London. March, 2021. Two weeks ago, a young white woman was abducted and killed while walking home near Clapham Common. A Metropolitan Police officer was charged with her murder. At a vigil honouring her memory, women mourning her death were brutally restrained and intimidated by colleagues of her accused killer. In response, the UK government committed to ensuring women’s “safety” on London’s streets by increasing undercover police presence in nightclubs and bars and extending CCTV surveillance areas.
In the midst of the UK’s third Covid lockdown, the planned vigil for Sarah Everard provoked pushback from London authorities. Reclaim These Streets, a group among its original organisers, withdrew from the event after a London Court ruled that the women’s right to collectively gather was in breach of draconian Covid legislation. Sisters Uncut, a feminist movement committed to direct action in solidarity with victims of patriarchal violence, urged Londoners to gather regardless, in order to channel their collective outrage and grief and oppose the curtailing of women’s fundamental rights to peacefully resist oppression.
What followed was a violent crackdown on peaceful protestors – women standing with women against patriarchal violence. The strategies deployed at the vigil are precisely those deployed by powerful and abusive men. Images of police sitting on top of women; suddenly and violently moving to separate them; or forcibly pinning their arms behind them as they stand in peace, were coupled with less visible forms of surveillance, intimidation and coercion. These techniques of domination and control are textbook expressions of gendered power.
These events unfold against the backdrop of two pieces of legislation that seek to dramatically enhance policing powers across the UK. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, debated in parliament this week, promises to make permanent the legislation underpinning the violence used against protestors. Legislation known as the SpyCops Bill, which stands to become law this year, would guarantee immunity from prosecution for police officers who commit grave crimes, including rape and torture, in the course of executing their duties, creating a permissive environment for abuses perpetrated during undercover operations. These pieces of legislation not only make women less safe, but strengthen the very systems of patriarchal domination responsible for both forms of violence whilst simultaneously eroding the basic right to assemble and protest, foundational to any ostensibly free and democratic society.
Decades of research demonstrates that it is a mistake to separate the extralegal / illegal violence perpetrated against women like Sarah Everard from the legal and state-sanctioned violence perpetrated routinely against civilians by police. It is similarly mistaken to disentangle the everyday violence of patriarchal power from the violence of militarised policing.
When force and domination are offered as solutions to violence, society’s most marginalised always suffer. As feminist activists and scholars have long demonstrated, policies designed to bolster the security apparatus of the state, and backed by the full force of the law, tend to do little but foster insecurity for those most in need of its protection. These patterns have always manifested viscerally for women, and have particularly harmful repercussions for those from minoritized backgrounds whose security is rarely prioritised.
As feminist activists and scholars have long demonstrated, policies designed to bolster the security apparatus of the state, and backed by the full force of the law, tend to do little but foster insecurity for those most in need of its protection.
The institutionalised violence and impunity of law enforcement agencies is gaining attention in the UK, the US, and around the world. Exactly a year ago, Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Louisville while she slept in her own bed; no charges linked to her death have been brought against the police officers responsible. Meanwhile, in a striking illustration of who the law serves to protect, a white man walked away unscathed yesterday after murdering eight people — all but one a woman — in a shooting spree targeting Asian-owned massage parlours in Atlanta. In contrast to depictions of the many Black men killed on suspicion of minor offences, officers excused the suspect’s actions as the result of a “bad day.”
Criticisms of the racist and patriarchal violence meted by policing systems have led to decades of failed police reforms in the US and elsewhere. These efforts are typically grounded in reformist logics. Central to them has been a commitment to adding women and people of colour into police departments in order to make them more responsive to marginalised communities. It has not gone unnoticed that the Chief Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, is a woman — a fact some have used to defend her role. However, these supposedly gender-inclusive arguments are readily weaponised as part of broader, pseudo-feminist trends to “soften” policing without addressing the violent and militarised structures it preserves.
The UK, as elsewhere, has a long and painful history of gendered and racialised violence perpetrated by the state and legitimised in law. Systems of modern policing, responsible for the murders of Breonna Taylor, Eric Gardner, George Floyd and so many others, trace their origins to the very same London Metropolitan Police Force that sought to preserve the state’s continued monopoly over racialised, patriarchal and imperial violence through the policing of labour unrest in occupied Ireland.
Colonial models of policing, designed explicitly to subjugate and repress those (often feminised) populations whose humanity was explicitly denied, provided the blueprint under which much of the violence perpetrated against Black and indigenous communities in the US, as well as the torture and abuse of criminalised populations elsewhere, is rendered legitimate. These systems of modern policing provide the architecture through which some lives are valued, protected, and preserved, while others are criminalised and deemed expendable.
These systems of modern policing provide the architecture through which some lives are valued, protected, and preserved, while others are criminalised and deemed expendable
Yet, in spite of these multiple and enduring crises of democracy, the UK government’s response to Sarah’s murder has been to call for more policing power. On Saturday, while the UK’s prime minister lit a candle to honour the victim’s memory, the leader of the UK’s main opposition party expressed outrage at the Metropolitan Police’s handling of Saturday’s vigil. In the same breath, both men called for more police on the streets, invoking discourses of gendered protection to do so.
Sarah Everard is an unimpeachable victim. As a young white woman who did everything “right,” her innocence was never up for debate. Historically, white women’s bodies have always offered a powerful pretext for bolstering state power, garnering political legitimacy among key domestic audiences while criminalising perceived aggressors. Yet narratives of white innocence and ensuing carceral responses render some bodies more worthy of protection than others. Gendered, raced and classed structures of domination and oppression are inextricably linked. Dismantling gendered violence requires that we direct our gaze squarely towards the militarism that sustains them.
Image credit: Flikr (CC BY-NC 4.0).