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It was on the eve of the first national Covid lockdown, on March 22, and Boris Johnson was still in characteristically flip mode. Asked by a Daily Mail reporter whether he should get tougher and bring in the police to enforce restrictions, the PM replied: “Bring in the police?” The barely concealed smile on his face, coupled with his dismissive tone, made plain that he felt even asking the question was ridiculous.
Nearly a year later, and ‘bringing in the police’ is exactly what has sparked a huge backlash over the Met’s handling of the Sarah Everard vigil. Johnson himself said on Monday that the scenes witnessed at the event were “very distressing”, and even though he gave full confidence to the force’s commissioner Cressida Dick it was right for the police inspectorate to conduct a review.
In her statement to MPs on the policing of the vigil, Priti Patel began impressively, balancing empathy with a determination to do more to protect women. Her line that “too many of us have walked home from school or work alone, only to hear footsteps uncomfortably close behind us; too many of us have pretended to be on the phone to a friend to scare someone off” would have resonated with many.
Yet it was in answer to questions that Patel actually let slip what seemed to be some vital “tells” on how she viewed this incident, and more broadly, how she thinks politically. First, she told Ed Davey that she had made the Met Commissioner aware on Friday of her “views” about the event, saying she wanted people to be able to pay tribute to Sarah Everard but only if they lived locally and didn’t travel to congregate.
Second, when prompted by Tory MP Fay Jones to comment on claims that police were effectively provoked into a reaction by more radical protestors, Patel didn’t demur. Asked about “ACAB” protest signs (“All Cops Are Bastards”, Jones explained), and put to her that Everard’s murder “could be hijacked by those who would seek to defund the police and destabilise our society”, again Patel didn’t disagree.
In fact when Patel said there were “some pretty ugly scenes” at the vigil, it appeared she was referring to the actions of some protestors as much as the police reaction. “Of course where individuals were acting inappropriately in the way in which she [Jones] has said, that will be subject to some consideration too.”
Given those iconic images of women being handcuffed by male officers, any attempt to blame even a minority at the vigil for the arrests risks missing the much bigger picture: that Sarah Everard’s death could act as a catalyst for the change that women of all political colours and none have been demanding for years.
While the #MeToo movement had finally exposed men’s behaviour in the workplace, there is now a chance to not just expose men’s behaviour in the public space, in the home space, in every place. And more than that, to finally do something about it, through much better enforcement of the law, through new laws, through cultural change.
The parallels with the catalyst effect of George Floyd’s killing in the US are striking. It was Labour’s Bell Ribeiro-Addy who put her finger on the real problem of those scenes on Saturday night: “What happened this weekend is a reminder of what happens when the police try to completely bypass the views of the community they serve.”
In different but related ways, the Black community and women both know what that feels like. Both are tired of having to explain and campaign for basic rights, including the right to life. And the British concept of “policing by consent”, long the pride of many of our politicians, is in real jeopardy if the police fail to show true discretion and a reasonable sense of risk.
Yet amid the political divisions over the new Police Bill, and the Domestic Abuse Bill, there are tentative signs that perhaps there could be a unifying moment. Although the government was heavily defeated in the Lords over a cross-party amendment on stalking, minister Baroness Williams promised some changes in guidelines and left open the prospect of a national database that could answer some concerns.
Most notable of all were the powerful speeches of three women peers: Labour’s Jan Royall, Lib Dem Sal Brinton and Tory Gabby Bertin. Each relayed the experiences of fellow women, with Brinton giving personal testimony of her own hell at the hands of a stalker, and Bertin movingly recounting her 18-year-old cousin’s death. Out of the sadness there appeared a consensus that enough was enough.
Even on the issue of making misogyny a hate crime, which is due to return to the Lords on Wednesday, Patel earlier hinted there could be progress. I wouldn’t be surprised if some kind of concession emerges. The PM’s words after the Lords defeat, announcing “immediate steps” to provide further reassurance for women and girls, including doubling funding for better street lighting and CCTV, showed that he knows this issue won’t be going away.
Just as the pandemic has accelerated change in our work lives, the events of the past week could speed up the painfully slow progress on women’s safety. It’s just depressing that it sometimes takes a tragedy to make the pace of change really quicken.