The police and gender-based violence

At the start of this month, social media was flooded with images of Sarah Everard, a 33 year-old marketing executive who had disappeared walking home to Brixton from her friend’s house in Clapham.

Stills from a doorbell camera on Poynders Road and other CCTV showing her in a bright green coat, were shared across several different platforms as an overwhelming sense of fear took over many women across the UK. Subsequent developments of her disappearance were greeted with a new wave of shared trauma; stories of being harassed at night, followed, attacked, all seemed to enter the public arena once more.

Aiming to counteract the narrative that her disappearance and murder was Everard’s own fault because she was walking alone at night, women across the UK unlocked their own anger and despair; claiming that it is not the location or the clothing that matters, but the inherently misogynistic and violent world we live in.

Credit - Pixabay

News of Sarah’s disappearance coincided with the release from a survey from UN Women UK, revealing that 97% of women aged 18-24 had experienced sexual harassment with 96% of that same demographic not reporting it because they felt it would not change anything.

Not wanting to report is a common occurrence after experiencing sexual violence, especially given the fact that 2019 UK Home Office statistics found that only 1.5% of rape cases end in a formal charge or a court summons - 1 in 65 cases. Often, cases involving sexual violence are viewed as more difficult to prosecute, especially when they come down to the word of the victim, disproportionately a woman, against the perpetrator.

We have a fundamental problem believing survivors. Coupled with the huge backlog now being faced by courts due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the justice system does not feel fit for purpose to help survivors.

Now, given that the person going on trial, who is alleged to have committed Everard’s kidnap and murder, was a serving police officer in the Diplomatic and Protection Service, already low confidence in the police when dealing with sexual violence seems likely to decline even further. What is even more disturbing, is that four days prior to Everard’s kidnap, the now charged man was arrested for an unrelated alleged indecent exposure offence but was released.

An extremely frustrating aspect of this narrative is that so much onus is placed on encouraging survivors to report and come forward. It feels disturbing that the person who reported the alleged indecent exposure thought they were doing the right thing. Despite their own likely feelings of shock and trauma, they believed that by reporting him he would not be able to hurt anyone else. Instead, the apparent lack of a thorough investigation regarding this incident could arguably have contributed to another woman’s death.

Credit - Pixabay

The Metropolitan Police have been working overtime to try and distance themselves from the man in custody, failing to recognise that the police force itself is inherently oppressive on countless fronts. The following breakdown in communication between themselves, the Reclaim the Streets organisers and Lambeth Council regarding a Clapham Common vigil for Everard, highlighted how the police do not care about the freedom of women and minorities and their safety.

Whilst the vigil was initially cancelled, grassroots feminist organisation Sisters Uncut still ran it, and the police responded with hostility and violence, dragging women from the bandstand and arresting them. The images that circulated over the following days depicted excessive force, creating a hostile environment for those already vulnerable to police violence.

It is no surprise that the National Centre for Women and Policing found that the domestic abuse rate in police families is four times that of other families. Policing is inherently violent to those already oppressed by the state, and to paint them as saviours or keepers of the peace is incredibly unsettling.

However, Everard’s case has been co-opted by many so-called carceral feminists, seeking to accelerate making misogyny a hate crime in the wake of this. Whilst there is an argument for more legislation aimed at those vulnerable to misogyny and sexual violence, ultimately if the justice system and police force are not safe spaces for survivors in the first place, then this vicious cycle will continue.

Credit - Jason Dent, Unsplash

Taking this into consideration, the timing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill has added a sinister undertone to all of this. Granting the police more powers, and suppressing the right to protest, such as Everard’s Clapham Common vigil, is extremely dangerous. Alongside this, announcements were made by the government to allow plain-clothed police officers to prevent sexual violence and spot ‘predatory behaviour’ as a means of keeping people, especially women, safer.

However, these plain-clothed officers would be granted immunity due to the undercover nature of this, meaning that there would be little to stop these officers from abusing their power should they choose to. The Good Night Out Campaign has called this plan ‘frightening and an invasion of social space from the policing institution, which will do little to make us feel safer.

An increased police presence, with additional powers, and more legislation are not the best answer for tackling systemic misogyny and gender-based violence, especially when so many who are complicit in this are the ones in power in the first place. Rather than seeking to solely uphold the justice and prison systems, systems which are not especially rehabilitative, community organisation needs to be at the forefront of a cultural overhaul.

There needs to be more funding for programmes tackling sexual violence and supporting survivors. There needs to be more education in schools on consent, institutional oppression, and public safety. Misogyny is not a criminal issue, it’s a social one.

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