On March 12, Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who disappeared in South London earlier this month while walking home from a friend’s house. So why has a new feminist organization decided that the best way forward is to give the police even more power, money, and resources?
On Tuesday, a group called Reclaim These Streets met with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to discuss the aggressive police response to a peaceful vigil held at Clapham Common park on March 13. Reclaim These Streets organized the event in Everard’s honor, but called it off at the last minute after a court ruled that it would violate covid-19 restrictions. People gathered anyway, leaving flowers and decrying police violence and misogyny. The mournful event turned violent when overzealous Metropolitan Police officers arrived, trampling tributes, pinning demonstrators to the ground, and making arrests.
During their sit down with Khan and Dick, Reclaim These Streets outlined a series of “asks” that they believed would “help keep women in the capital safe.” The puzzling list is enough to make you wonder whether Reclaim These Streets are aware of what exactly happened to Everard and, allegedly, by whom:
1. A Violence Against Women and Girls strategy for London that is co-owned by the Metropolitan Police, with meaningful funding behind it and a commitment to record misogyny as a hate crime.
2. A ring-fenced fund for specialist domestic and sexual violence organisations led by Women of Colour, to enable them to access the money they need to protect all women in the capital.
3. For the Mayor to back calls to criminalise street sexual harassment.
4. To demand Commissioner Cressida Dick commit to training for every police officer in the Metropolitan Police on misogyny, sexism and meaningful anti-racism training delivered locally.
In short, their vision of a safer London for women means giving Metropolitan Police more authority, despite the fact that a police officer is alleged to have been responsible for the murder of Everard. If attempts at police reform in the United States have taught activists worldwide anything, there’s little proof that training the bigotry out of the policing apparatus and those who uphold it actually changes police behavior, and incrementalist reforms keep oppressive structures in place while so-called change agents can pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Not to mention, the idea of teaching Metropolitan Police to be less misogynistic is laughable considering the fact that hundreds of their officers have been accused of sexual assault with no repercussions, just like their brethren across the pond.
And as well-meaning as Reclaim These Streets may be in its commitment to include women of color in the decision-making process, encouraging more police activity in their lives isn’t the right answer. Nor is criminalizing street sexual harassment: As irritating and frightening as it can be, a campaign to impart a carceral solution onto this problem is certain to disproportionately impact men of color, who are inherently regarded as more threatening; the optics of this latest push following Everard’s disappearance are unfortunate as well.
But this just speaks to the regressive streak that has always plagued different iterations of feminism and is evident in the response to Everard’s disappearance and murder. It’s a mix of retro Take Back the Night style marches meshed with mid-2010s rallying cries against street harassment that went out of vogue when it quickly became clear that some of the loudest (and whitest) voices were conflating real dangers with mild annoyances and perpetuating racism to boot. This could define the road ahead for the movement in the U.K. if activists aren’t careful. Feminist groups like Sisters Uncut agree that expanding police power isn’t a solution. “We know that the police has never been there to protect us,” the group wrote in a call to action.
Caitlin Prowle, a Labour party staffer and one of the organizers behind Reclaim These Streets, was absolutely right when she told the BBC that violent misogyny doesn’t begin or end with the behavior of individual men or women. “You don’t solve an issue as big as this with individual changes,” Prowle said. “There are massive structural issues at play that need to be addressed, in terms of criminal justice, [and] in terms of the charity sector and the funding that it receives to support women in these terrible situations.”
But that makes the group’s statement even more puzzling. They asked Commissioner Dick to waive the fines of the women who attended the Saturday vigil, and she refused. Reclaim These Streets was clearly taken aback:
“We believe we have given Commissioner Dick and the Metropolitan Police more than enough opportunities to demonstrate that they are committed to policing by consent and allowing people to use their rights. She has lost our confidence in her ability to lead the urgent changes needed to tackle institutional misogyny and racism in the Metropolitan Police, and she has clearly lost the confidence of London’s women too, and we urge her to consider her position.”
This reads as a rude awakening for the certain type of white women who strenuously believed that the police work for them. It’s a lesson that their Black, Asian, Muslim, trans, disabled, and working-class sisters could have warned them about a long time ago if only they had asked.