Police on trial: the disappearance Sarah Everard and #Killthebill

The violent actions of police at the vigil for Everard and later in Bristol show that British authorities can’t be trusted with the new powers that would be given to them under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill, especially during protests provoked by one of their own.

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Sometime around 9 pm on March 3rd, a 33 year old marketing executive, Sarah Everard, left a friend’s place in Clapham planning on taking the slightly less than hour long walk through south London to her Brixton home. Everard reportedly spoke to her boyfriend for about a quarter hour as she walked, ending the call at 9:27. She was then recorded on a doorbell camera three minutes later.

Worried family and friends quickly raised the alarm when she didn’t come home that night and authorities started their official investigation three days after she went missing.

On the 9thtwo arrests were announced by the London Metropolitan Police. One was said to be a woman in her 30s, accused of helping the main suspect. The other? A 48 year old off duty police officer, later identified as Wayne Couzens. At first, he was charged with kidnapping and soon after on suspicion of murder.

The officer is said to have been assigned to the Diplomatic Protection Command for the same Met police force, popularly referred to as Scotland Yard, that was investigating Sarah Everard’s disappearance. Police searched around the town of Deal, Kent where Couzens lived; it was soon reported that the officer was also accused of indecent exposure by a worker at a takeout restaurant in south London a few days prior to Everard’s disappearance, but didn’t appear to face any disciplinary action as a result.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is now investigating the response to the alleged indecent exposure and a second, similar incident that occurred at the restaurant the same day.

On March 12th, the Met police announced that Everard’s lifeless body had been found in a wooded area in nearby Ashford.

Soon after, a vigil for the murdered woman was organized by a group called Reclaim These Streets to take place on Saturday, March 13th at Clapham Common, an urban park close to where Everard was last seen, but the event was canceled after a high court judge refused the group’s request for a permit citing restrictions around the novel coronavirus. Despite this, thousands of people still showed up to pay their respects that evening, including Kate Middleton.

Sometime after the future queen left, police made the decision to break up the gathering, perhaps provoked by powerful cries of “Who do you protect?” from some of those present.

In the process, they trampled flowers and candles left by mourners, assaulted some of those present and made 4 arrests.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan condemned the Met police’s reaction later that night, saying, “The scenes from Clapham Common are unacceptable. The police have a responsibility to enforce Covid laws, but from images I’ve seen it’s clear the response was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate.”

While there were calls for the chief of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. to lose her job, she had powerful allies, including the country’s Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson, who said he had, “full confidence in her” adding that an investigation of what happened would be forthcoming, “The police do have a very, very difficult job. But there’s no question that the scenes that we saw were very distressing and so it is right that Tom Winsor, the inspector of constabulary, should do a full report into it.”

The day after, a much more raucous crowd, some of whom set off flares and clashed with authorities, paraded through the streets of central London and converged on Trafalgar Square to protest lockdown rules and other public health mandates. While there were more than 30 arrests, from footage I have seen of both gatherings, police seemed much less comfortable confronting the maskless mob than they did assaulting and dispersing the vigil held for Everard.

In discussing the behavior of police at the Everard vigil, Gracie Bradley of Liberty, a human rights organization, made an important point, “Protest is not a gift, it’s a right. Yes, it can be limited for certain reasons, but those limitations have to be necessary and they have to be proportionate. And what we saw on Saturday was a wholesale failure of the Met to uphold that duty, to facilitate protest and to actually listen to what protesters were saying, which is that we don’t feel safe in public space.”

The Everard case and the actions of Met police at her vigil helped put the spotlight on a bill that the Johnson government, reacting to the actions of groups like Extinction Rebellion whose focus on civil disobedience and large multi-day ‘static’ rallies surprised authorities long before the health crisis even started.

This legislation, called the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill, a 307 page document containing some harsher guidelines around sentencing for violent crimes but also new limits on long established rights to assembly, was slowly making its way through the parliamentary process. The wide ranging bill reportedly gives the already controversial home secretary, Priti Patel, “powers to create laws that would define ‘serious disruption’, which would then allow police to intervene in protests which are deemed disruptive by Ms. Patel.”

Further, the law would allow authorities to set times for protests to begin and end, allow them to break up gatherings and hand out fines for noise and give police new powers in confronting sit ins and encampments. Even protests involving just one person can result in large fines under the bill.

A separate provision within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill would also make damaging statues and other memorials punishable with up to 10 years in prison.

As demands were circulating online to #KilltheBill, last Friday, shortly after 10 pm, police violently broke up a protest in Bristol in opposition to the proposed laws. Video from the scene is disturbing, as police used their shields not for protection but as weapons to assault people sitting peacefully on the ground, many of whom suffered cuts and abrasions as the edges of the shields were brought down on them.

“We were all screaming ‘peaceful protest’. I had my hands out,” one of the protesters, Isaac Marley, 26, told the Guardian, “The officer lifted the shield above his head and smashed it down onto my face. I needed at least eight stitches just underneath my eye.”

As an aside, while Everard’s murder has provoked a much needed discussion about police impunity and male violence generally, and it seems likely that Couzens will face consequences for his horrific actions, for black, indigenous and other women of color, the small measure of justice that courts can provide is too often denied on both sides of the Atlantic.

We learned this again in the United States when those responsible for the death of Breonna Taylor weren’t held to account. In Canada’s most western province, British Columbia, there is a road that is often referred to as the ‘highway of tears’ because so many indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered along it. Almost all of these cases are unsolved.

Regardless, the violent actions of police at the vigil for Everard and later in Bristol show that British authorities can’t be trusted with the new powers that would be given to them under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill, especially during protests provoked by one of their own. This is reason enough to kill the bill.

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