Caitlin Barr discusses the issues with the UK’s police force, and how the institution goes hand in hand with democracy.
Two days after International Women’s Day, Sarah Everard was found dead in a body bag in Kent. Her disappearance had already been the impetus for a multitude of tweets and social media posts from women and others affected by gendered violence at the hands of the patriarchy, and her murder, linked to a serving police officer, opened the wound afresh. When a report came out which stated that 97 per cent of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed, it was more saddening than surprising.
Twitter threads and Instagram tiles full of tips for men on how to make women feel safe and call out patriarchal violence proliferated, while vigils were planned across the country. Images of women being forced to the ground by predominantly male police officers, who were so brutal that Priti Patel was forced to condemn their behaviour, at the Clapham Common vigil were splashed over social media and front pages.
Then the Police and Crime Bill reared its ugly head and sparked protests against the police’s historical and recent treatment of peaceful protestors. In Bristol, protestors set fire to an empty police van after police officers started grabbing and assaulting people who had been sitting down peacefully to oppose the Bill, as well as journalists who were legally allowed to record the events transpiring. Claims that police officers received broken bones have since been disputed by the police themselves.
The Police and Crime Bill, which (amongst other things) would see those who deface statues in jail for 10 years while rape still only gets a maximum of five years, ‘serious annoyance’ being made an offence, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities being essentially criminalised, and severely curbs the rights of people living in the UK to protest, whether peacefully or not. So when the police turn a peaceful protest into a violent one (a BBC news reporter tweeted that the second Bristol protest was peaceful until the police turned up with dogs. A tweet now deleted), and protestors resort to burning empty police vans, it begs the question: what was the alternative? If the police are essentially untouchable, how can anyone receive justice?
Rights to protest in the UK were already being curbed due to the Coronavirus, but the Bill essentially removes any ability to take to the streets and speak out against the government despite multiple incidences of the power they already have being abused. In the last few days, a serving police officer has been accused of murdering a woman who was walking home, footage has emerged of another male officer assaulting a woman on the street, the media reported that a 19 year old girl was fined for ‘wasting police time’ when she repeatedly told the police about her abusive stalker and ex-partner who eventually killed her, and a man has died in London after being restrained by the police. We may ask: who exactly are they protecting?
Last summer, many more people became aware of the police’s violence when protests over George Floyd’s death in America hit headlines. Of course, Black Lives Matter protests had been happening for years, both in the USA and UK, but the intersection of Covid and yet more deaths of unarmed Black people seemed to cause the world to stop and listen. When two black women were found dead in a park that same summer, MET Police officers took selfies with their dead bodies and shared them over WhatsApp. Now we are seeing the very same institution being handed more powers.
The police are an inherently violent force – they were set up in the UK to ensure that working class people couldn’t rise up against capitalism and the poor working conditions that came with it – and Sarah Everard’s disappearance at the hands of a police officer while she was wearing bright clothes on a well-lit street, walking past multiple CCTV cameras while on the phone to her partner, just hammers home in a rather extreme way their view that they have a right to enact violence on whomsoever they choose. 1780 people have died in their custody since 1990. There have been over 600 counts of (reported) sexual abuse by serving police officers. It is hard to imagine that many of these injustices have led to convictions.
When we say ACAB, we are saying defund the police and replace them with people who don’t grab women off the streets, who listen to sexual assault disclosures, who are trained in mental health crisis management so neurotypical people don’t face violence when their families call for help, who don’t see people of colour as a threat, and who let the people protest injustice peacefully.
Sarah Everard deserved more. The thousands of women of colour, trans women, non-binary people and disabled women who have died as victims of patriarchal or police abuse deserved more. Sarah’s death was a powder keg which led to so much more than we ever could have anticipated. Men who may not have ever considered their responsibility to keep women safe from patriarchal abuse seem to finally be listening. Wider conversations about the power of the police, particularly in the context of the Police and Crimes Bill, which has been successfully delayed in Parliament, are being had. Protesting will be made far more difficult under the new laws, and what is being proposed won’t make women any safer. In fact, the introduction of plainclothes policemen being stationed in nightclubs will probably have the opposite effect. It is more important than ever that we make our voices heard and demand justice for women, for protestors, and for ourselves.