I know what it’s like to take down your missing person posters because your daughter never comes home, so Sarah Everard’s story runs deep. But many of our demons are coming out of the shadows this week. Most people, and almost every woman reading this, will have endured something that means that Sarah’s story, victim blame, and the police brutality that followed, really hit you where you live.
I really started to feel it – the horror – on Saturday when I read that despite a High Court ruling allowing the Clapham joint vigil to keep Sarah safe, the Metropolitan Police were refusing to cooperate. Knowing that this wave of grief and indignation was unstoppable, many predicted what was to come. That’s not to say that the mass brutalization footage was easier to watch, or the Met’s statement essentially saying it was easier to read.
What some outside of that experience have criticized as the “politicization” of Sarah’s death is something much deeper than that. It is the politics of the gut and the heart. It’s our survival instinct. It is a mass mobilization 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 fought in a fake murder investigation and tensions with the police even before his body was found. Gaia had already been abandoned once when Dorset Police failed to properly pursue the known sex offender she told us that she raped her. Dorset Police have one of the worst history of sexual violence in the UK. We learned from an access to information request that in 2020, only 29 of the 2,058 recorded offenses were charged and summoned to court.
I had a front-row seat on how women reporting abuse are handled by the police because I sat with her during her interviews. She was brave beyond telling it. Like many, Gaia deserved justice. Like many, she deserved the proper support when she developed life-changing post-traumatic stress disorder. She was denied both and I think it killed her.
Although we have to wait until April 2022, we have won a full investigation with a jury because our Dorset Chief Coroner Rachel Griffin believes Dorset Police ‘actions or omissions’ may have contributed to Gaia’s death. But I don’t need an investigation to tell me what I already know, me and everyone who gathered at Clapham Common: The state is failing survivors and it costs lives.
I read an article by a friend of Sarah Everard who believes Sarah would be “troubled by the way her death has been politicized”. I wouldn’t presume how Sarah would feel and as someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and horrors of losing and mourning someone in the public eye, I know “unsettling” is a sweet word for this nightmare.
But we have to recognize this upsurge in protests for what it is. This is not, as we sometimes see, an opportunistic hijacking of a tragedy for political ends. It is real rage, real terror, real pain expressed by a generation of us who don’t feel safe because we are not safe.
Eight years ago the UK government signed the Istanbul Convention for the Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls and has failed to implement it every day. Instead, we are witnessing a growing epidemic of domestic and sexual violence, amplified by the pandemic and still fundamentally ignored by the government.
Life-saving support services have been cut for a decade in a row, with survivors waiting for months and years of support and many Rape support centers forced to close their waiting lists or close them completely. Meanwhile, rape conviction rates have fallen so much that you are less likely to be convicted today than in the 1970s. We are routinely denied justice through the courts, support through the NHS and the respect for the police.
Last summer, the Metropolitan Police gave us another indescribable example 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 conduct the search. Unlike Gaia and Sarah, they were black women, so their disappearance didn’t make national headlines – at least not until their loved ones found them murdered and it emerged that the agents of the Metropolitan Police who were present at the scene had taken “sickening” selfies with their bodies. .
Across the UK, there have never been more reports or fewer convictions in comparison. It is a national crisis. But with a record like theirs, when the Metropolitan Police fiercely 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. Shell shocked as we are after a year of COVID-19, the injustice of this moment has burned too brightly to ignore.
The woman under whose watch it all happened, Cressida Dick, was first known in 2005 when she led an operation that led to the fatal police shooting. Jean Charles de Menezes. I did it first wrote on it in 2015, when as commissioner, she abandoned “believe first” guidelines that were introduced after the Met’s abject failure to investigate the allegations against Jimmy Saville.
At the time, she said: “If it’s a long time ago or if it’s very trivial or if I’m not likely to get a criminal decision, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it. … and what could be a misunderstanding between two people, awkward behavior between someone who loves someone else, is not the responsibility of the police.
These words tell you everything you need to know about why so many people are calling for his resignation. These are not “chair critics”, as she fired us; we are the people she has sworn to protect and serve and who have been betrayed by her time and time again. His words from yesterday and today illustrate the culture that caused this grassroots backlash. Endemic among the police, but certainly not limited to the police, it silences survivors and costs lives.
The time for Cressida Dick’s resignation is long gone and it’s just the beginning. Betrayals keep coming. High-ranking judges have even refused to consider evidence of “the catastrophic collapse of rape justice” brought by the End Violence Against Women coalition. It will take more than empty promises from the Crown Prosecution Service to turn the tide.
We need a complete national overhaul of how the state prosecutes sexual abusers and engages with survivors of sexual violence. It is not just another precious life lost. It’s not just Sarah or Gaia or Bibaa or Nicole. It is a matter of justice for all of us. The government has shown time and time again that it will not lead this change, so we must.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.