I know what it’s like to take your missing person posters down because your girl’s never coming home, so Sarah Everard’s story cut deep. But a lot of our demons are coming out of the shadows this week. Most people and almost all the women reading this will have endured something that means Sarah’s story, the victim blaming and the police brutality that followed, really hit you where you live.
I really started feeling it – the horror – on Saturday, when I read that despite a High Court ruling to allow the Clapham common vigil for Sarah to proceed safely, the Metropolitan Police were refusing to cooperate. Knowing this groundswell of grief and outrage was unstoppable, many predicted what was to come. That doesn’t mean the footage of mass brutalisation was any easier to watch, or the Met statement basically saying they had it coming any easier to read.
What some outside of this experience looking in have criticised as the “politicisation” of Sarah’s death is something much deeper than that. This is gut and heart politics. This is our survival instinct. This is mass mobilisation in response to a shared experience of existential threat. Sarah Everard, like George Floyd, was a spark – but our lives were already littered with kindling.
My cousin Gaia was 19 when she disappeared on November 7, 2017. Our search lasted 11 days. We battled through a bogus murder investigation and tensions with the police even before her body was found. Gaia had already been let down once when Dorset Police failed to properly prosecute the known sex offender she told us raped her. Dorset Police have one of the United Kingdom’s worst records on sexual violence. We learned from a Freedom of Information request that in 2020 just 29 of the 2,058 offences recorded were taken to charges and court summons.
I had a front-row seat to how women reporting abuse are treated by the police because I sat with her through her interviews. She was brave beyond the telling of it. Like many, Gaia deserved justice. Like many, she deserved appropriate support when she developed life-changing post-traumatic stress. She was denied both and I believe it killed her.
Though we have to wait for it until April 2022, we have won a full inquest with a jury because our senior Dorset coroner, Rachel Griffin, believes “actions or omissions” by Dorset Police may have contributed to Gaia’s death. But I don’t need an inquest to tell me what I and everyone who gathered at Clapham Common already know: the state is failing survivors and it’s costing lives.
I read an article by a friend of Sarah Everard’s who believes Sarah would be “unsettled by how her death has been politicised”. I wouldn’t presume to know how Sarah would feel and as someone intimately familiar with the complexities and horrors of losing and grieving someone in the public eye, I know “unsettling” is a mild word for that nightmare.
But we need to recognise this upsurge of protest for what it is. It is not, as we do sometimes see, an opportunistic hijacking of one tragedy for political ends. This is real rage, real terror, real pain given voice by a generation of us who feel unsafe because we are unsafe.
Eight years ago the UK government signed the Istanbul Convention for the prevention of violence against women and girls and has failed every day since to implement it. Instead we see a rising epidemic of domestic and sexual violence, amplified by the pandemic and still basically ignored by the government.
Life-saving support services have been slashed for a decade straight, with survivors waiting months and years for support and many Rape Crisis Centres forced to close their waiting lists or shut completely. Meanwhile conviction rates for rape have fallen so far through the floor, you’re less likely to get a conviction today than you were in the 1970s. We are routinely denied justice through the courts, support through the NHS, and respect from the police.
Just last summer the Metropolitan Police gave us another unspeakable example of this with the disappearance of two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Like Gaia’s, the police didn’t take their disappearance seriously, so their family had to lead the search. Unlike Gaia and Sarah, these were Black women, so their disappearance did not capture national headlines – at least not until after their relatives had found them murdered and it emerged that Metropolitan Police officers who attended the scene had taken “sickening” selfies with their bodies.
UK-wide there have never been more reports or fewer convictions by comparison. This is a national crisis. But with a record like theirs, when the Metropolitan Police violently attacked those gathered to mourn a woman kidnapped and killed by one of their own, they disgusted the world and made Clapham Common a turning point. Shellshocked as we are after a year of COVID-19, the injustice of that moment burned too brightly to be ignored.
The woman on whose watch all this happened, Cressida Dick, was first known to many back in 2005 when she headed an operation that led to the fatal police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. I first wrote about her in 2015 when as commissioner she went on to abandon the “believe first” guidelines that had been introduced after the Met’s abject failure to investigate allegations against Jimmy Saville.
At the time, she said: “If it’s a long time ago or it’s very trivial or I’m not likely to get a criminal justice outcome, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it … and what might be a misunderstanding between two people, clumsy behaviour between somebody who fancies somebody else, is not a matter for the police.”
These words tell you everything you need to know about why so many people are calling for her resignation. These are not “armchair critics”, as she dismissed us; we are the people she has sworn to protect and serve and who have been failed and betrayed by her time and again. Her words then and now exemplify the culture that has induced this grassroots backlash. Endemic within but certainly not limited to the police, it is silencing survivors and costing lives.
The time for Cressida Dick to resign is long past and that is only the beginning. The betrayals just keep coming. Senior judges have refused to even examine evidence of the “catastrophic collapse in rape justice” brought by the End Violence Against Women coalition. It will take more than empty promises from the Crown Prosecution Service to turn this tide.
We need a complete national overhaul of how the state prosecutes sexual abusers and engages with survivors of sexual violence. This isn’t just about another precious life lost. It’s not about Sarah or Gaia or Bibaa or Nicole alone. This is about justice for all of us. The government has shown time and again that it will not lead that change, so we must.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.