Clapham Common Vigil‘It Changed Because of the Police’s Actions’
Women who attended Saturday’s disrupted vigil in Clapham Common share with Sian Norris their experiences of collective mourning and police aggression
A vigil in Clapham Common on Saturday night in memory of “all women threatened by male violence” – planned following the arrest of a serving Metropolitan Police officer on suspicion of murdering Sarah Everard – ended with scenes of police officers grabbing and handcuffing women.
The Prime Minister has expressed “deep concerns” with the footage. But feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut told Byline Times that “the framing of ‘deep concern’ and ‘reviewing’ is a dog-whistle for increasing police power”.
The vigil had been planned by the grassroots group Reclaim The Streets, but COVID-19 lockdown restrictions led to the Metropolitan Police asking people to find a “lawful and safer way” to express their views on violence against women.
Reclaim The Streets said that the Metropolitan Police “failed to work” with it to develop a “lawful, proportionate and safe event”, which led to its cancellation. However, women and male allies arrived in Clapham throughout Saturday to lay flowers and reflect, including the Duchess of Cambridge.
Attendee Claire Coleman described a “really quiet, really peaceful” event and how, early on, the police presence was “sensitive, sensible and respectful”.
However, as the night drew in, this began to change. “I turned to my right, and I could see the green jackets the police wear,” Katie* described. “It was like a flood of them coming in.”
“The police made themselves the focal point,” Sophia* added.
‘The Atmosphere Didn’t Feel Good’
Flora* attended the vigil to “protest against the wider issue of violence against women”.
“I felt this was a time to protest the inaction and the lack of awareness of the wider public of how much of an every day issue sexual harassment and assault is,” she told Byline Times.
Her motivations were reflected by many of the women who took part in Saturday’s vigil.
“Along with 97% of young women, I have experienced sexual harassment,” Katie said. “It is just so, so common. Even last week a man pulled his car up to me in the street. My anger had come to a head on this issue.”
“I wanted to show solidarity with women,” Coleman explained. “To remember all the Sarahs whose cases weren’t as high-profile, for whatever reason, and to make a quiet point about how change is necessary.”
Coleman described women gathering quietly: “It was exactly how I thought it would be. Social distancing was being observed, most people were wearing masks, people were laying flowers at the bandstand.”
“Some people were expressing their grief through sadness,” Sophia said. “And some with anger at the situation. But it wasn’t violent, it was just raw emotion. It was really powerful.”
Sisters Uncut told Byline Times that “there was a sense of solidarity at the vigil. There was a feeling of deep sadness of grief and mourning, not just for Sarah Everard but for all women and gender non-conforming people killed”.
However, by the time Flora arrived, the atmosphere at the vigil had started to change.
“I remarked immediately as we arrived that the atmosphere didn’t feel good,” she said. Flora is clear that, during the time she was at Clapham Common, it was perfectly possible to socially distance: “I didn’t break COVID restrictions, I went for exercise with my bubble, stayed two metres apart and, in addition, wore a mask.”
“There were more and more police around the bandstand and then they marched single-file into the bandstand,” she added. “That moment felt very uncomfortable. Very unnecessary. And it was not clear at all from a close bystander’s point of view why they were doing it.”
Flora told Byline Times that it was this moment when things started to shift.
“Nothing was kicking off – it was very static, the atmosphere was unpleasant but nothing was changing,” she said. “Then, all of a sudden, they filed in – almost as if they had decided enough was enough, ‘let’s move things on’. They intervened and it changed because of their actions.”
Sophia witnessed the police move onto the bandstand, “making themselves the focal point of our hurt and sadness,” she said. “Everyone was looking at the bandstand and then suddenly we were all looking at the police. I turned around and the police had also moved in behind this. We were caged in.”
“It was quite intimidating for the crowd,” said Katie.
Sisters Uncut said: “It’s important to be clear that the anger was felt in our bodies. It was not one we enacted. The people who were aggressive and weaponising anger were the police.”
While the vast majority of women and men had come to Clapham Common, and to similar impromptu vigils across the UK, to pay their respects to women who have been killed and to make a statement against gender-based violence, “there were people there who hadn’t come to fight for women’s rights or against state violence,” Katie told Byline Times.
“That really upset me,” she said, describing how some male attendees were aggressive towards the police or vandalised police vehicles. “It took away from what was happening.”
This was typified by a man who took to the bandstand to give an uninvited speech against lockdown and the police more widely. “The first person to speak was a man – no one asked him to,” Katie said. “People started chanting ‘not your place’.”
“As I was leaving, it became apparent that a lot of people were arriving who weren’t there for the reason I was,” Coleman said.
In response to the claims that anti-lockdown groups and other agendas were using the vigil to push their own, Sisters Uncut told Byline Times that “the vigil was full of people who were mourning and no one who attended the vigil acted violently – that was the police”.
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement that it “absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary. But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety”.
Met Commissioner Cressida Dick has defended the actions of her officers and responded to criticisms by saying that her “team felt that this is now an unlawful gathering which poses a considerable risk to people’s health”.
But it was the refusal of the police to work with Reclaim These Streets that has drawn criticism from women who attended. The Metropolitan Police “left a vacuum that was filled by people who had a different agenda,” Coleman said. “This was meant to be about women and solidarity, it wasn’t meant to be about men, or police brutality, but yet again they couldn’t even let us have that.”
“The whole thing has been handled so badly by the police,” Sophia added. “They did everything in their power to make it difficult. I think the police should be really ashamed of their actions.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel has asked for a report on the police response to Saturday’s event.
Sisters Uncut told Byline Times that it is concerned about the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill going through Parliament today, which includes plans to crackdown on peaceful protests. “It’s being rushed through as so many elements are about increasing police power,” it added.
*Names changed to protect identity