‘We do all worry it could have been us’: Hundreds descend on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard vigil as police treatment sparks anger

‘I’m more likely to be killed by a man than Covid,’ says one 19-year-old

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Sunday 14 March 2021 02:36 GMT
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Police accused of 'heavy-handed' response at Sarah Everard vigil

As the sun set in Clapham Common, the mood at a vigil to pay tribute to Sarah Everard also darkened, moving from sombre defiance to frantic aggression as Metropolitan Police officers detained women and broke up the gathering.

Hundreds had descended on the common in southwest London to remember the 33-year-old marketing executive, who went missing after leaving a friend’s flat in Clapham at about 9pm on 3 March. Her body was later found in woodland in Kent.

Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police officer, appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Saturday charged with her kidnap and murder.

The police’s response to the vigil, whose official version was called off by organisers Reclaim These Streets after the Met said it would break Covid-19 restrictions, has sparked outrage from politicians and campaigners.

Officers were seen grabbing women standing on the common’s bandstand before taking them away while others at the vigil screamed and cried out.

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London mayor, Sadiq Khan, said their actions were “unacceptable” as he warned the “response was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate”, while home secretary Priti Patel said the footage was “upsetting” and demanded a full report.

But the atmosphere at the vigil earlier on had been wholly different, as hundreds of candles flickered while women brandishing bright bouquets of flowers stood in silence to remember Ms Everard and protest against violence against women and girls.

Placards reading “Sarah Everard should be alive” and “Police don’t keep us safe” could be seen in the crowd, which was interspersed with mothers and their young daughters, who ranged in age from toddlers to teenagers.

Myrna Williamson, a 74-year-old who lives in Clapham, told The Independent: “Ever since I heard what happened to Sarah, I’ve been crying. I’m part of the Women’s Institute and women in the WI have also been crying.

“I walk around the whole time here for my exercise. I leave for work really early and go home really late at night as I work as a film extra so I do long shoots. I feel anxious walking around the streets as an old person. I can’t run or defend myself.

“I feel for Sarah. If she was my daughter, I would be devastated. I have one granddaughter and I worry about her safety. The government is not doing enough to tackle violence against women and girls. They don’t think it is a priority.”

Elsewhere in the crowd, which was overwhelmingly made up of young women, chants of “Mister get your hands off my sister”, “No justice no peace” and “Whose streets? Our streets” could be heard.

Mae Allen, an 18-year-old who was clutching a bouquet of red tulips, said she had grown up in rural Wiltshire before moving to London for university, and had been shocked by the level of sexual harassment she experienced in the capital.

“It is important to have protests in lockdown,” said Ms Allen, who studies law and philosophy. “Violence against women and girls is rising in lockdown. Domestic abuse has increased. The police has a high amount of sexism in the high ranks.”

Hannah Smith, her friend, who was carrying white and purple tulips, said: “I’m more likely to be killed by a man than Covid. An average of two women are killed by a former or current partner a week in the UK.”

The 19-year-old, who studies law and history, added: “As someone who experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment, who am I supposed to talk to? It does not feel like the police will take it seriously.”

Ms Everard’s death has led women to share their personal experiences of men harassing and assaulting them in public, and call on men to do more.

Leah Blunden, a teacher, said: “You need to put your money where your mouth is. It’s all very well talking on the internet but it’s important to be here in person and be part of history. Sarah Everard’s case has led to women being more open about the harassment they face.”

Her friend Jack Stokes, a 23-year-old retail manager, said: “I am here to take a stand because women, trans people and people of colour do not feel safe.”

Ella Beadel
Ella Beadel (Maya Oppenheim)

Ella Beadel, a procurement officer, said she felt “connected” to Ms Everard’s case because it happened on her doorstep.

The 25-year-old said: “It is very close to home so it feels raw and scary. It feels like it is only women fighting to tackle violence against women and girls. But it’s the men that need to stand up. They can make a difference. I’ve cried a lot since the Sarah Everard case.”

A survey by UN Women this week revealed 97 per cent of young women in the UK said they had been sexually harassed, while 80 per cent reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces.

The poll of more than 1,000 women, aged between 18 and 24, found the sexual harassment included being groped, followed and coerced into sexual activity.

Georgia O’Hare (left)
Georgia O’Hare (left) (Maya Oppenheim)

Georgia O’Hare, who lives in Clapham, said she found Ms Everard’s disappearance “troubling” given it happened close to where she lives.

“She did everything we would do walking home,” the 22-year-old added. “But it wasn’t enough. We do all worry it could have been us. It is time for change. It may not be all men, but there are enough of them to make women feel unsafe.”

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