euros) for women's causes.

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