The disappearance of Sarah Everard on the 3rd March sent shockwaves through the UK and instigated an outpouring of public outrage about violence against women. By the evening of Saturday 13th March, when thousands gathered on Clapham Common in South London to mourn her death, the hurt, anger and fear were palpable.
The Metropolitan Police had in fact tried to stop the vigil from going ahead. A decision which, in retrospect, some high-ups may come to regret. In doing so the organisation fatally managed to insert themselves into the narrative as the enemy of women’s voices. A rhetoric which was only exacerbated when video footage emerged of officers aggressively manhandling and pushing women as soon as the sun had gone down.
Before that night, a mention of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 would have been met with blank stares by most people outside of Westminster. While a few groups such as Netpol had been monitoring and campaigning against the proposed legislation, it remained largely unnoticed and garnered minimal coverage in the press.
So how was it that by the evening of Thursday 18th March, three days after the vigil and approaching the Bill’s second reading in parliament, it had become a deeply divisive political issue?
In the fallout from the events at the vigil more and more people began pointing at the police forces failings. As the Police and Crime Bill was set to give police greater powers and was due to be read in parliament that week, it became a natural flashpoint for much wider discussions around violence against women, racism and human rights in the UK.
From a communications perspective, there were three key groups at play.
A small group of South London MPs and councillors were present on Clapham Common on Saturday evening to pay their respects. Among them was Bell Ribeiro-Addy, MP for Streatham, who had already shared her disappointment at the Met’s attempt to cancel the vigil. After the video footage of heavy handed policing of the event began to emerge Riberio-Addy took to Instagram again to condemn their actions.
Other politicians joined her criticism, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer.
As protests formed night after night in parliament square, Ribeiro-Addy was leading calls for the bill to be stopped and tabled a Reasoned Amendment to have it thrown out.
In the end her Amendment wasn’t chosen for debate, but it was supported by over 40 MPs from 6 different parties. Her work was also undoubtedly crucial in Labour deciding to whip their MPs to vote against the legislation, something the opposition rarely does on a bill’s second reading.
While the Clapham Common vigil was certainly a turning point, many had already begun to question the effectiveness of policing in relation to violence against women in the conversations around Sarah Everard’s disappearance. Journalist and Politics Editor at gal-dem, Moya Lothian-McLean, appeared on Sky News to point out that an increase in policing had not led to higher rates of prosecutions for rape or domestic violence.
During and after the vigil photos and videos of the police’s behaviour were shared by everyone from UK Drag Race star Bimini Bon-Boulash to Nigella Lawson. In the age of the social media mob, anyone with a platform has the power to mobilise tens of thousands of individuals into a collective at the tap of the thumb. And, in this case, when the tide turned it turned fast.
When the vigil’s organisers lost their legal fight with the Metropolitan Police, the Reclaim These Streets Instagram account announced they had been forced to cancel the event.
Sisters Uncut did the opposite, affirming that they would still be gathering on Clapham Common and explicitly linking their choice as being for all those harmed by “state and gendered violence”.
As an intersectional feminist campaigning group, Sisters Uncut had long been pointing out that the police did not protect women – in particular women of colour – from violence. Their consistent pressure and organising in the days following the vigil kept the protests at parliament square busy and covered in the press.
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On Thursday night, less than a week after the original vigil was blocked, it began to emerge that the committee stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill had been delayed to later in 2021.
Over the course of 5 days, a cause born out of a specific moment in time influenced the opposition to change their stance and the government to delay a prized piece of legislation. Netpol’s petition to the National Police Chiefs Council opposing the bill had over 200,000 signatures at the time of writing, and an emergency virtual meeting on Thursday by Sisters Uncut was attended by over 3000 people.
Movements like this don’t come about overnight. Organisations and activists have been campaigning against excessive police powers for decades. But as an exercise in political lobbying, the days from Saturday 13th – Thursday 18th March have lessons for us all.
With campaigning groups’ expertise and work, clear policy asks and a few famous figureheads a piece of legislation went from virtually unknown to political Public Enemy no.1. What happens next will depend on whether the movement’s leaders can maintain its momentum. At the moment, it’s looking like they just might.
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the Member States of the European Union and beyond. We work in a number of sectors including human rights and equalities. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.