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Why is Sarah Everard’s Murder a Tipping Point?

Hardeep Matharu explores how the tragedy of Sarah Everard’s death has captured public attention in a way many other killings of women have not – and the questions this raises for us all

Bibaa Henry (left) and Nicole Smallman. Photo: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire/PA Images

Why is Sarah Everard’s Murder a Tipping Point?

Hardeep Matharu explores how the tragedy of Sarah Everard’s death has captured public attention in a way many other killings of women have not – and the questions this raises for us all

On Thursday, Danyal Hussein appeared in court, charged with the murder of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, whose bodies were found in Fryent Park, Wembley, last June. They died of stab wounds during a reportedly random attack. In the aftermath of the killings, two Metropolitan Police officers were arrested following claims that an “inappropriate” photograph had been taken at the scene of the murders and sent to a group of people.

The sisters’ mother, Mina Smallman, said that being told of the allegations against the officers made her think of the “Deep South when they used to lynch people and you would see smiling faces around a hanging dead body”. 

She told the BBC that the Met Police did not immediately respond when her daughters were reported missing because they were “making assumptions”.

“I knew instantly why they didn’t care,” she said. “They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and thought they knew who she was. A black woman who lives on a council estate.”

While the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard – including the charging of a Met Police officer for the crime and claims that a Met Police officer involved in her search shared an inappropriate graphic – has rightly ignited renewed and urgent debate about violence against women, masculinity, misogyny, the shortcomings of our criminal justice institutions and the culture of British policing, it has also united people in sadness, anger and protest. 

At least 31 women have been killed by a male suspect this year. Too many of them are sadly seen and treated as mere statistics, when they each had names and lives of their own. But the impact of Sarah Everard’s death and its circumstances has transcended gender, race and class. 

So why didn’t the murders of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry do the same? What makes one tragedy capture the public’s attention in a way others do not?  

For some, these may be uncomfortable questions to ask at such a time – but they are important ones nonetheless.

Ngozi Fulani, CEO of Sistah Space – a specialist support service for women of African and Carribean heritage affected by domestic violence, believes that discussions in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder are missing the exploration of racism.

“I went to the vigil on Saturday with my daughter and some of my Sistah Space colleagues and when we got there, just like any other woman, mother, human being – we were really concerned when we heard Sarah went missing – we all felt it,” she told BBC’s Newsnight. “We all wanted her to return home safely. 

“We thought we were going to a vigil which was about all women collectively and we found that that isn’t the case. We’re looking at Valerie Forde, Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry, those are women who were murdered. Two of those women, only last year, had their pictures taken when they were deceased by a police officer. Where was the outcry? Where was the outrage? It seems that black women who go through domestic abuse, who go missing or are murdered don’t get the same response. We don’t get the outcry or the concern. We don’t see the public coming out for us.”

Fulani also told the programme that groups such as her own were “not invited to the table to even speak” so that the interaction between misogyny, violence against women and race isn’t meaningfully being tackled through policy-making.

Harriet Johnson, a barrister who appeared alongside Fulani on Newsnight, said in response to her comments: “We see still reflected in the police what we see in society, which is this notion of the right type of victim. She’s white, she’s middle-class, she behaves in a socially-acceptable way, she doesn’t walk in the street by herself at night. Unless a woman who is a victim of any type of violence fits into that category, as things stand, the chances are she won’t get the justice she deserves from the police.”

According to a poll conducted for a November 2020 report on ‘Black People, Racism and Human Rights’ for Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, 85% of the black people surveyed were not confident that they would be treated the same as a white person by the police. This figure was higher for women, with 91% of those surveyed feeling that they would be treated differently.

The issues raised by the murder of Sarah Everard and the response so far should absolutely be discussed by politicians, campaigners and all citizens alike. But this discussion should also be widened so that it focuses on that which is routinely not engaged with: the people whose experiences do not receive public attention – and why that might be. 

The tragedy and the events which have followed – including the vigil at Clapham Common – should drive those fighting for progressive change, whoever ignites the cause and whenever this may happen.

They should also make us reflect on the structural inequality and systemic violence embedded within the criminal justice, including from the police, regularly faced by those who are on the margins – disproportionately, people of colour. Because what goes on at the margins rarely stays at the margins. Left unaddressed, such systemic issues can and will rear their ugly heads towards us all. More importantly, those on the margins – those different from us – matter too.

If we believe in fundamental rights, then our caring about them cannot be conditional on colour, race or class.

I am reminded of the words of the former Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick at a talk on prisoners’ rights in 2018: “If you’re going to defend the ordinary, everyday rights that all of us depend on as we go about our lives and live in peace and security, then actually you can’t risk sacrificing the principles on which those rights are based, even for people whose behaviour you disapprove of. Once you start saying that those rights are conditional for them, they are conditional for you too.”

In a wider context, it is often not about those we “disapprove” of but people whose lives we simply may not understand or immediately relate to; people whose experiences are marginalised from the mainstream through embedded inequality.

More than 126,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the UK – the highest per capita death rate in the world. If those who have been disproportionately affected by the virus were not people from ethnic minority communities and the disabled, would there be more of an outcry?

The longer we dare not speak of our taboos and ask uncomfortable questions, the longer things will remain unchanged. For too many, the cost is their lives.

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